YA author Julia Watts has been removed from the slate of authors participating in LitUp, a teen literary festival sponsored by the Knox County (Tenn.) Public Library that was inspired by a teen book festival of the same name launched last year in the Kansas City area. Knoxville’s inaugural LitUp festival is scheduled to take place on October 13 with a full day of programming, including appearances by 10 YA authors, a mix of regional and national names.
Watts, a Knoxville resident, has written 10 books for YA readers that are set in the Appalachian region and feature LGBTQ characters. Her most recent novel, Quiver (Three Rooms, 2018), is the tale of two teens who become friends despite their vastly different backgrounds. Voya named Quiver one of the year’s best books for YA readers and gave it a Perfect Tens Award. The novel was named as one of the favorite 2018 “OKRA” reads by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. Even Catholic Library World raved about Quiver, calling it a “contemporary gem” and enthusiastically recommending it for both high school and public libraries.
According to Watts, a local indie bookseller who is involved in the LitUp festival’s planning asked her in July to be one of its featured authors. “My name and photo went up on the website,” she said. Last Friday, however, that same bookseller called Watts to tell her that she was no longer slated to appear, as, after Googling her name, a member of the organizing committee had expressed concerns that she has also written erotica.
“Some of my writings—not my work for YA readers—contain erotic content. Not just erotica, but lesbian erotica,” Watts said, disclosing that she had been informed that the organizing committee had decided to disinvite her from the festival because “kids might Google me and find out I’d written erotica, and that freaked [the committee] out. If they’d Googled me and found that I’d written Harlequin romances, I don’t think there would have been this same kind of pushback.”
In a statement, library communications director Mary Pom Claiborne said that the library had sought out diverse authors, including those who identify as LGBTQ, for its literary festival, and had thus invited Watts to participate.
“It later came to our attention that some of her work is described as erotica and is inappropriate for teens,” she said. “Based on that alone, the library decided to change course. We remain committed to presenting authors who represent different genres of teen literature for this event.”
In response to Claiborne’s statement, Watts said that the library is “trying hard to make sure that they aren’t being seen as homophobic. As if I would present work that was inappropriate for a teen audience. And there’s a lot worse that kids can Google than that an author has written lesbian erotica fiction for adult readers.”
Informed of Watts’ allegations, Claiborne told PW in a phone interview that the library “emphatically denies homophobia. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s based on the committee’s concerns regarding Watts’s full body of work. We regret the whole situation. We’re a public library: we value everyone’s voice.”
Asked if this had ever happened before to her, Watts said, “Not for a long time. To be invited and then disinvited—it brings up all sorts of middle school feelings. ‘You can come to our party. Uh no, you can’t come to our party.’ One thing I’ve learned from this: I shouldn’t take my freedom of expression for granted.”
Disclosing that the library had invited Watts to appear by herself at a future date to read from and discuss her work, Three Rooms co-director Kat Georges said, “This is segregation, pure and simple, by a public, taxpayer-supported institution. It’s unacceptable and discriminatory, and is a throwback to an intolerant time where ‘separate but equal’ was the unfortunate norm.”
Three Rooms co-director Peter Carlaftes, notes however, that there’s an upside to the situation: Watts will now be appearing at the Nashville Festival of the Book that same weekend—October 11 is National Coming Out Day—and the Kansas Library Association wants to book her as the keynote speaker at its 2020 annual conference.