A call to arms for making books accessible to young people was an underlying theme of Winter Institute 10, held at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., Feb. 9–11. John Green, whose own YA novels have been subject to challenges over the years, ascribes his success to support from booksellers and librarians, who have made his books accessible to their customers and patrons for the past decade.
During his Monday afternoon keynote, Green urged booksellers to reach out especially to teenagers, explaining that, with teens, it’s all about authenticity, honesty, and enthusiasm. “They like passion,” Green said, telling the 500 booksellers sitting before him, “You have a profound cool that they want.” Every high school in the U.S. has a “literary crowd,” Green noted. “You just have to find them.”
Azar Nafisi, the Iranian-born author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, was even more pointed in her Wednesday morning presentation. “Reading is living. Books are about life,” she insisted. “Where I come from, people are regularly killed in order to read books, in order to go to school, in order to study the humanities.”
Reading is important, she explained, because when “you are immersed in a book, you are not just a citizen of the [U.S.], you are a citizen of the world.” Books, she said, teach people how to empathize with those who are not like them, using as an example The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that caused many in 19th-century United States to realize that the character Jim was an individual with the right to escape slavery.
We are living in an era marked by “a crisis of vision,” Nafisi noted. “The times aren’t just exciting, they’re dangerous. We need books today more than ever.”
Calling booksellers “custodians” of history and culture as well as “of memory and all that remains,” Nafisi passionately advocated for committing to making books accessible, especially to students in public schools. “If we do not do so, we have shirked our responsibility,” she declared. “You don’t need to burn books to destroy a culture: you just need to make people not want to read.”
Toasting booksellers with her glass of water as she concluded her remarks, Nafisi declared: “Your job is the most serious job.”
It was a message that had already resonated, judging by the large number of booksellers attending the Wi10 session on free speech issues that is held every year at the institute and sponsored by the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE). The panel, moderated by ABFE director Chris Finan, featured Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, headquartered in Coral Gables, Fla.; Jamie Fiocco, owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Susan McAnelly, manager of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Del., discussing how they successfully confronted attacks upon their store.
Kaplan emphasized strategizing in response to attacks. Disclosing that his store had received reams of hate mail and phoned-in threats to picket the store after scheduling an event in 2012 with the criminal defense attorney Jose Baez, the author of Presumed Guilty: Casey Anthony: The Inside Story, Kaplan said they’d “kind of ignored it” on a public level. The store quietly took note when possible of the geographic origins of the hate mail and area codes of callers phoning in threats. After determining that most of the protesters were not local residents, or even Floridians, Kaplan said the store realized that there was “no way could they picket the store; they probably weren’t customers,” and went about its business. The threatened picket never materialized.
For Flyleaf Books, located in a college town with a preponderance of liberal and progressive local residents, controversy over fracking was definitely home-grown and involved locals papering the store’s front entrance with signs and publicly calling for a boycott. Fiocco recalled how, guided by the ABFE, the bookstore was able to turn a 2011 in-store appearance by Carl Trowell, president of WesternGeo, into an opportunity for discussion about fracking with the environmentalists and other activists attacking the store. The ABFE assisted Fiocco with a model statement for author events and also provided her with advice on how to deal with the situation, so that she “didn’t feel so alone” in confronting the attacks upon her store by people with whom she actually personally agreed about the issue.
“With the right tools, you can withstand any controversy at your store,” Fiocco said, “but you have to be prepared.” She urged booksellers to call ABFE as soon as any controversy erupted that involved their stores.
McAnelly reported that when a controversy erupted last year in her community’s public schools over YA novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth, because there was a lesbian character in it, supporters responded to the school board’s removal of the title from summer reading lists by using Browseabout as a hub to give away free copies of the book to any teenager who requested it. “We had customers coming into the store and throwing money at us,” McAnelly said, and asking booksellers to order copies to hand out to young customers. One long-time customer, McAnelly recalled, bought a number of copies from Amazon at a discount and had Amazon ship the books directly to the store. “That’s my favorite story,” she said with a laugh.
McAnelly emphasized that it’s not just about protecting authors and books from attack inside bookstores; it is essential that indie booksellers support schools and libraries in their communities. “You have to pay attention on a such a local level,” McAnelly said. “School boards are elected officials and they wield a lot of power. Many challenges are at the school level.”
Finan concluded the session by urging booksellers to contact ABFE whenever the rights of customers to free speech and access to books are challenged in their communities, “There is a lot of censorship activity in American society,” he said. “The First Amendment doesn’t protect us from these battles. We have to fight them.”