Kicking off Banned Books Week, the Authors Guild hosted a Zoom webinar, “When Your Book is Banned: The Author’s Perspective” featuring AG general counsel Cheryl Davis in conversation with three authors whose books have been subject to the challenges and bans in schools and libraries around the country that have escalated this past year: Sherman Alexie, whose 2009 YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was listed by the American Library Association as the Most Banned and Challenged Book from 2010 to 2019; Jonathan Evison, whose 2018 novel, Lawn Boy, has been subject to controversy since its release; and Ellen Hopkins, who pointed out that her 16 novels for middle grade and YA readers are routinely challenged, noting, “it’s just my name getting my books banned. I don’t think they have a clue what’s inside.”

In introducing the panel, Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger noted that according to PEN America’s latest research, released yesterday, books addressing gender identity, sexuality, or race “or they just have BIPOC characters” have been challenged in 138 school districts which include 5,000 individual schools and involves four million students.

“These bans are incredibly undemocratic,” she noted, “It's a minority of people that are imposing their beliefs about what kids should read on their families. Teachers and librarians fear losing their jobs or being sent to jail for violating ill-defined rules of law. Authors fear not getting published, or being sold. And it’s the students who are losing out most of all by being restricted from what they can read.”

Evison noted that “it’s ironic” that Lawn Boy has been banned, as it tells the story of a boy with a special needs brother, an autodidact “who grows up in a library” and asks at one point, “’where are the books about me’ -- and that’s exactly what a whole generation of readers are going to be asking themselves if these people have their way.” Evison added that he “doesn’t really know why” his book has been challenged and banned to the extent it has, as it has no graphic descriptions, although there are sexual references that are “purposely presented in certain coarse language because of the context.” What its critics object to, Evison speculated, is that it’s simply a story about “marginalized people trying to have a voice.”

Responding to a question about what authors can do to get their books that are being challenged into the hands of teenagers, Hopkins suggested that “depending on the community,” authors under attack might want to attend board meetings to explain to communities why they are writing the books they are writing and why the books should remain in schools and libraries. “A lot of these people have it in their minds that we are writing books to mess kids up. And we’re doing the exact opposite, we’re trying to help them, get the information they need to know not only who they are, but who their friends are, and where they want to go in life. You can’t back down, you can’t back away from those challenges.” Hopkins also suggested developing a file of supportive correspondence from their readers, attesting to the value of whatever book is under attack, to more effectively demonstrate the point that their book adds value.

“Use your voices as authors to speak out against these kinds of efforts,” Davis said, urging them to join library boards or even simply write to them in support of banned books.

“We have to use our numbers in a way that is actually effective,” Evison added, “These people are so good at insinuating themselves in these positions by being loud and bullying, but at the end of the day, it should be a numbers game.”

Alexie, who referenced his publisher, Little Brown, sending free books to students in Boise Idaho in 2014 after True Diary had been banned in their school, also suggested donating books to public libraries in communities where they have been removed from shelves in local schools.

“Of course, now they’re attacking libraries,” he added. “So it’s hard to say, depending where you’re at, if the library can even accept those books or display them because of threats of legal action against them.”

Danger Building With Book Bans

Hopkins explained that whereas challenges to books used to be, as she put it, “A single parent coming in,” now it’s a more organized effort, and these extremist organizations are intimidating teachers and librarians.

“They're not there to listen by the way: they're there to get their way,” Hopkins said. “They're not there to have a conversation or even develop some kind of understanding of what's in those books, why those books are important, and it's the kids who are in danger, [they’re] not getting what they need. There are kids who don't have access -- they can't buy books, so if they can't find the books they need in their schools that's a real danger, and those kids, when they come to me they are so thankful. It's not just they're thankful for the books, [they say] ‘your book saved my life’ -- and that's not hyperbole.”

Hopkins noted that if challenges to books continue to escalate, so will soft censorship. Librarians will be even more selective and shy away from ordering controversial books, and teachers “just aren’t going to have classroom libraries.”

“It does speak to the power of the physical book,” Alexie said, “I always make the joke that these parents trying to ban books don't seem to be doing much about their kids’ phones. Any Internet search is far more terrifying than any book. But I think it says something to the permanence of a book that it scares them even more.”

If there is an upside to book bans, the three authors pointed out, it’s that books get a publicity boost from being challenged. “It’s the best p.r. imaginable,” Alexie said, pointing out that sales of True Diary always spike when it’s challenged or banned somewhere, and Evison added that Lawn Boy being banned has helped his career.

“It’s amazing publicity,” Evison said, “I’ve had like five printings [of Lawn Boy] in the last four months. "It’s actually been a boon – I’m embarrassed to admit it. It’s hard to sell books. You tell them not to buy it, and human nature, they’re going to go ahead and buy it.” But, Hopkins added, “It’s not how I want to sell books. If I sell books, it’s because I want readers want to read them on their own.”

Book bans throughout history have been, Alexie said, “the first step in an authoritarian government, to the far left or the far right. This is not a minor issue. This is authoritarian thinking, these are people with authoritarian ambitions. I’ve seen it on the right, but I’ve also seen it on the left. And we have to stop it.”