Banned Books Week Q&As
Two young adult book authors answer our impertinent questions
By Suzi Steffen
OK, the questions aren’t really impertinent, but it was awfully nice of Brent Hartinger and Ellen Wittlinger (about whose books I wrote in this week’s books column) to take some time out to answer our questions (separately, though they do know each other) over email.
Tell me a bit about your current projects (both your most recent book and what you’re working on for the future).
Wittlinger: The book that just came out is called Parrotfish, and it’s about a female-to-male transgender teenager. I decided to write this book when I met a young man who’d gone through this coming-out process himself only a few years before; he was excited to help me understand his emotions both as a child and surrounding his later transition. I learned more from the researching and writing of this book than from any of my other books; it’s given me a new understanding of how fluid gender lines really are.
The book that will be out next summer is a companion to my earlier novel, Hard Love. The new one is called Love & Lies and is written in the voice of Marisol, the lesbian character from the first book. I never thought I’d write a sequel, but many people asked for one, and I finally thought I’d give it a try. And it wasn’t easy! Getting back into the heads of the main characters after a number of years was more difficult than I’d imagined, but it was fun to revisit their relationship.
I’m just getting started on another novel now and I think it will be a middle-grade, but that’s all I’m telling at the moment.
Hartinger: Ahhhh, well, I actually had two books come out this year, because apparently I’m insane. The first was Split Screen, the third in my series about gay teens that started with Geography Club in 2003. Split Screen is actually two complete books in one, which means you read one book (called Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies) from one character’s POV, then flip the book over and read the second book (called Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies) from another character’s POV.
My second book is called Dreamquest, and it’s a middle grade fantasy about an 11 year-old girl plagued by nightmares who wakes up one night in Slumberia, the place inside her own brain where they “film” her dreams.
You have both experienced either challenges or some form of censorship of your books. How did you feel when you first heard about these reactions? How has your reaction changed since then?
Wittlinger: Even though I’ve been writing YAs for 15 years, Sandpiper is the only one I know of that has been formally challenged. I’m there have been other, less visible ways of removing the books, but, for the most part, I haven’t heard about them. Sandpiper was just challenged in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; it was also taken off the shelves of the high school library by a 15-year-old girl who refuses to return it because she says it’s “sick” and “offensive.”
I have to admit, I was initially stunned by this. I’ve been around long enough to know that this happens, but actually having someone go to a newspaper and call me “offensive” was still kind of shocking. It sounds silly, but I felt hurt by it. Since then I’ve toughened up a bit. Of course, I got lots of support from AS IF (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom, asifnews.blogspot.com), and when I read blogs about the incident I could see from the comments that there were plenty of people, even in Alabama, who thought taking the book from the library was not the correct way to handle the situation and believed the book could be of help to many students, if not this particular one. The librarian herself emailed me to say that she had read the book and would fight to keep it on the shelves. So I guess now I just feel kind of resigned to it. These things are going to happen if you try to write the truth about what’s happening to kids today because some people just don’t want to hear it.
Hartinger: Well, the author is always the last to know! Seriously. Every time I go to a conference of librarians, I learn about new challenges to my books. But it’s probably best that I don’t know about them when they’re happening, because they’d just depress me.
It seems to me that adults (and in Ellen’s case, a teen) often want to restrict what young adults know about sexuality. What is it about reading that so threatens some of those adults and youth?
Wittlinger: I’m stumped. Something about words on a page scares the gatekeepers, maybe because a reader makes such a personal connection with a book. A book seems more serious than movies or TV. I’m just guessing here.
Hartinger: First, let me be very clear. I’m not saying, and most teen authors aren’t saying, that everyone must read and enjoy our books. I even think it’s okay if you hate my book. I mean, I hate books all the time, and sometimes I’m even offended by them!
What’s not okay is trying to get that book banned. Then you cross a line. If you don’t like a book, complain to your friends like the rest of us. But give everyone else the freedom to decide for themselves what they think of it. A book is in a library for a reason: it’s only purchased after a long review process. And if someone thinks a book is genuinely inappropriate for a certain age group, request a review, and it might be moved to another section of the library.
To me, removing a book from a library, or trying to access restricted, strikes at the very heart of what it means to be an American, to the concept of freedom. If freedom means anything, it means deciding for ourselves what books we want to read. Yes, parents have a role in deciding what books they think are appropriate for their own kids to read (though when it comes to teenagers, especially older ones, I think they get a say too!). But no parent has any say whatsoever in what other parents decide is appropriate for their kids to read.
Brent, you have said that it doesn’t comfort an author to hear “Oh! Your books were challenged/censored/banned! What a great sales ploy!” What effects have you (each) seen from those challenges/bannings?
Wittlinger: Yeah, I’m not crazy about that response either. For one thing, it feeds into the crass notion that authors write titillating stuff so they’ll be banned so their sales will go up, which is not the case with anyone I know. That said, I have gotten emails from a number of Alabama teens lately saying that they got a copy of the book and read it because of all the publicity, so there is certainly that element to it. It’s too soon for me to know if there will be any significant sales jump due to this.
Hartinger: Almost every author I know who’s been challenged and banned says the same thing: it really hurts. And it’s frustrating, because you sort of want to engage in some sort of good faith dialogue, try to put the offending issue in context, to try to explain the thinking behind whatever has someone upset. But at least in my case, I’ve quickly realized that it’s never about my book. It’s about someone’s political agenda, often an anti-gay one. My book is just a focal point. Ultimately, it’s irrelevent to the “debate,” because it was never about my book to begin with. But it is terribly, terribly frustrating to be a focal point, to a generic source of outrage.
What would you say is the effect of blogs, author websites and instant info on the community of YA writers?
Wittlinger: The main effect of all the online stuff for me is that I spend too much time interacting with it all. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great groups and websites and they definitely help with publicity, but the more active I am with all these things, the less I write. So, it’s a trade-off. I’ll let Brent talk about AS IF! since he’s one of the founders. Let me just say I’m so proud to be a member of this terrific group which is such a help when you need it!
Hartinger: Absolutely revolutionary. I helped found a group called Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom, or AS IF!, which is a group of 82 of the best teen lit authors today. We exist to do pro-book-freedom activist work, and to provide support. Some of our members join because they’ve had books challenged, authors write non-controversial books, but just want to lend their support.
When you’re writing about teen sexuality, how does the invisible presence of potential challenges affect you?
Wittlinger: I really try not to think about potential challenges. I write the books I feel called upon to write, and when I’ve written about sexuality, I believe I’ve done so very sensitively. However, there are certain things I’m cautious about because I do want my books to be in high school libraries and I know, for example, if I use the f-word, that will cut down on a certain number of library sales. So I use it very judiciously.
Hartinger: That is an excellent question. It really does affect you. The fact is, no writer tries to make their book “controversial” in order to sell more copies — not that any of us think of our books as “controversial” when we’re writing them; most of us, we’re trying to be truthful to a character or a story, not be shocking. But the point is, I believe that controversy ultimately cost you more sales than it gains you, because there are whole areas of the country that would never ever buy, for example, a teen book with a gay character. A study out of Arkansas earlier this year, for example, found that less than one percent of high school libraries in that state had any gay teen fiction at all. Any! Imagine if a study came out that said that those libraries had no fiction with African American characters, or female characters. It would be a national outrage. But because it’s gay books, no one cares.
Anyway, these days when I’m writing a book, I definitely fight the idea that if I use a certain word or have a certain plot development, I’ll lose sales. This is absolutely antithetical to what good, truthful fiction is all about. But it often hangs over me like a cloud.
What’s your writing support system like?
Wittlinger: I belong to a critique group of YA authors and I wouldn’t want to be without them. Nothing ever goes to an editor that hasn’t gone to them first. And I love being part of the wider world of YA authors, some of whom I’ve met at various conferences many times over the years, and some of whom I only know online. After working in the adult writing world for many years I have to say the bunny-eat-bunny world of YA writing is a much gentler and supportive place.
Writing doesn’t pay well and requires a lot of dedication and time alone. Adding in these challenges, what makes it worthwhile?
Wittlinger: Even though there are some days that I think it isn’t worth it, for the most part I can’t imagine what I would do in the world that would give me as much joy as writing. It’s sometimes hard, hair-pulling work, but I can make my own hours and go to work in my bedroom slippers. And what really makes it worthwhile, of course, are the letters and emails I get from teens who tell me that my books have changed their lives, and sometimes even saved their lives. What better thing could I be doing with my own life than that?
Hartinger: Oh, that’s easy. The response from teenagers. I have a lot of friends who write adult books, and they don’t get nearly the same kind of fan response. I’ve gotten literally thousands and thousands of emails and letters from teenagers, some gay and some straight, who tell me that my books have changed, or saved, their lives. That’s why I write, and why I’ll continue to write until I die, despite all the hassles and controversies I apparently cause, and the stomach aches they give me.
I want to say to people who would ban my books, Please read my mail for one week. One week! I guarantee it will absolutely change your mind. I’m a total fan of today’s teenagers. At least the ones who read my books and write me are a group of thoughtful, passionate people full of intelligence and integrity. Some people fear the next generation, but not me. I say, Bring them on! In terms of passion and principles, they blow my generation away.
What would you say to aspiring writers of YA literature?
Wittlinger: I think we all say the same thing about this, don’t we? Read all the YA lit you can get your hands on so you understand the genre, then put it away and write, write, write, until you find your own voice and your style. And especially, don’t give up!
Hartinger: We’re in the middle of an absolute YA renaissance right now. The fiction has never been better, and authors have never been allowed this much freedom and creativity. But this renaissance is in danger — for the exact same reasons that the real Renaissance was eventually destroyed. Small-minded people want to snuff out the flame of freedom and creativity; they want to stop the progress and excitement. They’re doing it with the absolute best of intentions, but they’re still dead wrong.
To aspiring writers, I say, Join us in the fight! Write your own book. There is always, always, always room for another great book!
And drop me a line when you get published, because I can’t get enough of this YA stuff: www.brenthartinger.com