Ahead of Banned Books Week (September 18-24), a group of more than 40 Utah children’s book authors and illustrators signed an open letter condemning recent efforts to ban or suppress books in Utah schools and libraries effort.
The letter, published Sunday as an op-ed in the Salt Lake City Tribune, comes amid a heated national debate over school censorship. In August, the Alps School District, Utah’s largest school district, pulled 52 books from library shelves, and another 32 were listed for later review.
The letter begins with a letter from Shannon Hale, best known for the best-selling “Princess in Black” children’s book, the young adult “Princess Academy” series and the adult graphic novel “Austin Lan”: “As a Utah writer and illustrator For books for young readers, we condemn efforts to suppress, demonize, and ban books from our state’s schools and libraries.”
The letter goes on to say: “The vast majority of these attempts have been directed at books written by LGBTQ people and about Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Historically, these groups have been far from underrepresented in books.”
Hale said in an interview that she wrote the letter because she had been worried about “the mood of the country” and that “the meanness and hatred I see as a parent and as a writer is horrific,” especially after the publishing industry has made great strides Diversity over the past 10 years, with help from organizations like We Need Diverse Books.
“When I got into children’s books, 80 percent of the characters were white and male,” Hale said. “80% of the population is not white and male. We have a representation problem.”
That’s the heart of the problem, Hale said: People are uncomfortable seeing other people’s representation.
“Suddenly, people who were so used to all the books about white people, heterosexuals saw something else: more of a representation of what was actually there. That scared a lot of people,” Hale said.
The process of actually banning a book is more difficult than one might imagine from the frequency of the phenomenon in the news. Earlier this year, Salt Lake County librarians noted that Utah hasn’t seen many banned books, but even so, the themes that have been targeted remain the same: racial diversity, LGBTQ+ representation and adulthood.
A side effect of this wildfire-spreading censorship, Hale said, is that so many kids end up seeing themselves in books as proven human and storytellers “targeted.
“What stories and books do is validate and teach empathy, they don’t turn people into other things,” Hale said. “When children read stories about themselves, they feel recognized. It makes them feel entitled to exist.”
In the letter, Hale also pointed to the harrowing statistic that in 2020, suicide was the leading cause of death among 10- to 17- and 18- to 24-year-olds in Utah. Being able to show someone their importance through literature can save lives. Last year, a 10-year-old girl in the Davis School District committed suicide after her mother said she was bullied for being black and autistic.
Another author who signed the letter was Ally Condie, who wrote the dystopian young adult series “Matched” – which has faced threats of ban or censorship in the past.
For kids, reading is like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, Candy said. “It doesn’t make sense for us as authors that you want to take away shared experiences, [chance] Learn more about each other as humans,” she said.
Candy says it’s one thing for parents to read a book and think it’s not right for their kids — she says she understands this herself as a parent — but making a “unilateral statement” for all children feels like “down the hill” The road is dangerous.”
“It’s not a good thing, and in some ways, it’s not a Utah thing,” she said. “We believe in personal freedom, allowing people to choose their own way and free agency.”
Lindsay Levitt, author of the “Willis Wilbur” series, also signed the letter. She, like Candy, is a former teacher.
Levitt pointed to a Davis County Registered Genius List that lists books for parents to read. “It’s not about ‘opening up to the human experience’. It’s about [later] Challenge books,” she said.
The process is based on a star system, determined by how “naughty or dangerous” a book is, she said. There’s also a spreadsheet showing which schools can be found for each book, she said.
“Parents sometimes think, ‘Well, if I expose my kids to this, they’re going to be like that,'” she said. She said it came to her mind when she first read Hale’s letter and considered the power we as a society give to words.
Utah lawmakers, for example, used the word “pornography” when they banned books, Levitt said. “When we start classifying anything different from the Utah norm as pornography, that’s what it dilutes,” she said.
She said that when Hale was in high school, 95 percent of the books she was assigned to read were written by straight white people with straight white protagonists. “I didn’t become a straight white man,” she said.
It’s not just kids, parents and librarians who are involved in this ongoing battle. The authors also saw considerable backlash. Hale says she’s been called a “beautician” because she encourages children to be themselves.
Levitt, who has a book coming out in a few weeks, said she has been working with school booking agents for free access. Teachers and librarians responded that they had to get a lot of permission before giving her access.
“I’ve never been through anything like this, and I want to come and talk to these kids and they’ll say, ‘Let me get back to you in the spring,'” Levitt said.
Candy points out that as straight white women, she, Levitt, and Hale don’t have as many negative experiences as some other authors — especially authors of color or LGBTQ+. One of the most damaging things you can hear as a writer is that the stories you write can’t possibly be true or irrelevant to anyone, Candy said.
The letter ends with a plea: “We ask our Utah school districts, library boards, state and local governments, and all those in power to reject these divisive, hateful attempts to limit whose stories are worth telling. Stand up for all of us the values of freedom and equality that both promise.”
Commemorating Banned Books Week, author Azar Nafisi — who wrote “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in the Book,” about her experience teaching literature in Iran — will be at 410 Campus Center Avenue on Thursday, September 22 at 4 p.m. Presentation at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, on the campus of the University of Utah. Nafisi’s talk, “Is it dangerous to read (again)?”free to the public, provided by the Tanner Center for the Humanities of America.