How to voice a movement (and the books that will inspire you to do so)

By Olivia Butze, PR Associate

In support of Banned Books Week, SAGE hosted a webinar on the freedom of speech and the freedom to read and write in partnership with the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Index on Censorship. Authors Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion), Alex Gino (George), and Dr. Marni A. Brown (Gendered Lives, Sexual Beings: A Feminist Anthology) discussed the importance of speaking out against censorship with moderator Jemimah Steinfeld (deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine).

The authors engaged in conversations that ranged from what inspired them to speak out through writing to whether or not any book should be banned.

“I want to be able to say, ‘People used to think this was okay. But it wasn’t okay then and it isn’t okay now. Here’s a record of how far we’ve come and where we have to go,'” said Colbert in response to this latter prompt.

They also provided us with their “essential reading” recommendations:

  • Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung
  • Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
  • Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins

Their recommendations, as well as their own texts (including Gino’s latest title You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P!, which came out the day of the webinar), come from their desire to share human experiences. “I’ve noticed in the classroom that when kids read these books, they are able to be more open,” Brown said on diverse books. “They have opened their minds to the ways in which human lives can be expressed.”

Following the webinar, we had a few more questions, and Gino was kind enough to take the time to speak with us further.

From the perspective of an author, how can a librarian support authors whose books are being questioned?

Carry them. Display them. Talk them up. And if you fear push back, please remember that the folks, especially kids, who need access to the books you’re defending have even less agency than you do. Also remember that most challenges fail, especially when there’s someone there to say “no.”

Can you expand on the difference between “soft” and “hard” censorship? How do both forms affect authors? 

When we think of censorship, we often think of the instance where a book has been pulled from a bookshelf. But there are all sorts of gatekeepers and barriers in the exchange between writer and reader. In order for a book to land in a reader’s hand, it has to pass through:

  • Self-censorship from writers who think their story isn’t important enough to be told
  • Publishing houses, where some books are selected for publication and publicity, while many more are left behind. Some of that is about quality, but in a subjective world like literature, people often base their opinions on their ability to connect with books, meaning that acquisitions often reflect the make up of the publishing house
  • Bookstores and libraries, who decide which books to shelve and which to highlight. Even if a book is published, it can’t be read if bookstores and librarians decide “not to risk it.”
  • Readers themselves, who often make decisions about what books “aren’t for them”

There are dozens and dozens of ways and places for a book never to make it into the position to be challenged in the first place, and when those decisions are more about how the book will be received than about the quality of the work, that’s soft censorship. And note that just about all of these soft forms of censorship disproportionately impact marginalized writers. Surprise!

Finally, what do you believe America has to do to become truly censorship free?

I think the best way to minimize censorship is to accept that it is a problem that exists and that we cannot defeat it “for once and for all.” There are, and will always be, people who think that limiting information is a reasonable solution to problems, and our best tactic is to always be on the lookout for where ideas are being suppressed with the awareness that we can never be done.

As Banned Books Week comes to a close, keep in mind that its underlying message- that everyone deserves the freedom to read- is not one that disappears as soon as the week is over. These authors and their thoughts on the topic serve as an important reminder that censorship is not only prevalent, but needs to be fought every day. Speaking out is not easy, but the impact can be substantial.

Gino said it the best, reflecting “I could sit here and take apart my writing so someone else was satisfied. But in doing so, I’m not giving the book to the kid who needs it most. Why would I play that game?”

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