A group of more than 40 Utah children’s book authors and illustrators have signed an open letter — ahead of Banned Books Week (Sept. 18-24) — to condemn recent efforts to ban or suppress books in schools and libraries in Utah.
The letter — published this Sunday as an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune — comes in the midst of heated disputes across the country about censorship in schools. In August, the Alpine School District, the largest school district in Utah, pulled 52 books from library shelves, with another 32 listed for later review.
The letter — written by Shannon Hale, known for the best-selling “Princess in Black” children’s books, the young adult “Princess Academy” series and the for-adults comic novel “Austenland” — begins: “As Utah authors and illustrators of books for young readers, we condemn the efforts to suppress, demonize, and ban books from our state’s schools and libraries.”
The letter goes on to say “these attempts overwhelmingly target books by and about LGBTQ people and by and about Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. Historically, these groups have been far underrepresented in books.”
Hale, in an interview, said she wrote the letter because she’s been concerned about “the mood of the country” and that the “vitriol and hatred is scary to see as a parent and writer,” especially after the strides the publishing industry has made in the last 10 years in terms of diversity, through the help of organizations like We Need Diverse Books and others.
“When I got into children’s books, 80% of the characters were white and male,” Hale said. “80% of the population is not white and male. We had a representation problem.”
That’s the heart of the issue, Hale said: People being uncomfortable with seeing others represented.
“Suddenly people who have grown up being used to books being all about white, straight people are seeing something else: More representation of what’s actually out there. And it’s making a lot of people afraid,” Hale said.
The process of actually banning a book is more difficult than one might assume from how often the phenomenon is seen in the news. Earlier in the year, Salt Lake County librarians pointed out that Utah doesn’t see a lot of banned books, but even then the themes that have been continually targeted remain the same: Racial diversity, LGBTQ+ representation and coming-of-age.
One side effect of this wildfire-like spread of censorship, Hale said, is that so many kids who were finally seeing themselves validated in books as human beings and as those who are worthy of stories” are the ones being targeted.
“What stories and books do is validate and teach empathy, they do not turn people into other things,” Hale says. “When kids read about themselves, they feel validated. It makes them feel like they have the right to exist.”
In the letter, Hale also notes the tragic statistic that in 2020, suicide is the leading cause of death among young people, ages 10 to 17 and 18 to 24, in Utah. Being able to show someone they matter through literature is life-saving. Last year, a 10-year-old girl in the Davis School District died by suicide, and her mother said she was bullied for being Black and autistic.
Another author who signed the letter is Ally Condie, who wrote the dystopian young-adult series “Matched” — which has faced threats of being banned or censored in the past.
Condie said that, for kids, reading a book is equivalent to walking a mile in another person’s shoes. “As authors, it doesn’t make sense to us that you would want to take away that shared experience, that [chance] to learn more about each other as human beings,” she said.
It’s one thing, Condie said, for a parent to read a book and decide it’s not a good fit for their child — she said she understands that as a parent herself — but to make a “unilateral statement” for all kids feels like a “dangerous road to go down.”
“It’s not a kind thing to do, and in some ways, it’s also not a Utah thing to do,” she said. “We believe in personal freedom, in letting people choose their own way and free agency.”
Lindsey Leavitt, author of the “Willis Wilbur” series, also signed the letter. She, like Condie, is a former teacher.
Leavitt pointed out a Sign Up Genius list in Davis County, which has books listed for parents to read. “It’s not with the intent to ‘open myself up to the human experience.’ It’s with the intent to [later] challenge the 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, she said, that shows which schools each of the books can be found.
“Parents sometimes think, ‘Well, if I have my kid exposed to this, it’s going to make them that way,’” she said. It’s something she thought about, she said, when she first read Hale’s letter and considered the power we, as a society, assign to words.
Utah lawmakers, for example, have a habit of using the word “pornographic” when it comes to book banning, Leavitt said. “When we start categorizing anything different than the Utah norm as pornographic, then that’s what it dilutes to,” she said.
When Hale was in high school, she said, 95% of the books she was assigned to read were written by straight, white men with main characters who were straight, white men. “I did not turn into a straight, white man,” she said.
It’s not just kids, parents and librarians who are engaged in this ongoing battle. Authors have seen a fair share of backlash, too. Hale said she’s been called a “groomer” for encouraging children to be who they are.
Leavitt has a book coming out in a few weeks, and she said she’s been working with a school booking agent to do free visits. The response, from teachers and librarians, is that they have to get a great deal of clearance before allowing her to visit.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this, where I want to come and connect with these kids, and they’ll say, ‘Let me get back to you in the spring,’” Leavitt said.
Condie noted that as straight, white women, she and Leavitt and Hale don’t have a lot of the negative experiences that some other authors may have — particularly authors of color or who are LGBTQ+. As an author, Condie said, one of the most devastating things you can be told is that a story you wrote can’t be true or doesn’t matter to anyone.
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, hate mongering attempts to limit whose stories are worth telling. Uphold the values of freedom and equality we are all promised.”
To mark Banned Books Week, author Azar Nafisi — who wrote “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books,” about her experiences teaching literature in Iran — will speak Thursday, Sept. 22, at 4 p.m. at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City, on the University of Utah campus. Nafisi’s talk, “Is Reading Dangerous (Again)?”, is free to the public, and presented by the Tanner Humanities Center at the U.