Zetta Elliott is an author of over 40 books. A list of her books is quite impressive now, but that wasn’t always the case. Even with Bird, her first picture book receiving much acclaim, Elliott’s work met rejection after rejection. She eventually began publishing her own books. Finally, in 2010 Skyscape published her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight and from there, other publications followed. Hers is a story of another type of censorship, the denial of marginalized stories even getting published.
Elliott often remarks about the lack of Black children in speculative fiction. In a recent interview, she states “I want kids to know that magic can happen to anyone, anywhere.” Her most recent book, The Witch’s Apprentice is the third book in her Dragons in a Bag series. Yes, indeed she’s letting them know magic can happen anywhere!
Elliott brings a lot to the world of publishing as you’ll find in this interview.
Zetta, how are you?
I’m holding on! I remember that when the vaccine first came out, I said to myself, “This is going to last another year.” So, in a way, I think I prepared myself for 2022…I’m grateful for access to vaccines and tests and masks—all the things that enable me to live a fairly normal life. I’m getting requests for in-person events but I’m not ready to take that step. This middle-aged Black woman with asthma is content to work from home for the time being! I have a book launching this week, The Witch’s Apprentice, and my “virtual village” has helped me to arrange a few online events. Another book, Moonwalking, will come out in April. My co-author and I have been invited to a book festival in Maryland but who knows where we’ll be with the pandemic by then. We just continue to make adjustments and life goes on…
Do you remember when you first learned about censorship? Were you able to make sense of who would want to ban books, and why?
I never heard about banned books as a child—there was no official week, no hashtag—but I think I understood censorship by the time I was an adolescent. Whenever a book was deemed inappropriate, it was the one title everybody wanted to read! Judy Blume’s Forever was probably the first book I can remember that adults tried to keep out of reach. I never did get my hands on it but think it was pulled for sexual content.
We’ve spoken about this a bit; your book, like so many others, was included in a big batch of titles that someone wanted to remove from shelves, probably without ever having read any of the books. How did the news hit you?
Prof. Jung Kim let me know about the ban in York, PA through a Facebook post. I’d already had a run-in with conservative parents in York who objected to the contents of my blog prior to a virtual school visit so I wasn’t entirely surprised. And the ban wasn’t based on a specific objection to anything I’d written—they excluded every book on the resource list—so I didn’t take it personally. Milo’s Museum was on a few anti-racist reading lists that came out following the murder of George Floyd so I’m not surprised that conservatives on the anti-CRT bandwagon would find it objectionable. I was proud to see students in that school district mobilizing and successfully fighting the ban.
Really though, Black children have always been censored in books and stories. What creativity are you noticing recently in the Black community that flows from the development, management, and use of our own voices?
Yes, attempts to silence us and substitute their fictions for ours have been ongoing for centuries. I don’t see a change in creativity within our community; we have always transformed our experiences into art (“great suffering produces great art”). The only change, which I suspect is temporary, is that gatekeepers are now greenlighting more projects by Black creatives in order to avoid the appearance of bias. But have these institutions and corporations truly changed? No. So long as the gatekeepers remain the same, our truths will be forced through a White filter. They don’t create work for a broad audience—whatever corporate publishers acquire, they market mainly to White middle-class readers. Appointing Black women to a few prominent positions at various imprints doesn’t change the system. But, we persist…
Can we just sit still and assume the challenges and censoring will go away?
No, but as Toni Morrison reminded us, “racism is a distraction.” I try to focus on storytelling and serving the kids in my community. Progressive librarians and educators are mobilizing against attempts to purge youth collections of books that are important representations of marginalized groups. We need to support those on the front lines and as a kid lit creator, I will continue to speak out against book bans. (Matter of Fact TV link: https://www.matteroffact.tv/pennsylvania-students-fighting-back-against-books-being-banned-from-school-libraries/)
Zetta, thanks for the interview, for speaking out and for all the work that you do!