Banned Voices: Brandy Colbert

The landscape of children’s literature has changed so much since 2015, since We Need Diverse Books. While work has been done for well over 100 years by people like Langston Hughes, Pura Belpré, Augusta Baker, Michelle Martin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Marilisa Jiménez Garcia, Sonia Nieto, Walter Dean Myers, Violet Harris, Junko Yokota and so many, many more. The pace of this change certainly was influenced by publishers realizing the changing complexion of the marketplace, the same change that causes others to fear a loss of power and privilege.

In today’s interview, I really appreciate how Brandy Colbert models how to reflect on our own past and how to grow from there. Awareness of what we’ve said or thought our done is so liberating.

Photo credit: Jessie Weinberg

Brandy, you have such a well written piece on your blog about writing Little & Lion. There you say, “Telling others that their identities are too diverse to be believable is erasure. It perpetuates the idea that we should all think and look and act the same, and that people can and should only concentrate on one aspect of their identity. Identity is at once private and also quite public in some instances.” Do you think that challenges to youth literature with LGBTQIA+ content is all about the erasure you mention here?

I do agree with that, and I want to begin by saying that while I am so proud of Little & Lion, I would not write it now. The main character, Suzette, is Black, like me, but she identifies as bisexual, while I’m a cisgender, heterosexual woman. There has been a lot of conversation in recent years about who should be allowed to write what, and I firmly believe the spotlight should be focused on books by authors with lived experience of the marginalized protagonists they’re writing. The industry has, thankfully, begun to make room for more representation, but I remember hearing Little & Lion was one of the only YA books published in 2017 featuring a Black character written by a Black author that included LGBTQIA+ themes and content.

All that said, it is vital to create literature that reflects the world around me, and my books will always feature supporting characters who identify on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. All kids and teens deserve to see themselves in books, and it’s important to read about people from other cultures and communities, as well. It’s unacceptable that anyone believes the mere existence of characters who identify on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum is a reason to consider banning a book. (This is also the case with my MG novel The Only Black Girls in Town, which was challenged in a small town in Texas because the main character has two happily married gay fathers.)

I really appreciate that reflection. Thank you for sharing it.

In that same interview, you go on to talk about how hopeful you are for the future of children’s literature. What is that hope like for you?

We are moving in this direction, but I hope that soon there will be a wider variety of literature about people from all different identities and backgrounds—and that those stories don’t have to focus on pain and suffering of a culture to be recognized in the industry and recommended by readers.

Did writing Little & Lion seem like it would be controversial when you wrote it?

I don’t think too much about the reception of a book when I’m writing it; I’m primarily concerned about telling a good story with authentic characters. In the case of Little & Lion, I was most worried about writing outside of my lived experience and ensuring I did the characters justice. I knew the book might make some people uncomfortable, but I suppose I didn’t imagine so many groups would mobilize to keep kids and teens from reading literature that reflects a realistic world.

NONE of the books belong on this recent book banning list but, why in particular shouldn’t Little & Lion be on anyone’s banned list?

Little & Lion is about a girl discovering who she is, who she might be, and who she wants to be, all while trying to support her brother, who is working through mental health struggles. It’s a coming-of-age novel that tackles themes of love, family, and loyalty, and I know it’s relatable because I hear often from readers who saw themselves or people they knew in the characters and their stories. The fact that someone wants to ban a book that can touch so many different types of people is a testament to the power of literature.

Have you had many conversations about the all the recent work to censor books? Do you have a sense of how the book community is working to mobilize? Or perhaps how people reading this interview can support the books that are being challenged?

It’s been an ongoing conversation between my author friends and me over the past few months. As creators, sometimes it can feel as if we have little power over book bannings, but I admire those authors who have consistently spoken out about the issue, lending their voices to interviews, articles, op-eds, and social media.

And it is important to not let these challenges dictate our future work; I intend to keep writing the same type of books I’ve written since my first novel, Pointe, debuted in 2014—work that challenges readers to think deeply about so-called “taboo” issues and to engage with characters who may be completely different from anyone they’ve met in real life.

I hope that people reading this will also speak out about book challenges, and particularly why the content is being challenged. Getting involved in politics at the local level is also an effective way to fight back; some school board members are appointed, but others are elected, so everyone should be paying attention to the candidates on their ballots when it comes time to vote. Please, please cast a vote in every election.

And, last but definitely not least, support authors by buying our books. The more copies we sell, the more our publishers will support us and be more willing to publish books from us in the future. This is especially important for diverse creators of diverse content, who don’t always receive the same resources or support as writers from the dominant cultures.

Thank you so much for making the time to remind us how important our stories are! I wish you much continued success.

Keep up to date with Brandy Colbert’s work on her website.