The challenges and book removals continue.
Zetta Elliott shared on Twitter that A Place Inside of Me is being challenged. She helps her readers identify and move beyond fear and anger my finding a place of peace inside themselves.
Matt de la Pena wrote on Instagram “Been down this road before. And still gathering info. But I honestly don’t understand how keeping a story like Milo’s away from kids helps anyone in any way.” Ambitious Girl by Meena Harris is also up for removal.
Just three examples of books about BIPOC children who are simply living their lives and being human and this makes others uncomfortable. White children need these books to provide examples missing in their day-to-day lives.
And twice that for representation that intersects BIPOC and LGBTQIA. How dare we -Black, brown, queer, or any combination thereof- find joy! How dare we choose to love! And yet, we do.
In today’s interview, Mark Oshiro speaks with passion, truth and integrity about the stories they choose to write.
Ask yourself: If these books are being challenged and disappeared, what is happening to the people whose lives they represent?
Mark, how are you doing?
Hello!!! I am currently underneath the weight of a huge book deadline, but am otherwise enjoying the creative flow of my life lately.
The authors I’ve been interviewing all have had very different experiences with these book challenges. Do you mind sharing what it’s been like for you?
For context, none of this is new to me; Anger is a Gift was first banned by a school within a month or two of its release back in 2018. Since then, it’s been a fairly constant—if background—thing that I’ve had to be conscious of. I’ve lost out on speaking gigs and had educators and librarians reach out to me over the years about having to pull my books. So, again: nothing new to me. I was warned by other queer authors and authors of color that this is our reality. Our very existence has been considered “indoctrination” by the powers-that-be around this country, so I’ve done my best to continue being myself and hustle to build my career in spite of this.
It has, of course, ramped up in intensity and visibility in the last year alone. I’ve lost count of how many times my three novels have been banned, removed from circulation, or quietly been cancelled from purchase in schools and public libraries. It’s impossible to keep track. I mentioned this on Twitter, but it’s also causing a number of my appearances to be cancelled, even after I’ve already agreed to them. It’s a struggle! It’s disheartening to know that there are kids who may never know that I even wrote a book because of what the adults in their life are doing. I care less about what that means for me as an author and more about what is being denied here.
The main issue I have with this is that these bannings and challenges send a clear message to queer kids and kids of color: We would rather not think about you, learn about you, or accept you. I grew up in a conservative district where bannings were common. As someone who was dealing with homophobia, racism, homelessness, and abuse as a child/teenager, it was horrifically isolating to see adults in my life say that we shouldn’t talk about those issues or that kids shouldn’t be exposed to them. These “issues” weren’t things in a book to me; I couldn’t close the covers, put them back on the shelf, and forget them. It was my everyday life.
This is why I take such umbrage with folks seeing these bannings as a badge of pride. I take no pride in it at all, because I know how damaging and hurtful it can be to kids on the receiving end of it.
I think marginalized authors face censorship on so many levels, not just in libraries and classrooms. I think it begins with just trying to get published. Can you tell me about your particular road to publishing? Was it/is it difficult getting books published for young readers that feature gay Latino/a/x/e characters?
Oh, it was definitely fraught! I received so many rejections when I was trying to find an agent, and a lot of the feedback I received was about how my characters were unrelatable or inconsistent. Even after I got an agent, I heard the same feedback. Ask any marginalized author about that specific phrase. We’ve all heard it from gatekeepers. It speaks to the way that whiteness and straightness and gender binaries are enforced and enshrined in publishing. If an experience is too different from a white agent and editor, it’s often labeled as unrelatable or inconsistent.
That’s just the more subtle stuff. I was absolutely asked at the querying stage to make my characters white and straight; I had a project with a major publishing house rejected after it was commissioned because having an entirely queer cast was too “edgy.” That being said: none of this has deterred me from writing what I write.
You’ve talked about the ending Anger is a Gift, and how it was problematic to some because they needed a neat tidy/western ending. I’ve had this same conversation recently with another author about how western cultures dominate the way stories are told. I see this as another type of censorship. I think this is slowly starting to change, very slowly. What do you think? Can you give any examples of what you’re seeing or maybe talk about what you would really like to see introduced to young adult literature?
I find that it’s changing in kids, not really adults. When I do school visits—especially those where my book was assigned reading—the kids absolutely have questions about why my books end like they do. (I would say moreso with my two YA books; The Insiders has a more traditional/Western plot structure.) And when we get down to the details and I talk about things like circular structures, or character arcs that are traditional redemptive pieces, they are absolutely into it. They don’t see it as a flaw, but rather a new way to tell a story. (New relative to them, I should say. I’m not the one inventing these structures.) It’s exciting to them! And I love talking about it because there is a vast canon of non-traditional storytelling out there, and it’s wonderful seeing them thirst after things that are unexpected.
Which is not to say that we don’t need traditional arcs at all. I think it’s also the case that many marginalized folks—who’ve all been kept out of this industry since the beginning—are being held to unfair standards by readers, editors, reviewers, etc. It’s a double-edged sword. If we write non-traditional narratives, we’re criticized for being unrelatable and difficult. If we write traditional narrative arcs, we’re told we’re uncreative, hacks, or that we are “stealing” the ideas of white writers.
At the end of the day, I don’t care about either opinion. I write what I want to write. I write in community with and in service to young people.
In The Insiders, you have a janitor’s closet that seems to keep appearing to protect your main character. Can you imagine some sort of safe space or bit of magic that will protect books that are being challenged, or do envision a more realistic thought about what we need to do to keep books by marginalized people on shelves?
The idea behind The Insiders was born almost twenty years ago, when I wrote my first “novel” and was thinking about how libraries were often my “safe” space. I disappeared into books as a kid, and then, when I was grappling with homelessness in high school, libraries took on another meaning for me. I could often spend time there without having to spend money. And while that idea morphed over the years into the world of the janitor’s closet in Héctor Muñoz’s school, the idea is still there. For some of us, a library can be our lifeline.
So yes, I’m also actively imagining that space, and I love that many librarians are doing the same thing. Their libraries are community spaces as much as they are places where books are. But it requires realistic, tangible action to keep it that way. A lot of what I’m doing with other authors is finding out where we can direct our energies. Can we send people to public hearings/meetings in these districts or cities or counties where challenges are happening? Are there material things we can provide to help out educators or librarians? I’ve also been recommending that educators think about staring Project LIT clubs/groups in their schools, particularly if that exists as a way of finding a loophole to “official” reading lists or libraries.
What do you want young readers to find in your books?
Community. I can’t seem to escape from this theme in all my books, and for good reason: I don’t want kids to feel as alone and isolated as I did when I was growing up.
Thanks, Mark. Do you have any closing thoughts?
Thank you for caring about this. Truly. It’s an uphill battle that’s often times demoralizing in how powerless we can feel, so all of us authors affected by this are touched by the work others are doing.
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