‘Do we want to be a nation or not?’: Laurie Halse Anderson on censorship, book bans, and democracy

This interview has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.

1. Can you talk to me about the first time you heard about one of your books being banned or challenged? 

Laurie Halse Anderson: Yeah, golly. I guess the first time would have been a couple of months after Speak was published. It was published in October of ‘99. So it would have been early in 2000. So, I got either an email or a letter from a teacher telling me that they had a parent come to their school and demand that the book be taken out. And you want to know my reaction?

I bawled, I cried. I felt that this person thought that I was trying to harm kids. And obviously, I had so much to learn … I was horrified that anybody could think that a book about a rape victim struggling to find the courage to speak up about what happened to her might be harmful.

2. What kind of outcry has it been? What arguments do people use?

Anderson: Speak has been called pornography on and off or at least since 2010. There was a famous incident in 2010 of a guy with the name Wesley Scroggins, whose name is kind of burned on my eyeballs. Although he was homeschooling his own children, he was demanding changes in the English curriculum, the health curriculum, and I’m pretty sure social studies. And he made a really big deal out of Speak being “pornographic.” 

[Note: The op-ed, which was called “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education,” written by Scroggins in the Missouri News-Leader, is available here, and describes Speak as “soft pornography.” In support of Anderson at the time, the Penguin Young Readers Group got a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.]

3. Why is speaking out against censorship so valuable to you right now as a writer?

Anderson: I’m a white straight lady. I think that in some ways I feel that makes me even more responsible to speak up loudly about this bullshit because I’m not getting death threats, but people who occupy especially intersectional spaces are.

4. What would you tell voters who are on the fence about voting or who don’t see major differences between political parties?

Anderson: Well, I would ask them: Do you want a country that is based on supporting all families? Helping all families be the best they can be? Or do you want a country that’s based on hitting one group against another and fueled by hate instead of democracy?

Right-wing politicians are very smart about making people afraid and making people angry because the emotions of fear and anger are why our brains are wired … You can tell people, there’s a threat, and they’re either going to want to run away from it or they’re going to want to defeat it.

For me, what this is boiling down to is do we want to be a nation or not? In order to live in participatory democracy and honestly, it’s still a question mark.

5. Do you feel that having your books receive challenges or pushback over the years has affected your writing or publication path?

Anderson: Never. I’ve never had an editor, publicist, or agent suggest it. I do think that I try to be more present publicly than I would otherwise, you know, like if I wrote books that don’t have this kind of intense content that reflects the experiences of so many of my readers.

6. How can we support people doing the work to keep challenged and banned books in the hands of readers?

Anderson: The reason I spend as much time with social media and go to as many educator conferences as I do is that I worry about educators. I really do. I mean, it is already so stinking hard to be a teacher, or librarian, or to be in, you know, whatever kind of capacity working with kids. Even before the past two years of nonsense. It was really, really hard. And so often I try to be really present and I know a lot of other authors do the same thing.

This is the way a community tries to be supportive. Books are a very excellent tool to help kids understand themselves and understand the world. Children’s publishing was very late to the game when it came to really support books that represent all kids. All the different kinds of kids there are in the world and all the different kinds of identities and communities.

7. How can we support writers who produce work that is, or might be, challenged or banned?

Anderson: We have to make sure that we are still supporting all these authors with their next books. And their next book. It’s hard enough to make a living as an author. And then to have to do it in the face of this kind of attack is horrifying.

8. What books or writers would you like to highlight? Who do you recommend everyone should read?

Anderson: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson, Parachutes by Kelly Yang, Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, and Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes. 

What did you think of Speak, Shout, or anything else you’ve enjoyed by Anderson? What media do you think covers sexual violence well and, conversely, what tropes or storylines do you think are harmful? I’d love to hear your thoughts below and will be in the comments! 

Who is ready for a Banned Book Club here at Daily Kos?

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