Written by author, Gayle Pitman
In April of 2015, I attended a conference at Fresno State University titled “Outlawed! The Naked Truth about Censored Literature for Young People.” The event, sponsored by the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, featured a star-studded roster of presenters. Jacqueline Woodson. Margarita Engle. Lesléa Newman. Matt de la Peña. Sherman Alexie. Who would pass up an opportunity like this? It turned out to be one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended — and little did I know how much I would need this information.
One of the conference sessions was facilitated by Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). She, along with a panel of authors, shared a range of examples of censorship in children’s literature, and then provided information about how NCAC can support authors. At the end of the session, I thanked Joan and told her that I’d written a book that was pretty controversial. I was referring, of course, to This Day in June, which had just won the 2015 ALA Stonewall Award that previous February.
Joan asked to see it. I pulled a copy out of my bag and handed it to her. “This is great!” she said as she flipped through the pages.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m surprised it hasn’t been challenged yet.”
Joan didn’t miss a beat. “It will.” She handed me her card and said, “Call me when it happens.”
“Did you know that a group of people in Granbury, Texas are trying to ban your book?”
I didn’t know that. But it didn’t take long for me to learn that This Day in June and another book, My Princess Boy, were being challenged by 52 patrons of the Hood County Library in Texas. Over the next few days, the person who messaged me put me in touch with Courtney Kincaid, who at the time was the head librarian there. I read as much as I could about the book banning efforts, it became abundantly clear how ugly this battle was going to be.
So I, along with Courtney and a dedicated group of community members in Granbury, started taking action.
I emailed my editor at Magination Press. “Whoa,” was her initial response. Then she said, “But here’s the good news. When Sherman Alexie’s book was banned, he said ‘Ka-CHING!’”
I contacted the chair of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Round Table of the ALA, Peter Coyl. “We’re on it,” he said.
And then, I called Joan Bertin’s office. Very quickly, I learned that they don’t mess around when it comes to censorship. Her staff drafted a letter and got support from half a dozen organizations, including the PEN American Center, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
Clearly, the American Library Association doesn’t mess around either. Just a few days after the ALA Conference, Barbara Jones, the director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, and Peter Coyl issued a powerfully worded letter, which included:
- An affirmation of the importance of including LGBT-themed books in library collections:
“The titles in question have gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender pride themes and characters that accurately reflect the lives of many Hood County residents whose families include family members that are gay or transgender. Like many books, these books may not be right for every user of the Hood County Public Library, but the library has a responsibility to represent a broad range of views in its collection and to meet the needs of everyone in the community it serves – not just the most vocal, the most powerful, or even the majority.”
- A reminder to the Commission that removing LGBT-themed children’s books from a library collection is a violation of First Amendment rights:
“Moreover, any decision to remove or restrict This Day in June, My Princess Boy, or similarly themed books because of some individuals’ objection to the ideas or views expressed in the books may constitute unconstitutional censorship in violation of the First Amendment.”
- A message of strong support for the Hood County director and librarians, who are empowered and entrusted to make their own informed decisions about collection development:
“We extend our full support to the director and librarians of the Hood County Library, who work to select a diverse range of materials for the collection without shying away from potentially controversial subjects.”
- And, most importantly, a strong emphasis on the freedom to read, while highlighting the responsibility of thinking critically:
“We strongly urge the Commissioners’ Court to reaffirm the importance and value of the freedom to read by retaining the books under consideration in the library collection. By doing so, the Court will send a message to the community, particularly young readers – that, in this country, they have the responsibility and the right to think critically about what they read, rather than allowing others to think for them.”
Because when others start thinking for us and limiting our access to information, our most fundamental sense of power and agency is taken away. In the words of George Orwell, “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” That’s what censorship does, and that’s why the work of the ALA and the NCAC is so important.
The ultimate decision was in the hands of the Hood County Commissioners. I couldn’t attend the meeting, but I watched it live. I witnessed people saying the most vile and disgusting things about me, about my book, and about Courtney. I heard veiled threats of violence targeting LGBT people. And I also saw a large group of residents of the city of Granbury, all wearing black T-shirts. The front said “I’M WITH THE BANNED.” The back included a list of banned books, including This Day in June. One by one, each of them went up to the mike and spoke out in unequivocal support of my book and the LGBT community. Their courage, especially in the face of all the horrible things that had been said, hit me so powerfully. In the end, the Hood County Commissioners overturned the book challenge, allowing This Day in June and My Princess Boy to remain on the shelves.
In 2015, because of her tireless and courageous efforts to keep This Day in June and My Princess Boy on the shelves of the Hood County Library, Courtney Kincaid received the ALA-sponsored “I Love My Librarian” award. In her acceptance speech, she said this, in reference to the book banning efforts: “The fight has only strengthened me to make me the person I am today; a professional librarian who stood on the right side of the law, policy, and common sense.”
Unfortunately, the fight isn’t over. Recently, in a radio show featuring Melanie Graft, the original challenger of This Day in June, one of the interviewers very clearly stated that, in order to protect children from the LGBT “lifestyle,” violence would be an acceptable response to books like This Day in June. The Hood County Tea Party continues to promote their anti-LGBT rhetoric, citing the failed book banning campaign as an example of the downfall of our country. And books about LGBT people continue to be challenged throughout the United States. Why? Because the most powerful way you can marginalize and disempower a group is to erase them – literally or metaphorically – from existence. That’s what book banning – and censorship in general – is all about.
What can you do during Banned Books Week to support the freedom to read?
- Read LGBT-themed children’s books. Talk about them. Then share them with someone else.
- Encourage your library to put up a display of banned books.
- Host a Banned Books Party. Read banned books aloud to each other.
- Make a video of yourself reading a banned or challenged book. Then use the hashtag #BannedBooksWeek and post it on social media.
- Follow the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom and NCAC on social media, and get involved when book banning efforts are happening.
- And don’t assume that censorship won’t happen in your community. It can.
By day, Gayle E. Pitman teaches psychology and coordinates the Women/Gender Studies program at Sacramento City College. She developed and currently teaches a course on the psychology of sexual orientation and gender identity, which is the only class of its kind to be offered within the California Community College system. She views education as a platform for social justice, and brings a strong value of equity and intersectionality to all aspects of the educational system. By night, Gayle writes children’s books and engages in other forms of subversive creativity. Her debut picture book, “This Day in June,” won the 2015 ALA Stonewall Award, was a Rainbow List Top Ten pick, and won the IRA’s 2014 Notable Books for a Global Society Award. A frequent speaker at colleges, universities, K-12 schools, and professional conferences on topics related to gender and sexual orientation, she has been featured in publications ranging from School Library Journal to The Advocate.