By: guest contributor Alex Gino
Banned Books Week is here again, and that means it’s time for people to ask me what I think of censorship and challenges to George (informally, “Melissa’s story”), my debut middle grade novel about a transgender girl. So, here it goes:
Banning books is bad. Prohibiting access to information and stories is a dangerous practice. Attempts to do so are also poorly-conceived and remarkably counter-effective.
Challenges raise awareness that the book in question exists, and nothing piques curiosity of kids and adults alike like taboo. So, yes, where there have been high-profile challenges, sales have risen. At the same time, that’s not something to cheer for. There are kids who don’t have access to literature, and light-hearted comments like, “must be great for sales” and “wish my book would get banned” sink in my stomach.
I don’t want this silver lining. Don’t congratulate me on my “dubious honor.” If you are aggravated by the censorship I face, don’t pass it back to me. I promise you, I am angrier than you are, even if I smile. Instead, use that energy to fight censorship.
Kids lose out when books are challenged, especially transgender kids, deeply in need of seeing reflections of themselves. And while most direct challenges fail in that books aren’t taken off the shelves, they make it easier for soft censorship to creep in, like when books aren’t purchased for fear of possible controversy, are shelved in a restricted area, or are left out of relevant book talks to avoid potential pushback.
Please note I do not mean to criticize the choices that individual librarians, teachers, and other educators make, especially isolated folks in hostile and questionable environments. Weigh your choices and do what you have to. But when people tell me to be proud that I’m “upsetting the right people,” it hurts. I get the sentiment, but their humor is rooted in the fact that people are so horrified by my existence that they want to ban their children from knowing that I and people like me exist.
I get a lot of uproariously innocent “how dare they?”s and “but why would anyones?” They clearly do dare. And we know exactly why. Transphobes are rampant and empowered in many, many places. If you don’t know that, you need to. I get that the incredulity is a reflection of shock and dismay. But it can feel distant and belittling to me, who knows all too well that plenty of people still see my transness as a poison that could infect their children. I hold an ember in my heart for the children in their “care.”
And yes, I absolutely joke about the censorship of my work. For good and for bad, I use my wit to cope with a ciscentric world. When Melissa’s story was named the #1 most challenged and banned book in 2018 by the OIF, I proclaimed, “If you’re gonna be banned, at least be number 1.”
But joking about being censored is different from joking that it’s a good thing. For me, censorship of my writing is both so upsetting and unsurprising that it can be hard to talk about. “Look on the bright-side” humor tends to fall flat, especially from someone who’s never personally faced a major book challenge, whether as writer, librarian, teacher, or other literary defender. It’s more gallows around here. At least it is for me.
So the tl;dr on this post might seem like “that trans person sure is crotchety.” (Get it? Crotch-ety?) And maybe I am. And maybe being labeled as objectionable content while being asked to comment on it as an academic curiosity is a delicate dance and I’m fatigued.
Alex Gino is the author of middle grade novels You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! and the Stonewall Award-winning George. They love glitter, ice cream, gardening, awe-ful puns, and stories that reflect the diversity and complexity of being alive. Born and raised on Staten Island, NY, they now enjoy living in Oakland, CA.
To hear Alex speak more about banned books, watch the webinar “Speaking Out: Voicing Movements in the Face of Censorship,” hosted by SAGE Publishing and Index on Censorship magazine.