Q&A with Author Lance Rubin on the Suppression of his YA Novel in South Carolina
By: Jane’a Johnson
Author Lance Rubin published Denton Little’s Deathdate in 2015. It follows a teenage boy named Denton Little who — like everyone else in the world he inhabits — knows the exact date on which they are going to die. The kicker for Denton is that it just happens to be the day of his senior prom. Along winning praise for some quirky twists and turns which I will not spoil here, and its brand of gallows humor, it won the The International Literacy Association (ILA) Young Adult Book Award in 2016.
Based on a single complaint in August of 2017, the book was pulled from both the Beaufort County School District’s physical and digital shelves without following the district’s own procedure. Book challenges in Beaufort should be formally issued in writing using a specific form, and any challenge is supposed to trigger a multi-step process that includes the selection of review committee made up of community stakeholders. Those stakeholders include a representative from the Parent Teacher Organization, a media library specialist, the principal of the school designated in the challenge, and the superintendent. Whether out of convenience, carelessness, or some mixture of both, the text was simply pulled. Former Beaufort County librarian Cheryl Campbell has started a GoFundMe account to buy every high school student in Beaufort County a copy of the paperback in response to the book being pulled.
Since the complaint in August, the emails back and forth between librarians and administrators, the report to ALA at the beginning of January and notifying the author three weeks later, the book has been returned to only the high school’s library shelves. We asked Rubin what he thought about his book being pulled, and his take on teenagers’ intellectual freedom.
OIF Blog: Are you surprised your book would get pulled off a shelf? Or, is this something you’ve sort of anticipated since the book tackles things like sex and death?
Rubin: When I started writing Denton Little’s Deathdate in 2011, I had just read Hunger Games, so I knew that death was fair game in YA literature, but I didn’t know how far I could go with things like sex, cursing, and drugs. As I read more and more YA, though, I saw that the current landscape of teen literature makes room for all sorts of authentic teenage experiences, so I felt at liberty to write honestly and not restrain myself. That said, when the book came out in April 2015, a tiny part of my brain wondered if there would be any shelf-pulling, but it never happened (not to my knowledge, anyway), which was really encouraging. It made me feel hopeful to know that so many adults — be it teachers, librarians, or parents — supported teenagers as they explored all sorts of worlds and experiences through books.
So, to finally answer your question, to now hear — almost three years after the book came out — that a school district in South Carolina has pulled it off the shelf is definitely surprising.
OIF Blog: I’m watching, along with the entire country, Stoneman Douglas High School students who survived a mass shooting fighting fiercely for changes in gun laws. Many people are listening, some people are dismissing them. How do you see your book in the scheme of the way people typically address or think about teenagers? What they know or don’t know?
Rubin: Oh man, these students are so amazing. But, honestly, having attended book festivals and visited schools the past few years, I’ve been constantly wowed by the teenagers I interact with: their passion, their intelligence, their curiosity, their openness, their voracious appetite for stories. So to see the Stoneman Douglas students bravely standing up for what they believe in after going through something unthinkable is awe-inspiring but not surprising.
And since we live in a country where we’ve forced teenagers to reckon so directly with death, it’s ironic that most other times we’re shielding our teenagers and kids, and even our adults, from the idea of it. In writing this book, in which everyone knows their deathdate from the day they’re born, I was hoping to open up that conversation a bit. Because teenagers can handle it. Death feels very big and very scary, but I think that’s all the more reason to talk about it regularly, to make it feel more ordinary. Because we are all going to die. This is a fact. And I always find that, without fail, when I take a moment to remember that I and all of my loved ones will be gone someday, I’m more able to appreciate and enjoy that we’re all still here right now. Weirdly, discussing death becomes a way to more fully appreciate life.
OIF Blog: What would you say to students who can’t get your book, or books like it?
Rubin: I’m sorry that you’re in this situation! I believe it’s your right to have access to my book and other books like it, so you should start by having an honest conversation with your parents if that’s possible. Maybe they’ll help you find the book elsewhere. If that’s not possible or proves unsuccessful, just know that there are so many people out here rooting for you to read the books you want to read. And in the meantime, as you wait to gain access, or to turn eighteen, feel free to write your own stories, which can be a powerful way to make your voice heard.
OIF Blog: When you write, are you thinking about censorship or controversy? I remember this Toni Morrison quotation about James Baldwin saying he had to get rid of “the little white man” on his shoulder to write. It was about accidentally taking on someone else’s perspective because of norms about what is acceptable.
Rubin: That is a brilliant quote. I never want censorship or controversy to dictate what stories I tell, but after an incident like this, it does make me think twice, even subconsciously, about including cursing, sex, and drugs. And I don’t want it to! I will always fight back when my brain tries to get in the way of my writing what is true.
OIF Blog: Were there any books you couldn’t get you hands on growing up, or materials you felt guilty for reading?
Rubin: Hmm. I’m fortunate and grateful that my parents were always very supportive of me reading whatever I wanted to. I remember in 8th grade, I went through a huge Stephen King phase, reading books like Cujo and Christine and Rose Madder, books which contain some very mature content that I’m sure I didn’t fully understand back then. But there was also mature content that I did understand, and I loved it. I can’t think of a safer way to experience new things and ideas than through a book.
That said, as an adult living right now, I can see there are lots of books I WISH had existed when I was a teen that didn’t. So many voices, whether they’re LGBTQ+ or People of Color or people who have disabilities, are finally getting opportunities to tell their stories the way they deserve to be told, and it’s very exciting. That isn’t a censorship issue so much as an acknowledgment of the systemic oppression in our country that straight-up didn’t allow those books to be published in the first place. Though, come to think of it, I recently heard of Angie Thomas’s masterpiece The Hate U Give being pulled from school library shelves, so now I guess it is a censorship issue. As a straight white guy who was for so long blind to his privilege and his internalized biases, I feel so hopeful for the teenagers growing up now, that they’ll be able to gain a more nuanced awareness of the way race and gender and sexuality function in our society and help us create a more just world because of that. (Assuming adults don’t block their intellectual freedom.)
OIF Blog: What do you want students to know about the book? About intellectual freedom?
OIF Blog: Any last comments or anything you’d like to add?
Rubin: I’d still like to know why my book has been pulled from shelves in South Carolina, as I haven’t been able to find that out. But I don’t think one parent’s complaint or a few people on a school board should have the power to take away all students’ ability to read a book. I don’t agree with a parent’s decision to block a child from reading things, either, but I respect their right as legal guardian, until the child turns eighteen, to do that. A school board, though? One that doesn’t even go through the proper administrative process before pulling a book? I don’t respect that decision. It’s just wrong.
Jane’a Johnson is pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University and an MLIS at San Jose State University. She holds a BA from Spelman College in philosophy and an MA in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jane’a’s research interests include visual culture and violence, heritage ethics and media archives.