By: guest contributor Brian E. Wilson, ALSC Liaison for the ALA Committee on Professional Ethics
In her recent Intellectual Freedom Blog post “Green-Dots Mean Go,” Bel Outwater discussed how Cathy Evans, Director of Libraries at St. Mary’s Episcopal School: James Frederick Smith Library, created a “green dot” collection for her students. Students do not need to check out these books about sensitive topics. Her work inspired the terrific children’s author Kate Klise to write a funny and pun-fueled satirical novel called Don’t Check Out This Book!. She teamed up with her sister and frequent collaborator, illustrator M. Sarah Klise, to tell this absurdly hilarious story of a school librarian named Rita B. Danjerous who battles administrators in the name of intellectual freedom. The Klises tell their story through email exchanges, letters, memos, receipts, and other primary documents. I emailed Kate with some questions about how this book came together.
Brian: How did you learn about Cathy Evans and the “green dot” story? And what made you say “ooh, we want to work on a book about this”?
Kate: Cathy invited me to visit her school in 2014 to talk to her students about writing. I was so impressed by the warm and inviting library Cathy had created. But what impressed me most was Cathy’s green dot collection. It was a small collection of books in a corner of the library; books about edgy topics that a student might be too embarrassed to check out. The deal was this: Any book that had a green dot sticker on the spine didn’t have to be checked out. You could just slip it in your backpack and return it when you were ready. Brilliant!
Brian: Did you have any conversations (in-person? online? telephone?) with Cathy Evans?
Kate: Yes, because I wanted to know everything about this green dot idea. I visit a lot of schools and I’m always distressed whenever I see parents and school boards censoring books. Here was a librarian who was doing exactly the opposite. She was basically telling the students, “I have a book for whatever’s on your mind. No shame, no judgment. Help yourself.” I loved the respect it showed to young readers.
Brian: Did you do any research about the case and other related cases?
Kate: Over the next few years I talked to a lot of librarians about books that trigger parents. I remember visiting a public school in Texas where Richard Peck’s The Best Man was challenged. This is the sweetest story about a boy whose uncle is marrying a male teacher. It’s a lovely book, tender and true. But apparently it had a lot of parents upset and they managed to have it removed it from the school library. It’s the same thing legislators are threatening to do in Missouri, where I live. Ugh. It’s absolutely maddening.
Brian: You have very pun-driven stylized names for the characters and some very absurd situations in the book. How, in other ways, does the real story and your fictionalized account differ?
Kate: I added a bit of political corruption because that seemed relevant. I grew up during the Watergate era. My parents insisted I watch the hearings. I remember thinking: “I want to understand this, but I don’t. It’s too complicated for my 10-year-old brain.” So I wanted to write a story about political corruption in a way my 10-year-old readers would understand. And I wanted the young characters in the story to get politically involved because I really think that’s our only hope.
Brian: You use broad humor and your very distinct storytelling technique (using primary documents such as letters, receipts, emails, etc. to reveal plot points) in this book. What are your thoughts about using comedy to shed light on serious issues? And how did you know that your inventive approach to narrative would be perfect for this story?
Kate: My literary hero is Mark Twain. I wouldn’t dream of comparing my talent to his, but I think I do share his sensibility and his belief that social criticism and comedy can go hand in hand. We’re going through some tough times in this country. I can’t not write about it. But I also want to keep my sense of humor because for me it’s either laugh or cry. If I’m laughing, I can work to change things. If I’m crying, I’ll curl up in a fetal position and not be good to anyone.
Brian: Are the villain (Ivana Beprawpa) and hapless principal (Noah Memree) based on anyone in particular? “No comment” is a perfectly fine answer, ha.
Kate: Ha, indeed! I have some thoughts on this, but I think it’s best left to the reader to decide.
Brian: In another effective touch, the characters say the “green dot collection” contains sensitive topics but the book never reveals what these topics are. Was this a conscious choice?
Kate: Yes, and thanks for noticing that. If I had listed specific titles or even the topics, it would’ve limited the scope of the green dot collection. I wanted to keep it as broad as possible because it’s such an individual thing.
Brian: How does your collaboration with M. Sarah work?
Kate: We’ve been working together since we were in elementary school. I used to badger Sarah to draw my book report covers. Then I wrote a few short stories for her in high school. These days, I usually get the ball rolling by writing the manuscript. But Sarah’s illustrations take everything to the next level. Even her letterheads make me laugh. The weird thing on this book is that Sarah never met Cathy Evans until recently at ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia. But somehow Sarah managed to capture Cathy in the illustrations of Rita B. Danjerous, right down to the curly hair.
Brian: What are your favorite challenged books?
Kate: James and the Giant Peach, Harriet the Spy, To Kill a Mockingbird. I could go on and on.
Brian: Have your books ever been challenged?
Kate: Not officially, but I’ve had a few PTO parents at schools ask me not to talk about any of my books where a character dies. And this is with upper elementary school kids. I don’t get it. I find myself asking, “Has your child read Charlotte’s Web?”
Brian: Anything new and upcoming you want to tell us about?
Kate: I just finished writing and narrating a documentary about a woman you’ve never heard of: Blanche Ames. She was an artist, inventor, suffragist, and a maverick in the fight for reproductive rights. It was such a privilege to get to know this unsung hero of women’s rights, especially this year, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. It was basically a labor of love, so it’s gratifying to see the nice reviews coming in. We’re making it available to schools and libraries. I’m also working on a new middle-grade novel that’ll be published by Feiwel and Friends in May 2021. It’s called Mystery on Magnolia Circle and stars a 10-year-old girl who feels like her life is at a dead-end . . . until she discovers she has everything she needs to turn it around. That might be my favorite kind of story: Girls and women who figure out how to take a bad situation and turn it around. It’s really the only story that interests me lately. That and the story of young readers and librarians being our last, best hope for democracy. That works for me, too!
For more about Kate Klise, visit www.kateklise.com.
Brian E. Wilson is a children’s librarian at the Evanston Public Library. He served on the 2015 Odyssey Committee, the 2017 Caldecott Committee, and is currently the ALSC liaison to ALA’s Committee on Professional Ethics.
The Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE), a standing ALA Council committee, is charged with maintaining, revising, and augmenting the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. The committee accomplishes this be regularly reviewing the code and by developing explanatory interpretations and additional resources such as “Conflicts of Interest Q&A,” “Ethics and Social Media Q&A,” and “Speech in the Workplace Q&A.” COPE meets at ALA conferences and develops educational programs on ethical issues for the library profession.