A group of more than 40 children’s book authors and illustrators in Utah signed an open letter — ahead of Banned Books Week (September 18-24) — to condemn recent efforts to ban or suppress books in Utah schools and libraries.
The letter — published Sunday as an editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune — comes amid simmering controversies across the country over school censorship. In August, the Alpine School District, the largest school district in Utah, pulled 52 books from library shelves, with another 32 for later review.
The letter—by Shannon Hill, known for her bestselling children’s books “Princess in Black,” the “Princess Academy” series for young adults, and the adult comedy novel “Austenland”—begins: “As Utah authors and illustrators of books for young readers, we condemn efforts to suppress books in Schools and libraries belonging to our state, denigrate and ban them.”
The letter continues, “These attempts largely target books he has written, LGBT people, black people, indigenous people, and people of color. Historically, these groups have been underrepresented in books.”
Hill said, in an interview, that she wrote the letter because she was concerned about “the mood of the country” and that “the vitriol and hate are dreadful to see as a father and as a writer,” especially after the great strides the publishing industry has made in the past 10 years in terms of diversity, by helping organizations Such as We Need Diverse Books and others.
“When I got into children’s books, 80% of the characters were white and male,” Hill said. 80% of the population is not white and male. We had a problem with acting.”
That’s the crux of the issue: people’s discomfort with seeing others represented, Hill said.
“Suddenly people who have grown up are used to books that are about white people, and straight people are seeing something else: more representation of what is already there. It makes a lot of people dread,” Hill said.
Actual book bans are more difficult than one might suppose from the number of times this phenomenon appears in the news. Earlier in the year, Salt Lake County librarians noted that Utah doesn’t see many banned books, but even then, the topics that have been consistently targeted remain the same: racial diversity, LGBTQ+ representation, and coming of age.
One of the side effects of the spread of wildfire-like censorship, Hill said, is that many children who have finally seen themselves have been validated in books as human beings and as those deserving of stories “are the targets.
“What stories and books do is validate and teach empathy, they don’t turn people on to other things,” Hill says. When children read about themselves, they feel validated. It makes them feel they have a right to exist.”
In the letter, Hill also points out the tragic statistic that in 2020 suicide is the leading cause of death for young adults aged 10-17 and 18-24 in Utah. Being able to show someone that they are important through literature is lifesaving. Last year, a 10-year-old girl in the Davis School District committed suicide, and her mother said she was bullied for being black and autistic.
Another author who signed the letter is Ally Condie, who wrote the dystopian series “Identical”—which has faced threats of ban or censorship in the past.
To children, Conde said, reading a book is like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. “As authors, it doesn’t make sense to us that you want to get rid of that shared experience [chance] To learn more about each other as human beings.”
Condi said it’s one thing for a parent to read a book and decide it’s not right for their child – she said she understands that as a parent – but making a “one-sided statement” to all children seems like a “dangerous path down the road.”
“It’s not a nice thing to do, and in some ways, it’s not a Utah thing to do,” she said. “We believe in personal freedom, in letting people choose their own way and their own free agency.”
Lindsey Levitt, author of the Willis Wilbur series, also signed the letter. She, like Condi, is a former teacher.
Leavitt referred to Davis County’s Sign Up Genius List, which contains books listed for parents to read. “Not with the intent of ‘opening up to human experience.’ It’s with an intent [later] “Book Challenge,” she said.
She said the process is based on a star system, determined by how “miserable or dangerous” the book is. She said there is also a spreadsheet showing the schools where each book can be found.
“Parents sometimes think, ‘Well, if my child gets into this,’ she said, he’s going to make them that way.” She said it was something I thought about when I first read Hill’s speech and considered the power we assign to words, as a society.
Levitt said lawmakers in Utah, for example, have a habit of using the word “porn” when it comes to banning books. “When we start labeling anything different from the Utah base as porn, that’s what weakens,” she said.
When Hill was in high school, she said, 95% of the books she was assigned to read were written by straight white men with main characters being straight white men. “I didn’t turn into a straight white man,” she said.
It is not only children, parents and librarians who are involved in this ongoing battle. The authors have also seen their fair share of backlash. Hill said she was called a “nanny” to encourage the children to be themselves.
Leavitt has a book coming out in a few weeks, and she said she’s working with a school booking agent for free visits. The response, from teachers and librarians, is that they have to get a good deal of clearance before they are allowed to visit.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this, where I want to come and connect with these kids, and they’ll say, ‘Let me come back to you in the spring,'” Levitt said.
Condi notes that as straight and white women, she, Levitt, and Hill don’t have many of the negative experiences some other authors might have—especially authors of color or LGBTQ+. As an author, Condi said, one of the most devastating things you can tell is that the story you wrote could never be true or matter to anyone.
The letter ends with a petition: “We ask Utah school districts, library boards, state and local governments, and all those in power to reject these divisive and hateful attempts to limit their stories worth telling. Uphold the values of freedom and equality that we all promised.”
On the occasion of Banned Books Week, author Azar Nafisi — who has written Reading Lolita in Tehran: Memoirs in Books about her experience teaching literature in Iran — will speak Thursday, September 22, at 4 p.m. at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City, On the campus of the University of Utah. Al-Nafisi hadith, Is reading dangerous (again)?free to the public, and offered by the Tanner Center for the Humanities at U.S. University.