Authors with banned books talk about protecting access to stories

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Thousands of kids' books were pulled from the shelves of U.S. public schools last year, including titles from authors like Kelly Yang, Matt de la Peña and Samira Ahmed. They talked with MPR News host Kerri Miller on Big Books and Bold Ideas about what it's like to have your work banned.
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The American Library Association observed Banned Books Week at the beginning of October — an especially poignant marker this year.

A report by PEN America found more than 1,200 books were censored or removed from U.S. public school classrooms and libraries during the 2022-23 school year, compared to only 333 in the previous school year. That’s an increase of almost 400 percent.

Authors whose books are most frequently targeted are usually female, people of color or LGBTQ+.

This week, Big Books and Bold Ideas commends the freedom to read by talking with three young adult authors whose books are frequently found on the targeted lists.

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Author Kelly Yang.
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Kelly Yang is the author of many young adult and children’s books, including “Front Desk,” which is based on her own memories of working at her family's motel business after they immigrated to California from Hong Kong. As she tells MPR News host Kerri Miller, the first few years after “Front Desk” was published, it was a huge success. But then it started to get pushback.

“I guess people started to question why kids should learn about the immigrant experience. Like: I don’t want my kid to feel sad or uncomfortable,” said Yang. “But if we airbrush our nation’s history and ignore the experiences of millions of people, what is the difference between this country and where my parents came from, which is China?”

“The freedom to read is what makes this country great,” Yang told Miller.

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Author Matt de la Peña.
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Matt de la Peña is also a writer of children and young adult books. He won the Newbery Medal in 2016 for his picture book “Last Stop on Market Street.” But it is “Mexican Whiteboy,” the novel inspired his own experience of growing up mixed race in San Diego, that has faced the most criticism.

“When you’re a new writer, you sometimes glorify the idea of getting banned,” laughed de la Peña. “But then you don’t have the context for who is unable to have access to your book.”

“I wrote [‘Mexican White Boy’] because I’m mixed — my dad is Mexican, my mom is white — and I wanted to write about sometimes not feeling Mexican enough growing up.”

But then it got caught up in a political battle in Arizona. De la Peña met with students at Tucson High School who had the book taken out of their hands as they were reading. And why?

“There is no context for the banning,” de la Peña told Miller. “It’s a rumor. ‘Oh, I heard this book has a scene about such and such.’ Or, ‘I heard this book leans into racial identity too much.’ ‘Maybe it fits into that critical race stuff.’”

“Book banning has nothing to do with young people. It has everything to do with parents,” he said. “And I understand this instinct. I’m a parent of two young kids, and I’m very cognizant of what goes into their brains. But we run into trouble when parents are trying to eliminate that content for other people’s children.”

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Author Samira Ahmed.
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Samira Ahmed writes stories about “revolutionary girls” for middle grade students and young adults. Several of her books have been challenged, including “Internment,” published in 2019, and her newest novel, “Hollow Fires.”

Ahmed said her earliest experience with book banning was “soft banning.” Librarians told her they were hesitant to put her first book on their shelves because they had no Muslim students in their community. A Kansas teacher told her a school staff member continually delayed putting in a purchase order for Ahmed’s “Internment.”

“You might not read about this in the newspaper. It’s not even getting to a school board meeting,” Ahmed said to Miller. “But this is happening — not just to my books, but to queer authors and authors of color, where there’s this soft banning, almost this pre-banning, where people are not allowing the books to come into schools.”

But Ahmed, like de la Peña and Yang, is not deterred.

“The voices of those who want to challenge books or censor books or ban books are very loud,” she said. “But I assure you, they are the minority. Find your community who is willing to advocate to ensure that our children have freedom to read.”

And if you want proof that authors are willing to fight being silenced, Ahmed’s next novel comes out in 2024. It’s called, “This Book Won’t Burn.”