Banned Books Week still has a few days to go, and yet when confronted with the list of classics – old, new – that have been snatched from shelves, schools, salons and shops, your mind absolutely reels. What level of lecherous spirit would Joseph Heller’s satirical Catch 22, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451, Ernest Hemingway’s dramatic For Whom the Bell Tolls, Judy Blume’s weary Are You There God produce? It’s Me and Anonymous’ harrowing Go Ask Alice would be shaved out of bookstores and libraries?
David Levithan knows.
A former editor and publisher at Scholastic Books, Levithan mentored author Alex Ginos George, a book that has been challenged for its portrayal of transgender youth. A beloved author of YA queer literature, Levithan’s ban-ability has been tested with works like his 2003 debut, Boy Meets Boy, and the popular 2013 release, Two Boys Kissing.
“When I was writing this book in late 2020 and early 2021, I had no idea it would come out at a time when politicians were trying to use books — particularly books by queer and BIPOC authors — as political tools to drive censorship in Dressing “pro”-family, pro-parent clothing lined with age-old homophobia and racism.
Levithan talks about Answers in the Pages, his latest volume, which explores banned and contested books, most of which reflect diversity and are open to inclusivity.
AD Amorosi of Philadelphia Weekly spoke about all sides of the censorship of the written word in an interview with Levithan midweek.
AD Amorosi: Before I talk about you, I’m curious to know your opinion on the top 10 challenged books of 2021 listed here: https://bannedbooksweek.org/about/?
David Levithan: I can’t say I’m particularly shocked. BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ writers are being targeted and this list certainly reflects that.
AD Amorosi: “Answers in the Pages” most often takes on books that are contested, banned, or considered disturbing because of their level of inclusiveness and diversity. That phenomenon aside, what do you remember from the first “banned books” you ever saw – I can recall everything from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch to Nabokov’s Lolita – and what was your impression of government , local/school or national, on the responsibility of what its people should and shouldn’t read?
David Levithan: I was lucky because no restrictions were ever placed on my reading. I’m sure I became aware of banned books because my school library did an exhibit highlighting titles that were banned elsewhere. I remember Catcher in the Rye was on display. . . and when I read it, I expected something shocking. But I finished and couldn’t understand why it had been banned.
AD Amorosi: You edited Alex Gino’s George, which was certainly a much challenged book. How was it from the outside? And how did this incident prepare you (or not prepare you) for Boy Meets Boy and Two Boys Kissing to be challenged?
David Levithan: I was proud to have my own book on the same list as a book I had published. (This has happened a few times.) I think all of us who have been through challenges have a lot of advice for each other, especially when the challenge is really about your identity and not the language you used. We are all weary from dealing with fanatics, and we are all energized by the students and educators defending our books. If your book is under attack, it’s helpful to talk to someone who’s gone or is going through the same thing.
AD Amorosi: How does it feel emotionally when your own works are challenged and banned? Aesthetic how does it feel?
David Levithan: On the one hand, you are proud that something you have written speaks for voices that the censors are trying to silence. On the other hand, you are concerned that many people (librarians, booksellers, students, parents, teachers) are on the front lines defending your book and, in some cases, are leaving their jobs or their relationships with other members of their community at risk. In terms of aesthetics. . . it doesn’t really matter. I know that the people attacking my book either haven’t read it or read it grossly wrong. Your opinion of my work means nothing to me.
AD Amorosi: Focusing on the challenges for books in schools, especially when it comes to BiPoc and/or queer-themed books and writers – what’s the first thing you hear from those who are implementing the ban: the principals who Librarians, the teachers, the keepers of the school district?
David Levithan: Playground taunts and misinformation.
AD Amorosi: What do you notice about the similarities with those who implement the ban?
David Levithan: It is an organized effort aimed at using book censorship as a means to overthrow public education in this country. While it is based on racism and homophobia, it is also based on the pursuit of profit and total disregard for disadvantaged or marginalized students. What we’re seeing now isn’t a parent complaining about a book their child is reading based on their reading the book. No, the people who protest and pass and demand laws do so for political reasons. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and it’s scary as hell.
AD Amorosi: What was the last straw that made you write answers in the pages?
David Levithan: I wrote Answers in the Pages to honor all children and educators who defend the freedom to read. It’s an optimistic book because although I’m scared as hell, I’ve seen time and time again that people do NOT want others to tell them what they can or cannot read, and they will stand up for that principle.
AD Amorosi: In his writing and research, what was the toughest ban or concept to ban filling Answers in the Pages?
David Levithan: I deliberately focused the book on the local because while writing I felt that these battles must be fought and won locally. If I were to write the book now, I would have to include the influence of the national level and the way these outside groups come in and try to tell a community what they can and can’t read.
AD Amorosi: What level of hope or call to activism should readers glean from Answers in the Pages at the end of the book?
David Levithan: The hopeful part is that children understand the right to read. I’ve never heard of a book challenge submitted by a kid or teen. It is always the adults who try to take away the right and the children who will fight for it. The children give me hope.
AD Amorosi: What does Banned Books Week tell you about the ongoing issue of censorship and totalitarianism?
David Levithan: Now more than ever we need to be vigilant and we need to vote in elections at all levels and we need to make sure all the kids see each other on the shelves. If you care about the right to read, vote in school board elections and make sure the people you vote for care about the right to read.