What's it like to wake up one day and realize that a book you've lived with for years -- characters you've come to know as well as family -- has been removed from its home, a.k.a. the library? YA author Annette Curtis Klause knows only too well -- her tale of growing up werewolf, "Blood And Chocolate," was one of the most frequently banned books from 2000-2009, along with Lois Lowry's "The Giver" and John Steinbeck's "Of Mice And Men." Yeah. Because banning classic literature makes so much sense.
Many eyes rolled -- and brows raised -- this week when news that John Green's wildly popular tearjerker, "The Fault In Our Stars," had been banned in a collection of middle schools in California. However, Green's cancer patient romance is far from the first young adult novel to be nixed from libraries, school and bookstores -- and neither is Klause's. In fact, this whole week is dedicated to such tomes -- yup, it's Banned Books Week, a kind of cautionary celebration that highlights censorship in schools and libraries.
In honor of Banned Books Week, we asked Klause to recount for us what it was like to find out that "Blood And Chocolate" was banned in some places and challenged -- or requested to be removed -- from others. It turns out it was part curse, part twisted blessing.
How did you find out your book was banned? What was that day like?
Most of the time, unless someone tells you, this stuff flies under the author’s radar. You’re too busy writing the next book to worry about Googling yourself all the time. Sometimes, though, people go out of their way to let you know.
Sometimes I find out from librarians.
Many states give annual awards to children’s and young adult books. A committee creates a list for each grade level, and students across the state vote for their favorite. My book 'The Silver Kiss' was pulled from the Sequoyah Award ballot in a town in northern Oklahoma the year the book was nominated.
Without telling the award committee, they erased my book and my name from all of the award materials and the ballot. The award committee was furious. I won anyway -- nyah nyah nyah, nyah nyah! And I found out about the situation when I flew out to Oklahoma to accept the award. But -- wow! Writing is very personal. It’s not a good feeling for someone to decide that what you have written is worthless and even repellent.
One time I found out about a challenge when a reporter from La Porte, Texas, called to ask for my comment on the controversy. Another time the mother of a student in another town in Texas called me at work to tell me she was asking that 'Blood and Chocolate' be removed from her daughter’s high school library.
What was your reaction?
Have you heard the British expression, 'gob smacked'? Well, that’s how I felt. I mean, the woman tracked down where I worked and called me in the middle of the day to tell me that it wasn’t personal but she wanted my book gone.
Yikes! And -- It wasn’t personal? I didn't know what to say at first. I think I started out by explaining to her that it could be nothing but personal since my writing was deeply part of my identity, but mostly I tried to deal with it the same way I would have if someone had called up to challenge any book in my library.
Whew, that library training does come in handy. Intellectual Freedom Librarian kicked into high gear. I congratulated her for being so concerned about her daughter’s reading, and gently tried to get over the idea that perhaps it wasn’t her right to control what other parents' children were reading. Needless to say, I couldn’t win the argument, but at least the conversation was fairly civil and we parted ways agreeing to disagree. After I hung up the phone, I have to admit that I sat for a while in stunned silence.
Why was it banned?
She did say I was a good writer, but added what a shame it was that I had to write about such a topic. What topic, you ask? Well, it wasn’t the violence she objected to. Werewolves fighting to the death wasn’t the problem. My great sin? I had allowed a teenaged girl to accept and even revel in her own sexuality. Heaven forefend!
I’m afraid my explanation that many teenage girls are made to feel bad about their perfectly natural urges -- which can have a lifetime of ill effects -- and that just because someone reads about something doesn’t mean they are going to do it, fell upon deaf ears.
Did she think that everyone who reads a murder mystery goes out and kills someone? I don’t know. What she knew was that my book shouldn’t be read by high school girls because I was a bad influence. I had all that sex in the book. 'Um, did you read the book?' asked. 'Because if you do you’ll notice that, while there are lots of seething emotions, no one anywhere actually ever has sex.' Nope, penetration never occurs. Okay, I didn’t say that last bit.
Meanwhile, in Greenville, South Carolina, an actual teacher called 'Blood and Chocolate' 'low-level filth that corrupts' -- probably for the same reason. This was also one of the reasons why the book was banned in Cullen Middle School in Texas, where they stated that the book contained profanity, sexual content or nudity, and violence or horror.
The challenge of writing books for teenagers is walking the fine line between truth and what the publishers, parents, and the more conservative librarians want to hear.
We all know that teen language is much spicier than some adults want to admit and they may experiment with some dangerous aspects of life as they find their place in the world. The trick is to have characters that sound and act real without being accused of promoting promiscuity, bad language and rampant drug use. Sometimes you don’t succeed.
A writer for teens tries to strike a balance -- if one shows questionable behavior, sometimes it helps to also show the possible consequences. One can show real-life behaviors considered negative as long as there is perspective in the narrative that implies this may not be the best way of handling things. I hate didactic books, though, so I am not suggesting writing moral tracts that justify describing lurid behavior -- I only mean some subtle writing that makes it clear this is illustration not promotion.
On the other hand, some things, like sexual feelings, are universally true in adolescence, and I am not about to ignore them or pretend there is something wrong. The feelings exist -- it's what you do with them that counts. Sometimes people make unsound choices as they find their way, and I'm not about to condemn them for that -- just show in some way what it meant for them so the reader can make an assessment.
I sometimes am questioned about why I write in the horror genre. What I feel is that reading about violence and horror is a way for a person to not only clarify their stance on moral issues by exploring the alternatives (and in doing so give license to the antisocial creature within in a safe venue) but to exercise their responses to the terrible and be prepared for it in real life.
It is foolish to try and sanitize literature and the arts under some mistaken idea that one is protecting youth. Children and teens need to explore the dark side as a healthy part of growing. If a child is protected from everything dreadful, he will have no coping mechanisms in place when finally confronted with disaster
Did you protest it being banned?
No. I wasn’t sure how to go about it or if it would help, since I was an interested party. If I had been asked by someone locally, I would have been glad to chip in, but I think it’s best to leave it in the hands of the local librarians. Most libraries and schools have policies and procedure in place for dealing with challenges if they are sensible.
Talking to reporters if they call is a good way of getting one’s side out there and enlisting community support, however. I don’t mind talking to a sympathetic reporter.
Did it being banned have any effect on its sales or you as an author?
Any time a book is challenged and gets in the news, it acts as a big advertisement for the book. This is how we authors thumb our noses at the would-be censors.
Kids are instantly curious to read the book that adults don’t want them to read, so usually attempts to ban a book backfire. And since the kids can’t get the book from the library while the challenge is being resolved, they have to buy it.
Yay! I’m not saying I make a ton of money from challenges, but I bet my sales do go up just a touch.
Is being banned author a badge of honor at all?
With the help of Greenville, South Carolina, and LaPorte, Texas, 'Blood and Chocolate' was on the 2001 American Library Association top 10 most challenged books.
There I was alongside Steinbeck, Salinger and Angelou. A dubious honor, but an honor, nevertheless. Who wouldn’t want to be listed with authors like that? The books that are often challenged are books that make people uncomfortable.
We wicked authors are accused of putting ideas in the heads of people. Imagine that? Making people think about things they haven't thought about before. How dreadful! I’m afraid I can’t get too upset at being accused of making people think.
Is it still banned?
The Greenville, South Carolina, school board reached the decision to keep 'Blood and Chocolate,' along with other controversial books, in the high school. I’m not sure about Texas, however, but while preparing for a presentation a few years ago, I did some research and discovered that I am still not very popular in some parts of Texas.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas puts together a yearly report on banned and challenged books in Texas schools and 'Blood and Chocolate' seems to be on the list of challenged books every year! There’s always someone somewhere trying to get rid of my book.
But hey, I’m not invisible, right? My words must be powerful to make people so afraid of them. It’s rather nice to feel I have power.