Kelly Yang Looks to Rally Fellow Authors, Publishers, and Public in Battle Against Censorship

The Front Desk author tweeted a call to action to her colleagues, as she tries to "motivate and mobilize" people to fight coordinated efforts to remove books from schools and libraries.

Author Kelly Yang felt something had to be done about the wave of attempts to remove books from schools and public libraries, so she reached out to the children’s literature community.

“Fellow kidlit authors, we have to talk,” Yang tweeted on Nov. 15. “There are orgs and folks out there launching an organized attack on us. We have no organized way to respond, or even talk to each other, except on Twitter. With NCTE & ALA both virtual, our next water cooler moment may be next summer! We can’t wait that long! How can we connect?”

The book community was just starting to catch up to what was happening across the country, Yang says, but the response needed to be faster, more organized, and more vocal. When she spoke with SLJ a few weeks after her appeal, she had just finished a call with the National Coalition Against Censorship.

“There have been lots of discussions, overtures, and offers,” says Yang. “There are definitely a lot of people trying to figure this out: How to support librarians and teachers? How do we get students and parents to understand?”

Yang calls the action by parents and politicians to remove books by and about BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities “dangerous” and says that the book community is trying to catch up and is thoughtfully create a response. Meanwhile, the country is “hearing from very vocal group of people who don’t necessarily represent everyone.”

Yang was one of scores of authors whose work has been targeted by groups looking to remove books. Her middle grade novel Front Desk, which draws from her childhood experience in an immigrant family, was challenged by a parent in New York. Yang tried to reach out to the school district where the challenge happened but got no response.

For Yang and so many authors, this is personal. Front Desk tells her story.

“Growing up I didn’t have a book like that,” she says. “I always thought it was shameful. I was determined to hide things. It meant I couldn’t have friends over after school, I couldn’t have a birthday party. Taking that away from kids is so terrifying.”

Authors have a unique role in this fight, according to Yang.

“We know the importance of our books,” she says. “It’s undeniable.”

Readers reach out to authors and the authors save those letters, emails, and hastily scribbled notes on Post-its handed to them during a book signing or school visit. Despite the personal emotional toll Yang admits it can take trying to fight these efforts, she continues, not only because of the messages she has received from readers, but because she believes controlling library collections is only the first step.

“This is a deliberate and organized effort to control what our children get to read,” says Yang. “The reality is, they’re not going to stop at books. If you allow censorship, where do you draw the line?”

This battle goes beyond books, Yang and her fellow authors agree.

Read: More censorship coverage

“We aren’t just fighting against the banning of books,” author Ellen Oh tweeted in early December. “We are fighting against hate & intolerance. We are fighting for our LGBTQ kids. We are fighting for all our kids.”

The battle will require a coordinated response. Authors often work in solitude and only see each other at in-person events that have moved online because of the pandemic. They need the entire kidlit community.

“I think publishers are so important in this,” says Yang. “Each individual author only has control over our books. It’s not like we have an easy way to organize.”

SLJ reached out to Yang’s publisher, Scholastic, asking if it planned a response to the attacks on its authors and their works. No one from the publisher has responded.

Yang wants publishers, her fellow authors, parents, students, and community members to step up, put forth a coordinated and passionate message, and support teachers and librarians and the freedom to read and to speak up as loudly as those who want to take these titles away.

Students have organized and protested the attempts by school boards and have had some success. Seeing young people understand what’s at stake and try to do something about it gives Yang hope, but there needs to be a larger response to these efforts, she emphasizes.

“What’s going to motivate and mobilize people?” she asks, noting that it is part of a bigger movement across the country not only to remove books, but to legislate what educators can teach about history and other topics.

“It’s terrifying,” she says. “Teachers are worried about losing their jobs if they teach something. It’s mind-blowing to me. It could really erase all of us.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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