Author Bill Konigsberg Calls for Continued Conversation in Response to Hatred and Bigotry

The author of The Music of What Happens had an annual award named after him after he spoke out against a bigoted panelist at the NCTE conference in November and talked about the incident emotionally a couple of days later. He is quick to admit, however, that he doesn't have all the answers when it comes to the right way to combat hatred and bigotry. 

Author Bill Konigsberg now has an award named after him: Each year the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) will recognize an individual with the Bill Konigsberg Award for Acts and Activism for Equity and Inclusion through Young Adult Literature.

He earned the eponymous honor after speaking up during a panel at the 2018 NCTE conference titled “Disproportionately Censored: A Conversation with YA Authors Who Write about Race, Gender, and Sexuality” on Nov. 17. At the event, fellow panelist Sarah Cortez—a Houston poet, police officer, and writing teacher—said gay people are mentally ill, straight people and police officers are marginalized, and kids need to be protected from LGBTQ literature. A few days later, during an ALAN workshop at NCTE, Konigsberg gave an impassioned speech on why he stood up to her bigotry.

“When it comes to young people who are marginalized, whether for reasons of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability, there is no conversation to be had about whether their lives have as much value as the lives of other kids. I won’t engage in that conversation. I will not give credence to an ‘other side’ of this argument, because there is none,” he said.

“LGBTQ youth are my kids. And I’m a fierce papa bear and you do not come after LGBTQ youth. Let’s widen that. You do not come after marginalized kids.”

The “Papa Bear” speech quickly moved across social media, tears were shed, and an award was born. As we head into the new year, SLJ asked Konigsberg for advice when faced with hatred and bigotry.

Konigsberg has no clear call to arms for his fellow authors or the publishing industry, only a hope for continued conversation.

“I’m so glad these conversations are happening,” says the author of Openly Straight, The Porcupine of Truth, and The ­Music of What Happens. “This wasn’t happening in 2014, 2015, something has changed. The fact that we are all trying to wake up and figure out how to make things good for kids and make things safe for kids and coexist as a society, this is great.”

LGBTQ issues, sexual harassment and assault, refugees, racism, gun violence, immigrants, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia. Children’s and YA authors, colleagues in the publishing industry, librarians, fellow educators, and others around the country are engaged in conversations on these topics daily. They discuss these issues related to new releases and when looking at past titles through a new lens, or maybe they just take a public stand because they feel it is the right thing to do.

It’s not easy. It’s also likely to get uncomfortable, as it did in Houston when Konigsberg and others on the panel and in the audience confronted Cortez.

When she made her first remark, saying only three or four percent of the population identifies as gay, Konigsberg exchanged a confused look with his editor, who was in the audience. He could not have heard correctly, he thought. Then Cortez spoke again and made a comment about not needing so many books with gay characters. He asked if he’d heard correctly. He had spent much of the last two years seeking common ground with those who don’t believe the same things he does, trying to discern ignorance from hatred. His anger was building not only as a gay man but for the young LGBTQ people he felt being dangerously attacked by her views.

Konigsberg wasn’t looking to make a scene. He had come to speak about books that face challenges, and suddenly was faced with this hate speech and a speaker supporting it with misinformation.

Did she say young readers needed to be protected from books with gay characters? Did she suggest the suicide rate of ­LGBTQ people was higher because they are mentally ill?

Yes, Konigsberg had her heard correctly. What is the appropriate reaction for a panelist facing a stunned audience staring back waiting for the response? “You ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it? Is it important? Is it necessary?’” Konigsberg says.

“I’m sure everybody on the panel is trying to figure out where they stand,” he says. “As soon as it’s clear to me this person didn’t misspeak and has an agenda, I’m going to come guns blazing.”

The library and publishing worlds proudly protect free speech, yet the increasing hate speech in the country has forced many to draw a personal line that cannot be crossed. Konigsberg found his line in Houston on that panel. But he admits it moves. There are times he’s faced with bigotry and remains silent.

“One thing I’ve thought about is the difference between hatred and ignorance,” he says. “Standing up to hatred is important. We stand up to it, because there’s nothing about hatred that can be changed with common sense or dialogue. When someone has made the decision to hate somebody based on their skin color, ethnic identity, or sexual orientation. Those people aren’t looking for a conversation. Figuring out that that is a line is important. There are a lot of people who are ignorant, including me. I struggle a lot with this on Twitter, where we often group allies who misspeak together with enemies who wish us harm.”
 

Graphic novel sparks outrage

On Twitter, another recent kid lit controversy played out.

In late October, Abrams Kids tweeted a “sneak peek” of a spring 2019 book, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library written by Newbery winner Jack Gantos and illustrated by Dave McKean. Comics publisher Zainab Akhtar tweeted about it a few weeks later and the backlash ensued. Abrams was widely criticized for the graphic novel called Islamophobic, racist, and dangerous.

“I don’t understand,” says Konigsberg. “Nobody in an acquisitions meeting said, ‘This may seem offensive to millions of people?’”

Eliminating these incidents might require changing some of the people making those decisions, or at least bringing in new voices, says Konigsberg.

“Maybe the call goes to involve and ask questions of the younger generation that may have a different way of looking than people who are in charge right now. That would be an interesting place to start.”

The Asian Author Alliance released an open letter detailing the damage the book could do to young Muslims. It was signed by more than 1,000 people. A few days later, Abrams announced it would no longer publish the graphic novel that describes an unnamed, brown, would-be terrorist entering a library determined to blow it up because of his “beliefs” only to change his mind after seeing a boy enjoying a book.

“While the intention of the book was to help broaden a discussion about the power of literature to change lives for the better, we recognize the harm and offense felt by many at a time when stereotypes breed division, rather than discourse,” the publisher’s statement said.

“I think that statement is just comical in its stupidity,” Samira Ahmed said on the “kidlitwomen*” podcast. The Love, Hate & Other Filters author went on, “To claim there was ever a time where stereotypes led to discourse is absolutely absurd.”

Critics didn’t call for the project to be killed, but were still accused of advocating censorship in a continued battle over censorship and free speech. Those who saw no issue with the book wrote even more glowing reviews online after the controversy.

    

Author Grace Lin, host of the podcast, asked Ahmed what she would tell educators who want students to read this book.

“I would ask them to consider if they have the ability to have any empathy for students of color, for Muslim kids in their classroom,” said Ahmed. “To understand what it means to be presented a book by a white teacher, a non-Muslim who is standing before you saying, ‘Hey, look at this. This dehumanized kid, this terrorist is sitting in a library. Look, I’m gonna give him a book and it’s gonna change everything.’ … What I would ask these teachers and librarians is, please open your mind to realize these situations that you are creating in your classrooms.”

It’s the kind of questioning of oneself that Konigsberg goes through so often as he tries to find the best solutions to the “othering” that troubles him most.

“We are human beings, and we are fallible,” says Konigsberg. “I get uncomfortable when I see people yelling about ‘Them.’ I can look back in my life and see microaggressions. I see places where I could have done better.”

He has an award named after him as a model of activism, equity, and inclusion, but Konigsberg is the first to admit he is still figuring it out. There needs to be more conversation, he says, as everyone seeks common ground, empathy, and that line that can’t be crossed.

“When things cross the line, there’s no discussion,” he says. “The damage is too great. This is where we take out our swords, because they’re necessary. We’re here to protect people. We’re here to help people. We don’t have time for hate speech.”

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Kara Yorio

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

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