September is all about banned books here at PEN American. We reached out to writers, editors, literary illuminati, and PEN staff to write about the banned books that matter to them most. Today’s piece comes from Robie Harris, the author of several frequently-challenged and banned books about sexual health for kids and teens.
Almost every time someone hears that I am the author of children’s books that have been challenged or banned, I’m usually asked these two questions: “Tell me, how did you happen to write banned children’s books?” or “Why do you keep on writing them?”
One might wonder, and with good reason, why any sane person would write books that could possibly be challenged or banned—especially when it means that librarians have to spend hours and hours defending their professional judgment, and in my case, defending the books I wrote on sexual health for kids and teens: It’s Perfectly Normal, It’s So Amazing!, and It’s Not the Stork!, as well as a couple of picture books I have written.
My books have been challenged numerous times, meaning that any citizen can go into his or her public school or public library, and fill out papers to request that a particular book be removed from the library or put on a special restricted shelf. This requires librarians to defend their judgment before a meeting of their library board, who will then vote whether or not to keep that particular book in that library system. As one librarian said to me in the midst of a challenge, “It’s like preparing for a trial.” Another said, “It’s terrifying in many ways, like being tried as a witch in the Salem witch trials.”
I am often asked, “Do these continued challenges make you afraid? Do they make you feel intimidated?” “No,” is my answer, but not my complete answer. In some ways they do make me feel afraid—afraid that kids and teens may not have access to all of the ideas and information to which they have a right, and may need or seek, or come across by happenstance in a bookstore or library. This worries me greatly because of all of the misinformation in the media, on the Internet, and that our kids and teens glean from their peers.
My other fear is that I hope that these challenges to my work don’t affect me in a way that would cause me to “self-censor” my work. I hope that I do not even unconsciously avoid a certain word or not write about a subject because of the experience I have had of being a challenged author.
So why do I keep on writing even though some of my books have been banned? My answer is that children, even our very young children, do not live in bubbles. They live in the real world. They observe, think, wonder, and question—just as all of us do. They experience joy, sadness, anger, jealously, love, loss, and fear—just as all of us do. How can we not write about those very experiences that have meaning for our children? How can we not write honestly? How can we hold back writing about powerful feelings, or not include certain information children crave and have the right to know, simply because we are afraid? If we do that, children will sense that we are not being honest and they will not read or listen to the books we write. But if we are honest, our books may be banned.
Whenever I find out about a challenge to or banning of one of my books, first, there is always the “Oh-hhhh…” Simultaneously, there is what I call “a sick uncomfortable feeling” in the pit of my stomach. What follows is this question: “Why did ever I write these books that are causing librarians, and even booksellers, to spend so much time defending, often in hostile settings, what I created?”
Finally, I take a deep breath. And I know the answer to why I write these books. Of course, I never set out to write books that will be challenged or banned. Rather, I write books for children because in some small way I hope that they will find the words I write useful, reassuring, interesting, and at times humorous and also in some small way help them to stay emotionally and/or physically healthy by giving honest, accurate, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information. And as for my picture books, I hope I have told a story that strikes a responsive chord in young children. Once I remind myself of all that, I feel better. But still, I never get used to hearing that there is a challenge to one of my books or that one of my books has been banned. And I don’t think I ever will.
To read more pieces from Banned Books Month, click here.
Children’s book author Robie H. Harris has written award-winning and internationally acclaimed picture books and nonfiction books for over thirty years and is known for writing about serious issues with honesty, humor and insight. Who Has What? and Who’s In My Family? are her most recent picture books. For many years, she has spoken around the country on freedom to read/write issues.