Have your books been banned?

Every author has a set of questions that they’re asked repeatedly — questions like “Where do you get your ideas?” and “I wrote a book! Will you help me get published?” For me, the most common questions I get are a little different. They are: “What kind of resistance did you face when you tried to get published?” and “Have your books been banned anywhere?” The reason I get those questions more often than pretty much anything else is because my novels are all about lesbian and bisexual teen girls.

The book cover for ASH by Malinda Lo, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, showing a girl in a white dress lying curled up on the grassy ground
The book cover for ASH by Malinda Lo, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, showing a girl in a white dress lying curled up on the grassy ground

My first novel, Ash, was published in 2009. I like to describe Ash as a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. It’s a little more complicated than that, but it’s true: Prince Charming doesn’t get the girl. I have to admit, when the idea of writing a lesbian Cinderella first came to me, I thought it was ludicrous. I thought it would surely make the book unsellable. But it turns out I was totally wrong. Five publishers offered to publish Ash, and when it came out, it was honored with a slew of awards. It was a finalist for the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award, which is given to debut authors. It was also a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction, a finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and it was a Kirkus Best YA Book of the Year.

Aside from the fact that receiving all these accolades right out of the gate makes a debut author very nervous about completely face-planting with failure the next time around, I was tremendously honored and amazed that my lesbian retelling of Cinderella sailed so smoothly into the world. I had anticipated much more resistance to the idea that Cinderella could fall in love with a woman rather than Prince Charming, but I was happy to be proven wrong.

Then, in 2010, a year after Ash came out, I was alerted to a newspaper article published during Banned Books Week. Apparently, at the Oconee County Library in Georgia, Ash had been challenged. Patrons requested that it be moved out of the YA section of the library and into the adult section because it included “sexual situations.” The library’s board considered the challenge, followed its own procedures, and decided to keep Ash in the YA section.

So that was that, I thought. There was my book banning moment, and it was resolved well before I had any idea it was even happening — and my book was not censored. I want to note that Ash does not actually have any “sexual situations” in it. There is kissing, but other than that, the book is pretty clean.

Paperback cover for the novel "Huntress" by Malinda Lo
Paperback cover for the novel "Huntress" by Malinda Lo

My second novel, Huntress, which was published in 2011, did have “sexual situations” in it. It was my version of a hero’s quest, in which two girls must travel from their homeland to the land of the Fairy Queen, in order to save the world. Along the way, the two girls fall in love with each other.

I haven’t heard of any book challenges or censorship situations with Huntress. I wondered if maybe this was because not that many people had read it! You see, book challenges often seem to simply target bestsellers — probably because the people who are challenging them don’t appear to read widely, and they can only challenge the books they’ve heard of! I’m very proud of Huntress, but it hasn’t reached as many people as, for example, the Harry Potter novels, which have been challenged multiple times (for witchcraft!).

My third novel, Adaptation, came out in 2012. Adaptation is the first of a duology; the second book, Inheritance, came out last year. These two books are X-Files-inspired science fiction thrillers set in the contemporary U.S. They involve deadly bird attacks, government conspiracies, and a bisexual love triangle. I thought: Surely these books will be banned somewhere! Because not only do they have same-sex relationships and make-out scenes, they have cursing. These books are set in contemporary San Francisco, so people actually say the F-word. And beyond that, they also include "alternative lifestyles" (I'm using that term in a tongue-in-cheek way) of a sort that I’m absolutely certain conservative book banners would hate.

Cover for Adaptation by Malinda Lo
Cover for Adaptation by Malinda Lo

And yet: No challenges that I know of. Somehow, I thought, I’ve escaped their notice! And yet, every time I’m interviewed, at almost every event I go to, I’m still asked: What challenges did you face getting your lesbian Cinderella story published? And: Have your books been banned?

At first, in response to these questions I was simply happy to show that bigotry and homophobia are not actually present at every level of society. But the more I was asked these questions, the more I thought about why my books had apparently become exceptions to the widespread assumption that books about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters are often banned or challenged.

I think that sometimes book challenges and the battle against censorship is viewed as a kind of fight against evil. We are the good guys — librarians, teachers, writers, open-minded readers — we value free speech and we support the First Amendment. We probably all watch The Daily Show. The bad guys are those conservatives usually on Fox News who want to shut down the the spread of ideas, who want to restrict their children from reading about the facts of life.

But the more I thought about censorship and the more I researched book banning, the more I realized it’s a lot more complicated than that. Book banning is not a black-and-white issue.

Book banning falls under the broader concept of censorship. Censorship happens whenever a book is removed from its audience. It’s true that the most extreme cases of censorship — widespread government-supported banning of books, or most dramatically, book burning — don’t happen very often in the United States. But other kinds of censorship happen all the time.

Censorship includes removing books from school reading lists because of their “content.” It includes moving children’s books with controversial subjects out of the children’s section into the adult section. It includes moving books into restricted areas. (For example, if children have to have a note from their parents to access a book.) Censorship also includes not buying a book for a collection or a classroom out of fear that parents might object to its presence and then challenge the book.

I haven’t had much experience with public book challenges, but surprisingly, I have had a number of experiences with a quieter kind of censorship. Over the last five years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many teachers — high school and middle school teachers — about my books, generally at teacher conferences, but also via email or online. Teachers often tell me that they are afraid to acquire certain books for their classroom because they’re worried that parents will object. Often, the books they’re afraid to include are mine, or other books like mine that have LGBT characters.

inheritance-paperback
inheritance-paperback

Once, a teacher stopped me at a convention and said she was worried about putting Adaptation in her classroom because in the book, the mom talks to her daughter about safe sex in a same-sex relationship. (The teacher thought this was great. She did not think parents would think it was great.)

I know that these teachers are genuinely concerned. They genuinely worry for their jobs. And parents have a lot of control in some of our communities. They sit on school boards and they can make decisions that stem from their own fears about their children’s adolescence and emerging adulthood. Those fears don’t necessarily serve the educational needs of their children. They also make it hard for teachers to do their jobs.

I try to encourage teachers to think about their students in these situations. If they’re afraid to put my book in their classroom, what kind of environment is it there, in that community, for their students? Their students live in a world circumscribed by adult rules. If the adults don’t allow them the freedom to explore their own identities, think of how that world must feel to these teens.

But I’m not a teacher, and I’m not a parent. I’m only a writer. I only see this situation from the outside. And from the outside, these situations look like self-censorship. Self-censorship is possibly the most difficult kind of censorship to fight because it is generally not publicly admitted. It’s done quietly, in private. If nobody knows it’s happening, how can anyone object?

Back in 2009, School Library Journal published a thought-provoking piece on self-censorship. This week has been Banned Books Week, and while we think about the reasons for censorship and talk about the most banned and challenged books, I want to remind everyone that book banning can happen silently, with no public fanfare at all. If the books never make it into the library or classroom, there's no way they can be "banned," but make no mistake: censorship is still happening.

So now, when people ask me if my books have been banned, I try to broaden the conversation. Book banning isn't only about the big-news challenges; it's also about silent, private choices made out of the spotlight. Those choices can have significant impacts, too.

Portions of this post were used in a talk I gave at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis on Sept. 24, 2014.