Did you know people are STILL trying to ban books? When someone (usually a parent) requests that a book is taken off the shelf or out of the hands of readers that is called a challenge and is the first step to banning. Every year the American Library Association releases lists of the most challenged books from the year before. In 2015 the third most challenged book is a book I have shared multiple times here on the blog.
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I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. This picture book is about a transgender girl Jazz and her and her family’s journey of acceptance and understanding of what it means to be transgender. The overall theme is about acceptance of yourself and others, something we all need to hear.
When I saw that this book that I think is so important was on the most challenged list I contacted the author Jessica Herthel and asked if she had the time to answer a few questions, her passion is infectious and she reached out to me when I experienced a backlash to my LGBTQ book list in the spring. I was overjoyed that she took the time to share her insightful thoughts because there have been much bigger outlets like The Guardian asking for her time as well.
Your book I am Jazz is number three on the ALA’s top ten most challenged books of 2015. According to their data, most challengers are parents. As a parent do you feel as though you would ever request a book be removed and made inaccessible to students?
Ms. Herthel: If I am being totally honest, I can indeed imagine a scenario in which I might make a knee-jerk decision to contact my children’s school or library and ask them to remove a book. If, for example, the book dealt with a subject matter that I thought my child was too young to know about, or that I wanted to shield her from because I thought it might be upsetting, then sure, I could see having an initial instinct to do that. I hope, however, that after a little bit of time and reflection, I would realize that the solution to this perceived problem is never to outright censor the idea. I hope I would recognize that my instinct to censor comes from a place of fear: namely, a fear that my child would be saddened or confused by something. But of course, when ignorance or fear is allowed to fester, it often results in harmful or hateful prejudices. I hope that I would reconsider my request, and seize upon the opportunity to start a conversation with my child that we might not have otherwise had. I hope that I would take the time to educate myself, and examine my own fears and prejudices, such that my child and I could have an age-appropriate dialogue about what must be an important topic.
Do you have any advice for teachers or librarians who want to expand their class or school libraries to include your book but are afraid of possible backlash?
Ms.Herthel: My advice is this: Act first, apologize later. One thing we learned from a protest of our book in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin (which ended up becoming a national news story!) is that asking permission to read “I Am Jazz” sometimes backfires. In Mount Horeb, some people reacted negatively to the book without even having read it; they just heard about the subject matter and decided that it wasn’t appropriate for six-year-olds. This, when their kids were already going to school with an openly transgender six-year-old! People fear what they don’t understand, so I encourage anyone who is going to include “I Am Jazz” in their library or classroom to also make it available to the parents and the community at large, along with some educational resources like “Transgender FAQ” which is available on GLAAD’s website. Fact-based information (as opposed to fear-based judgment) is often the cure for anxiety and discomfort.
What would you say to a parent who feels strongly that your book should be removed from their school library?
Ms.Herthel: One thing I have learned from the past few years of doing LGBT youth advocacy is that, in order to be effective, you have to meet people where they are. This can be difficult, to say the least! But all people want to feel heard and seen, and that their opinions are being taken seriously. So to that parent I would say, I understand your concern; I, too, want to avoid my children being exposed to ideas that are too sophisticated or too confusing for their age level. That said, have you read the book? Do you recognize that its overarching message is one of accepting differences, and how to be a good friend? Can you see why a transgender child might feel unsafe and unloved, and how important it is that that child, too, seen and heard and valued? Don’t you want your child to learn how to respect and get along with people who don’t look or feel like they do? In our diverse world, this is a priceless skill that a person is never too young to learn.
Picture books that include transgender and homosexual characters, or in your case a biography of a transgender child are over-represented on challenged book lists every year. They are also met with opposition from adults saying that the books are exposing young children to grown up issues. As a graduate student studying child development, I can say that research simply doesn’t support this. Early childhood is the prime time to expose children to diversity, to accepting themselves and others. When you were in the process of writing, I Am Jazz did you expect a backlash? What was the drive to write and publish the book if you knew that you would be faced with such opposition?
Ms. Herthel: When we were writing “I Am Jazz” back in 2012, we did not yet have Laverne Cox, we did not yet have Caitlyn Jenner. What we did have were a couple of kids like Jazz Jennings, brave kids who were willing to step out of the shadows and unapologetically tell the whole world who they were. I knew that some people weren’t going to like or understand the book, but I also knew that for children out there who were struggling to understand where they fit in, reading Jazz’s story could give them a glimmer of hope. And I believed that for every adult who found the book to be offensive, there would be one child who found comfort in the words on those pages. We wrote the book for those kids. The rest was just background noise.
Of the top ten most challenged books of 2015, nine included diverse content. The ALA defines diverse content as:
“non-white main and/or secondary characters; LGBT main and/or secondary characters; disabled main and/or secondary characters; issues about race or racism; LGBT issues; issues about religion, which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism; issues about disability and/or mental illness; non-Western settings, in which the West is North America and Europe.”
I find this trend very troubling and am curious to hear your thoughts on the connection between diverse content and the frequency of a book being challenged.
Ms. Herthel: It doesn’t surprise me that the majority of complaints are on the basis of so-called diversity: I am guessing that white, Christian, non-LGBT people could potentially feel that these books threaten what they perceive to be an encroachment on their “culture” and their “values” (I put these words in quotation marks because I disagree with the notion that all white people, or all Christian people, or all straight people, are of one mind; but I get that some people think otherwise). The reality, however, is that American culture is evolving, and becoming more inclusive, and it’s only fitting that books and art and music represent that evolution. People may try to censor ideas that seem foreign to them, but they are waging a losing battle. As underrepresented groups find their voice, they are only going to speak more loudly as time goes on. Fortunately, there’s room for all of us in the conversation.
What is next for you? Are there more books on the horizon?
Ms. Herthel: After the success of “I Am Jazz,” I absolutely considered writing another children’s book. But with “bathroom bills” and the confusion over school guidelines making national news headlines on a weekly basis, I realized that my advocacy on behalf of transgender youth has only just begun. All of the author proceeds from the book go directly to Jazz’s charitable foundation, the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation, and I am going to personally focus on traveling the country and speaking about the book to as many people as will listen. Schools, churches, community centers, medical conferences, political action groups: I hope that “I Am Jazz” can reach all of these audiences and more. Only once the book has become completely irrelevant will my work on these issues be done.
You can read more about banned books on The American Library Association’s Banned Books Week site, Scholastic Parents, and read why I read banned books to my kids here . I am eager to hear your thoughts on banned books as well. Do you think we should be restricting access to books like I Am Jazz? Tell me your thoughts here in comments or over on No Time For Flash Cards Facebook Page. As you know, I encourage thoughtful discussions and never expect all of us to agree.