Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Author Interview: Brent Hartinger on the Banning of Geography Club

Author Interview

The University Place School District in Tacoma, Washington has banned Geography Club by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins, 2003), which is a highly recommended young adult novel. Brent was kind enough to share his thoughts and his essay in response.

When did you first hear that The Geography Club was being banned?

I didn't hear a word until I was contacted by a reporter last week. Then I asked around, and people "in the know" had heard all about it, but hadn't mentioned it to me. They thought I knew!

Has it ever been challenged or banned before?

Um, yeah. Repeatedly challenged. But never for this concern--the fact that it supposedly "romanticizes" Internet hook-ups. Always before it's been for language and the gay theme, I think. In all the cases I know about, it's never actually been banned--those in charge always voted to keep the book on the shelves. But then again, maybe these are just the cases I hear about. I can't imagine a librarian agreeing to ban my book, then emailing me to say, "Guess what? I just banned your book!"

I've also heard from plenty of librarians who say they WISH they could buy the book, but they feel they can't because they're afraid of parents' reactions. So it's sort of a pre-censorship.

As an author, how do you react emotionally, professionally?

This whole affair is causing the two sides of my soul to wage a desperate battle: the side of me that never wants to be the center of attention and hates all conflict, and the side of me that, um, wants to sell a lot of books!

It's really stressful, but on the other hand, I never got this much attention for, you know, writing a pretty good book!

The cited reason for the ban was that two of your characters met on the Internet. Do you feel that is the real reason? Do you happen know if there are other YA books with GLBTQ characters in that library system? Has the media reported on that question?

The parents who complained initially were upset about the gay theme. As I understand it, they hadn't even read the book. When the PTA said that wasn't reason enough to pull a book, they read it and compiled a long list of "complaints." The Internet thing was the only one the superintendant agreed with.

Being in the middle of this, you see how our media works. The issue was on all the television news broadcasts, and no one--NO ONE--called to ask my opinion. They all just repeated my one quote from the AP article, which was actually a quote from the one interview I did, with the local newspaper. It's really, really sobering when you realize how crappy our news media are. But the local paper has been great.

The school insists this isn't about the gay theme. Well, if that's the case, I do hope they have lots of other resources available. And I hope people in the district make sure that is the case.

Why was the Internet exchange important and authentic to your story?

The irony about this whole situation is that the reason my character is in that chat room is that he feels horribly alone, and that there is no one he can talk to, not even his best friends. I think that's very typical: gay teens turn to the Internet for the support they're not getting from friends, families, and communities. Do I think teenagers should hook up with anonymous people they meet online? Absolutely not! I tried to make it clear in the book that they exchange information until they're absolutely certain they're both students at the same high school. So they already "know" each other -- they're just afraid to share their actual names, for fear that one of them won't do it, and will be outed to the other. So they agree to meet. When they do meet, my character sees him from afar, and sees he is a teenager (who he turns out to know quite well!).

Whether this situation is stupid or not is debatable, but what is not debatable is that this is a situation that a closeted gay teen could very well find him or herself in.

What advice do you have for authors who find themselves in this situation?

Don't go through it alone. It sounds strange, but it's weird to have a government agency decide you're not "fit." The whole idea is upsetting, especially as a gay person. And then you want to "defend" yourself, but part of you thinks, "Wait. Why should I have to defend myself? No one else does. Besides, it's a book! The whole point of books is to be able to talk about them, and argue over different interpretations. You don't like a book? Then bitch about it to your friends like the rest of us! Don't ban the damn thing, so no one else can read it."

How can readers support free speech as related to youth literature?

Support contemporary literature! And keep in mind that it's not about the specific book being challenged--it's about intellectual freedom and academic independence. I usually hate "slippery slope" arguments, but in this case, I think if you give an inch, the opponents of free speech will take a mile. Libraries are about the exchange of ideas. If something seems unfair or inaccurate to you, tell the library to add a new book, not delete an old one.

Some friends and I (including you, dear Cynthia!) recently started an anti-censorship group called Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom (or AS IF!). Check out our blog: http://asifnews.blogspot.com/

They've Banned My Gay Teen Book

by Brent Hartinger
an essay in response to the banning of Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003)

It's hard not to take it personally when a school district bans your book.

The University Place School District [in Tacoma, Washington] recently pulled my gay teen novel, Geography Club [HarperCollins, 2003], from the shelves of its libraries after some parents complained. Superintendent Patti Banks disregarded all the parents' concerns except one: the fact that two characters come together as a result of an Internet chat room. Because of that, the book encourages "extremely high risk behavior," Banks wrote.

In fact, my character is clearly fully aware of the dangers of Internet chat rooms and sexual predators. He only agrees to meet the other character after exchanging specific information that confirms that he is, in fact, another student at his high school. Later, after the two agree to meet, my character spies him from afar and sees with his own eyes that yes, he is another teenager, who he turns out to know well.

My book has been out for almost three years, sold tens of thousands of copies, received almost unanimously good reviews, won many honors, and is currently being adapted for the movies -- and this is the first time I've ever heard this particular concern.

But I'll concede that the superintendent may be sincere in objecting to this element of my book. And sure, not every school can or should stock every single book.

That said, I don't think that Internet scene is the real reason my book was banned. According to the Marge Ceccarelli, president of the Curtis PTA, the parents who complained were initially upset with the book because it would "turn straight kids into homosexuals." Those parents compiled a long list of objections, only one of which the superintendent agreed with. But surely
it was the book's gay theme that led to this intense level of scrutiny.

You're thinking: well, maybe every book in our schools should receive this level of scrutiny. But trust me, there is something in almost every book that will offend someone, somewhere. And if you exclude all the books where the main character does something that someone thinks is "questionable," or even outright dumb, you've got library shelves that are effectively bare.

And the fact is, this level of scrutiny won't be given to all books, just books like mine, ones that deal with hot button cultural issues like homosexuality. When minorities complain about discrimination, this is sometimes what they mean: not that the rules are different for them, but that the rules are enforced differently -- to the very letter of the law in cases where they usually are not.

Why does this matter when it comes to gay teen books? Because gay teen books really matter.

I wish everyone who thinks my books are not "appropriate" for teenagers could read my mail for one single week -- the avalanche of touching emails I receive from lonely or harassed gay and lesbian teens and their friends, so grateful to see gay characters portrayed accurately and with dignity, not merely stereotypes or the punchline of jokes. One of the many ironies about
this whole situation is the fact that the only reason my character is in that chat room in the first place is because he feels he can't be open at his school -- attitudes which are being reinforced in University Place by the banning of my book.

I admit to getting frustrated by the fact that people complain about my books because, in the interest of verisimilitude, I sometimes include teen characters who chew tobacco, or swear, or wrestle with issues of sex or sexuality, just like teenagers do on every school campus in America. And it's just a fact that gay and lesbian teens do often turn to the Internet for the support they're not getting from their friends, families, and communities.

So I think my critics really miss the point.

In every teen book I've ever written, gay-themed or not, there is a moment when the main character has to choose between moving beyond his or her own little bubble --doing what would make him or her momentarily happy or comfortable -- and putting those selfish prejudices and concerns aside, and committing to a larger cause, a greater good. In my mind, that's the choice
every teen confronts, again and again, because it's the difference between a child and an adult.

Do books with that message have a place in school libraries and in the hands of teenagers?

Absolutely. In fact, there might be a few adults in Tacoma who could benefit from reading books like that too.

Brent's Hartinger's latest book is The Order of the Poison Oak (HarperCollins, 2005), a sequel to Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003). Visit him online at www.brenthartinger.com.

Reprinted on cynsations with permission of the author.

Read the Coverage

University Place School District Bans Novel About Gay Teens by the Associated Press from SeattlePi.com. November 20, 2005.

University Place District Bans Novel About Gay Teens by Debby Abe of The News Tribune.

Banning Gay Teen Novel Robs Youth of Important Lessons by author Brent Hartinger, an op-ed colum from The News Tribune. November 22, 2005. Alternate link to Brent's essay featured above.

Learn More About Brent Hartinger

Author Profile: Brent Hartinger from teenreads.com.

Interview with Brent Hartinger, Author of Geography Club from Debbi Michiko Florence.

Interview with Brent Hartinger of Geography Club from afterellen.com.

The Story Behind The Story: Brent Hartinger on Geography Club by Cynthia Leitich Smith Children's/YA Literature Resources.

The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins, 2005): a recommendation from cynsations.

Learn More About Book Banning and Free Speech

Banned Books Week from the American Library Association. See the 100 Most Frequently Banned Books of 1990 - 2000; see the Top Ten List of Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2004.

Cynsational Notes

Brent is a tremendously talented writer and all-around great guy whose acclaimed teen fiction is highly recommended.

Show your support by buying a copy of Geography Club or another of Brent's novels. Keep it for yourself, give it as a gift ('tis the season!), or donate it to a library.

Write a letter of support to the editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma.

Visit Voices In My Head: Brent's Blog and let him know that YA readers care about his books and free speech.

Read banned books!

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