Thursday, November 09, 2006

Author Interview: Laura Ruby on Free Speech Challenges to Lily's Ghosts

Lily's Ghosts by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins, 2003) has been challenged in Florida. The Tampa Tribune has covered the story.

I previously interviewed Laura on Lily's Ghosts in January 2005 and visited with her for an update interview in May 2006 on her more recent titles, the children's fantasy The Wall and the Wing (HarperCollins, spring 2006)(excerpt), and the young adult novel Good Girls (HarperCollins, fall 2006).

When did you first hear that Lily's Ghosts was being challenged? Could you update us on the situation?

Lily's Ghosts was chosen for Florida's Sunshine State Award list for grades 3-5 and grades 6-8, something I was really excited about. Then, six or eight weeks ago, an author friend heard from a Florida librarian that there were a few complaints about my book. After that, a Tampa-area parent wrote to tell me that the situation had been written up in the Tampa Tribune. Apparently, my book and two others were removed from a battle of the books contest held for 4th graders in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, a contest that normally included all Sunshine State list selections. Another parent in a third county told me that there had also been complaints in her area as well.

Has it been challenged or banned before?

No. The book's been out for more than three years, has been offered in Scholastic Book Fairs and Clubs, and to my knowledge has been used very successfully in many 4th grade classrooms. As a matter of fact, right after I heard about the challenge, I got a note from another Florida 4th grade teacher who wrote to tell me that his whole class loved the book.

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

At first, I was shocked. I'd just published an edgy book for older teens called Good Girls, so I was expecting some flak for that one. But I never imagined any challenges to Lily's Ghosts. I was really upset. After thinking about it for a while, though, I realized that I was in good company. J.K. Rowling, Chris Crutcher, Robert Cormier, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume (author interview), and Lois Lowry (among many others) have all had their books challenged repeatedly.

So, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and wrote a letter to the editor of the Tampa Tribune. I wrote another letter to the administrator who'd had Lily stricken from the battle of the books list and sent her signed copies of my other middle grade title, The Wall and the Wing. And then I did my very first (very snarky) podcast on the subject of book banning and Teen Read Week.

How do you respond to concerns that children and/or their belief systems might somehow be affected by a book that features ghosts? (Have other ghost stories been targeted?)

Right now, there is a Georgia mom who is trying to have Harry Potter removed from schools across her entire county because she feels the books promote witchcraft. So, yeah, I think there are a few people who have issues with fantasy novels about witches or ghosts.

I want to say that I think it's perfectly appropriate for these parents to select books they feel are right for their kids. What I have a problem with is when parents try to choose books for everyone else's kids. I think the only response is to keep writing the kinds of books you need to write. And to acknowledge to those who complain that no single book is going to be right for every child.

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

You can go to ala.org [scroll] and see the long list of authors who have been challenged before you and see the kind of excellent company you're keeping. And then I would join an organization like AS IF (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom) to stay up to date on the issues. I would make sure to support other authors whose titles are challenged by writing letters of support to newspapers and blogs, where appropriate. Chris Crutcher's website (www.chriscrutcher.com) has a lot of material relating to censorship and book challenges that is very helpful.

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

Readers can also go to school board meetings and speak when decisions about books are being made. They can write letters to their newspapers. I had a wonderful parent go to bat for me in Florida. She wrote letters to the school administrators. She emailed friends and colleagues about my book and the challenges. It was so gratifying that a woman who didn't know me would fight so hard for my book.

But the most important thing I think people can do is to keep reading to and with their kids.

Cynsational Notes

Highlights of the Sunshine State Award List for grades 3-5 also include: Runt by Marion Dane Bauer (Clarion, 2002)(Yearling, 2004)(author interview).

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