This week, PEN America sent a letter to Missouri school boards and the state legislature, demanding a reversal to a spate of book bans enacted thanks to the state’s Senate Bill 775. The bill makes any material with “visual depictions” of “graphic material” illegal for schools to have available. This is why so many graphic novels have been banned across the state.

My book, Body Talk: 37 Voices Explore Our Radical Anatomy is one of the books pulled by a district in the state for “review.” As of writing, it’s been off shelves for months, with no status update. This is the second time I’ve learned of this book being removed from shelves to be assessed for appropriateness to age group. It is a book about the physical and political realities of having a body, written specifically for those 12-18. The Missouri district which has the book in a review hold appears to have removed every book with art within it; if Body Talk is pulled, it will set a state-wide precedent, ensuring that my book is banned at schools across the state. I have, of course, cosigned the PEN letter.

Even though it is 2022, there are still authors who believe having a book banned is a badge of honor. This week, I read an editorial while doing my research for this roundup of book ban news, extolling how the writer hopes to be banned in order to amp up sales. They don’t have much for a marketing or publicity budget, and surely, that would do the job.

Except…it doesn’t.

Body Talk is my third anthology, and it is my poorest performing book to date. My first two anthologies earned out their advance in a year, meaning that the publisher made as much money as they gave me to make the book. That amount? $17,500 (after my agent’s cut, it’s $15,000). That $15,000, paid out in three separate periods, amounts to $5,000 each check, minus the near 40% I set aside from each in order to pay taxes. And since my books are anthologies, each contributor also gets paid from these checks, leaving me as the creator, the editor, and an author of the book to the remaining balance as my money.

That amount, when publicity and marketing costs are removed, is 0, if not negative. I don’t get an actual paycheck for my work until my book earns out, and I collect royalties, which have generally been between $500 and $1,500 twice a year.

Body Talk published in August 2020, and it was buried in the blitz of books which had their release dates pushed back because of COVID. As of my last royalty statement from August of this year, two full years after its release, the book is in the red to the tune of nearly $9000.

I’m in a privileged position that I know my book has been challenged in two districts. I am also, I suppose, in a privileged position that I have a full-time job to pay my bills, as writing and publishing books certainly doesn’t provide me anything resembling an income. But, if my book is removed, is pulled, becomes a target throughout an entire state, you can bet I’ll continue to be hoping to earn out on Body Talk by the time it turns 10 or 15. I’ll continue to not only never make a penny from this book, but I’ll continue to learn or discover how many places have ripped it from shelves by decree, have silently pulled it to avoid pushback, or who haven’t bothered buying it at all, despite a slate of stellar reviews and the gap it fills in collections.

This isn’t publicity, and it isn’t marketing. It is a book ban.

Not only do I lose out on potential income and the potential for future books — if you’re not selling, why would a publisher keep taking a chance on you? — I don’t get anything but the knowledge that the work I did is seen as obscene, as inappropriate, as actively harmful to young people.

A book written with honesty, to them, so they can grow up feeling a level of empowerment, acceptance, and pride in themselves for who they are, how they are. So they don’t have to grow up with the same insecurities, self-hatred, and lack of worth I did.

Instead, a couple of images in the book depicting a range of bodies — abled, disabled, queer, trans, cis, images that reflect the very bodies learning and breathing and thinking inside public school classrooms today — may determine whether or not young people across an entire state have access to such information.

In no way, shape, or form does that do me any good as an author.

In no way, shape, or form does that do me any good as an advocate for the rights of young people.

And, of course, that is the point.

Here are links to PEN America’s press release, the list of banned books in Missouri since August, as well as an explainer about the new law and the wave of bans. If you’re in Missouri, please consider writing to your state legislators and showing up to your school board meetings and sharing these points. If you’re not in Missouri, you can do the very same thing, in hopes you don’t need to be put in this position.

Anyone can sign the open letter here.

Book Censorship News: November 18, 2022

  • Earlier this year, Frisco Independent School District (TX) announced they would be reviewing all 1,000,000+ books in their libraries. The first wave of books being banned has been updated on their website.
  • Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library (KS) might not have their lease renewed by the city if they don’t get rid of their queer books.
  • A proposed new law in Texas would require publishers to put age ratings on books and if they don’t, the purchase of those books by schools would be against the law. They…already do this.
  • A must-read piece on the hostile right-wing takeover of a school board in South Carolina.
  • “But leaving the book lie on her desk throughout the day can be seen as a strategy to generate interest in it without having actually taught it or being a part of the curriculum. Who is the target audience this teacher wishes to generate interest in gender ideology? Seventh graders — adolescents entering into peak biological and hormonal change, as well as broadening intellectual curiosity and openness to sociocultural influence. I hope you’re starting to see why this is more than a teacher reading a banned book.” This is an editorial written in response to the teacher who had Gender Queer on their desk in Hollidaysburg School District (PA). It perfectly encapsulates the nonsense of the right in banning these books and crying indoctrination: there’s no actual explanation. I suppose a teacher drinking coffee and leaving the mug on their desk is also indoctrination, as is their wearing black and white stripes.
  • The Cheshire Board of Education (CT) heard comments from parents concerned about the books Ghost Boys and Boy21 being used in a social justice English unit.
  • Push and Red White and Royal Blue were pulled from Dearborn Public Schools (MI).
  • Interesting it’s the new board president in Onslow Public Schools (NC) complaining about LGBTQ+ books.
  • Old Rochester Regional Schools (MA) still dealing with right-wing bigots complaining about queer books in the district.
  • St. Joseph Public Schools (MI) are retaining all 13 of the books formally challenged in the district. In response, they’ll be labeling books as “young adult” or “adult,” and implementing forms for parents to restrict access in the coming year if they wish.
  • “After Reiland’s complaint, Owasso [OK] officials pulled all graphic novels from all of its campuses for further content review. Although graphic novels have been returned to the shelves at the district’s elementary and middle school campuses, according to Assistant Superintendent Mark Officer, Owasso officials are still reviewing a portion of the roughly 3,000 graphic novels that were in circulation at Owasso High School.” That is called censorship, new policy or not. They were removed without any due process, revoking student access.
  • The library union at Daniel Boone Regional Library (MO) spoke up against new legislation proposed in the state that would change how book challenges are handled and potentially defund libraries for “noncompliance.”
  • The Horrey County schools (SC) have now approved a restricted access collection of material and handed over power of book selection — and responses to book challenges — to a committee outside of the professionally trained librarians.
  • Homer Library (AK) heard from residents about 40-some books that might be pulled from the library this week. A decision hasn’t been finalized, but of course, the books are all LGBTQ+ in nature.
  • A Place Inside of Me by Zetta Elliott and Dragonwings by Laurence Yep were up for debate by the Sumner County Commission (TN), who said they violate state law and should be removed from the school library. The school board decided to keep A Place Inside of Me despite this; the fate of Yep’s book is not yet decided.
  • Here’s an update on the injunction in the Llano County Library case. While the trial won’t happen until next October, the books in question may be back on shelves following this.
  • “Jensen said he thinks contemporary society is losing its anchor to a moral code and that ‘what would have shocked our citizens 30, 40 or 50 years ago is now embraced.’ ‘We have dumbed down our moral code, in my opinion,’ Jensen said. ‘That saddens me. It is the height of arrogance to discard the wisdom of ages to think we are somehow the enlightened generation.’ As for the specific books the school board is being asked to weigh in on, Jensen said he thinks Gender Queer constitutes pornography. While he wouldn’t consider Trans Bodies, Trans Selves as pornography, Jensen expressed some doubt that it is grounded in good science.” This is Natrona County School District (WY), which is considering a ban on all “sexually explicit” images. Glad opinion can be considered fact here.
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