It is no secret that book bans and challenges have become an increasingly prevalent issue in the library community, particularly in the last few years. To learn more about this trend and what we can do to help, we sat down with JLG author Wil Mara.
Wil’s books House of a Million Rooms from his ongoing supernatural middle-grade series, ‘Twisted,’ along with his nonfiction title Streaming TV, Robotics: From Concept to Consumer, From Gecko Feet to . . . Adhesive Tape, and From Kingfishers to . . . Bullet Trains have all been JLG selections.
Wil is an outspoken advocate against book bans in schools and public libraries.
Tell us about yourself
I’m Wil Mara, a New Jerseyan all my life (for better or worse), and I’ve been a working author since 1986. I’ve had the privilege of seeing more than 300 of my books published during that time, most of which have been either fiction or nonfiction for younger readers. But there are some novels for grownups in there, too. I also spent twenty years on the inside of the business, mostly as an editor and production manager for houses like Prentice Hall, Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, the now-defunct Troll, and a few others. My connection with the Junior Library Guild has come through the Guild’s selection of a few of my titles, most recently the second book in my ‘Twisted’ series, House of a Million Rooms.
When did you first get into writing and how?
In the mid 1980s, I decided to try my hand at putting a manuscript together. It was something I always felt I could do, so I figured why not? I finished it in about six months, brought it to a publisher, and they sat me down in their lunchroom and told me to wait. An hour and a half went by, and I started wondering if they’d forgotten about me. Then one of the editors came in with several pages stapled together. I thought Oh great, multiple pages of critical commentary; what a high-self-esteem day this is going to be. But it wasn’t a critique—it was a contract. They actually bought the book on the spot. So, I went home and wrote another one, and they bought that one, too. Then they asked if I’d like to join their editorial staff.
How did you get involved in fighting book bans?
I’ve always had an issue with book banning. As a little kid, I remember finding out that my elementary school had a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in the collection, but it was kept behind the circulation desk and could only be taken out through parental approval. I remember thinking “What could possibly be in that book that would make them hide it?” And from there I thought “Whatever it is, I want to find out.” My mom—a feminist straight out of the Sixties who was never afraid to express her opinion to anyone in authority—signed the permission form, and she added a little comment scribbled in the margin in red pen that I can still see vividly in my mind. She wrote “There’s nothing in any of your books that he won’t encounter out in the world.” I’m sure that one sentence is among the primary building blocks to my opposition to book banning today. Most recently, I did an interview on one of the PBS news programs for a larger segment on the topic, and I was proud to be afforded that forum. I have a feeling I’ll be fighting this fight until my last breath—which is fine with me.
Why is it important to fight book bans?
A variety of reasons. Among the top is the simple fact that book banning leads to other banning, which in turn leads to greater general oppression and theft of personal freedom. If we give in on book bans, those who are so rabidly eager to deny such intellectual curiosities will be back in short order to take away something else. Book banning today, something else tomorrow, something else the next day, and so on. Also—and every librarian who has dealt with book challenges knows this even better than I do—a startling number of people who stand on the opposite side of this issue haven’t even read the books they’re questioning.
Librarian Martha Hickson—one of the most committed soldiers in this battle, and a fellow New Jerseyan who was also featured in the aforementioned PBS segment—told me that some of these ‘concerned parent groups’ are simply copy-and-pasting lists of challenged books from other such groups. So what we’re really fighting here is good ol’ garden variety ignorance. Hot damn! As if we don’t waste enough time in other sectors of our lives dealing with that already.
Which of your books have been targeted and why?
A few of the ‘Twisted’ books have raised concern, probably because I’m not afraid to both encourage a sense of self-empowerment among kids and spur a willingness to question the world around them. I was delighted when the Guild made House of a Million Rooms one of its main selection choices, then honored it with their Gold Standard Award, because that particular story has the main characters digging into their small town’s darkest secrets and doing so in the shadow of their parents’ most fervent warnings.
And as the narrative progresses, the characters soon realize the long-respected ‘elders’ in their world aren’t quite as oh-so-holy as the main characters have been led to believe. In another ‘Twisted’ title, called The Time Trap, I portray a minority woman raising her daughter as a single mom on the verge of formal divorce proceedings, and I present their situation not as novelty but as normalcy. There are still people out there who rail against anything that doesn’t follow the two-and-two family model, an outmoded matrix from the Atomic Age that, in the wider cultural sense, is finally starting to fade into history. At long last, we are beginning to understand that family is defined by a lot more than DNA, and contemporaneous literature—which so often can be felt within the pulse of humanity—is starting to reflect this.
How specifically do you fight against book bans?
As an author, I can’t be afraid to put forth any type of material that might lead to one of my titles being challenged. I don’t want to make my position sound higher and haughtier than it might actually be, but I do look at myself as another soldier in this battle and shying away from using a certain character or exploring a certain theme due to fear that one of the Book Crooks might tell their local librarian to remove it is profoundly irresponsible.
If we hand them the power to decide what material should and should not be shelved, just imagine what the collections around the nation will eventually look like. Seriously, how many Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels can one reader endure? Again, the best literature reflects the wider world around us, and books can be both universal and timely, acting as a kind of chronicle of the age in which they were written. I really don’t want someone in the next century reading one of the ‘Twisted’ books and getting the wrong idea of what life was like when I wrote it. So, I mold my stories using the wet clay of something called the truth—and the consequences be damned.
How can other people fight against book bans?
It depends on where you sit on the spectrum. If you’re a student, don’t be afraid to voice your disapproval of any title that’s been removed, become active in any type of pushback effort if and when such a campaign becomes necessary, and never forget that there’s likely more than one library in your area.
If you’re a librarian—and I’m saying this based solely on my conversations with other librarians who’ve had to endure the nightmare of outside challenges to their collections—stand firm in your defense and remember that, statistically, only a tiny percentage of the people in your area is likely to be Biblio-Compromised, regardless of how vocal they may be.
In addition, never forget that the Constitution is clearly on your side in the matter and so is quite a bit of legal precedent. Much of the book-banning problem is merely another front we’re being forced to address in an ongoing and largely infantile culture war at the moment. And where authors are concerned, my advice would be to continue putting whatever you wish on those pages—that is your right and your privilege, and the only way to ensure you don’t lose it is to use it and use it often.
Why do you think that book bans have been on the rise in the last two years?
The toxic influence of certain political movements from recent times and the corresponding mentality of those who either 1) stand firm in their almost comically delusional conviction that they know what’s best for everybody, and / or 2) only care about their own vision of the country and will steamroll anything—including the long-standing freedoms that the Founding Fathers intended since before the first shot was fired at Lexington and Concord—to implement it. Or, to put it more simply (and this only works if you imagine it from a red-faced child kicking and screaming on the floor), “Wah!!!! I want everything MY way!!!”
There should also be mention made of the notion that books about, say, LGBTQ people will somehow ‘transform’ the sexual orientation of those who read such material. Right, that’s exactly how that works. Gee, now that I think of it, I remember a book on frogs my youngest daughter used to read. Next thing I knew, she was hopping around the backyard spawning tadpoles in a vernal pool.
Insert laugh track here....
How does it feel to be a JLG author?
Immeasurably humbling. The fact that I have earned recognition from the same organization that once counted Eleanor Roosevelt among its board members leaves me thunderstruck. I wish my mom had lived to see it.
How have books played a role in your life?
Books have been the constant and defining factor in my life, representing more than I can possibly estimate. They’ve been a source of joy, inspiration, information, enlightenment, escape...on and on and on. I would not be the person I am today without them. On a related note, I still remember every librarian that I encountered during my formative years. I was extremely fortunate in that they were always kind, generous, and helpful, and always enthusiastic, too. I remember feeling tremendous excitement toward certain books because they were excited about them. And, having grown up in abusive circumstances, I was also extraordinarily lucky to have one particular woman who let me stay in her library as long as I wished. My gratitude to her is galactic in size.
If there is one thing you want people to know about the dangers of banning books, what would it be?
That those who endeavor to control what you read may very well endeavor to control everything else in your life.
Is there ever an acceptable reason to ban a book?
No. Parents who are concerned with what their children are reading are, of course, always welcome to review that material. And books can always be returned to the shelves if the content is judged inappropriate. But they should always be available in library collections. I mean, come on—there’s nothing in a library that compares to the horrors that await children on the Internet, and when was the last time you saw any content banned on the Internet? Please....
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If anyone would like to contact me concerning this interview, brown-paper packages with an unnecessary amount of postage and something ticking inside are always appreciated, but a more reasonable approach would be through www.wilmara.com or via Facebook or Twitter.