This is a chronicle of two books: a young adult novel banned from a school and a book group, and a middle grade novel about kids fighting censorship. The list of esteemed children’s books that have for various reasons been banned at one time or another is shocking.
Kim Zarins (no family relation to me) has a PhD in English from Cornell and teaches medieval literature at Sacramento State University, so she knows Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales well. Her debut YA is her brilliant contemporary interpretation, retelling that classic work of the late 1300s. In her novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth, high school seniors are on a bus field trip from Canterbury, CT to Washington D.C. when their teacher, Mr. Bailey, asks them to each tell a story along the way. In Chaucer’s original, Mr. Bailey would be the tavern host, Harry Bailey, who suggests that Chaucer’s travelers share stories, the most entertaining of which would earn a free dinner at journey’s end. In Kim’s version, whoever tells the most intriguing story will be given an A in Mr. Bailey’s Civics class. Each of her characters echoes someone in the original narrative.
JAZ: Kim you said that you and your novel were “uninvited from a school and de-selected from a book group.”
KZ: Yes. It was going to be used in a book group but then dropped for its queer content, and last May I was going to visit a high school but was then told the book would be objectionable to parents and teens, and the visit was cancelled. Both situations were like watching a door open and then shut.
JAZ: So, how does it feel to join the long list of amazing banned or challenged books? These include Bridge to Terrabithia (too depressing), From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (justifies running away), Wait Till Helen Comes (ghosts, superstition), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (most challenged book in the US in 1999, for witchcraft and sorcery), even the Captain Underpants and Goosebumps books, or ones that include suicide, LGBTQ situations, and so many more.
KZ: What was Captain Underpants banned for—potty humor?! Ridiculous. One of my favorite books to read to my son years back was Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, which was banned for having a naked little boy in it.
I’m honored to be among these amazing authors, to know at least that I’m not alone but surrounded by the authors I treasure. But to be honest, having your book banned for queer content is a different experience than having it banned for potty humor, because it attacks a young person’s identity, not just their behavior, such as telling potty jokes, or potentially running away because someone in a book did so. Books can be banned out of fear of what a child might do (and I don’t want to downplay the stakes here—drug abuse, for example, is obviously something adults fear more than potty humor), but it’s particularly problematic when a book is banned for fear of what a child might be. While you and I were having this interview, I got an email from a reader whose words reminded me that banning books precludes some readers from queer representation that they need and aren’t getting. This college-aged reader gave me permission to quote their powerful words:
“When I was younger I used reading as a way to escape from my problems in the real world. I found a lot of characters I had things in common with, or characters who I wanted to be, but I never saw myself represented anywhere. After some reflection, I can honestly say that while reading the scene in which Pard tells Jeff the truth about his “twin sister”, that was the first time I knew how it felt to see myself reflected in a character who was more than just a joke, or token diversity, or tragic death fodder… I’m happy that kids younger than me who struggle with their gender identity might find him [Pard], and be reminded that they also deserve to be happy.”
JAZ: How closely did you parallel the original Canterbury Tales? Since some high schools teach it, you would think they would know what to expect.
KZ: I’m pretty thorough about including the characters and trying to incorporate as much of their tales as I could. This also means if Chaucer tells fabliaux, I tell fabliaux. And when Chaucer’s characters have rough experiences, I don’t soften them. Such content could be a turn-off for teachers who give their students Chaucer, but teach it at a distance, glossing over the language and bawdy content and trauma (e.g., Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a funny, vibrant character, but she also reveals that she married an old man when she was twelve and divulges other experiences with abuse). Honoring Chaucer means honoring that content, and doing less disrespects teens.
JAZ: One of those responsible for banning Sometimes We Tell the Truth said that her group’s objection was not to the sexual references or occasional bad language, which paralleled the bawdy original. They reacted to the gay interaction at the end.
KZ: I include a queer character—because Chaucer includes a queer character, the Pardoner (my Pard, mentioned above). Some readers may not know that, but Chaucer’s wording is quite suggestive. The main thing I change about that queer character is that I give him joy at the story’s ending, unlike Chaucer’s version, in which the Host makes a very rude, aggressive statement about the Pardoner’s body, and the Pardoner is made to feel an outsider among all the pilgrims. I couldn’t with a clear conscience give my queer teen character such a miserable ending. Maybe, I thought, in modern times, the Pardoner could have the happy ending he misses in this fourteenth-century text. But, as my medieval literature students have noticed many times, modern times don’t always show the progress one might assume would be there.
JAZ: What is the origin of your title? Is it a reference to Chaucer’s comments at the end of the General Prologue?
KZ: The Middle English word “trouthe” actually is a broader word than our modern “truth” which indicates veracity. “Trouthe” also signifies a verbal pledge (for example, a pledge to stand for someone in court). Oral contracts were the norm in medieval England, though that was changing in Chaucer’s day. There’s a whole book about the topic by Richard Firth Green that I highly recommend. I guess I’d say the title has a connection to “trouthe” in that these characters tell tales that are supposedly fictions but also tell deeper, personal truths; moreover, some of these characters learn to live their truth/trouthe and be true to themselves.
Well, that linguistic answer sounds very fancy, but to be honest, I had the hardest time coming up with a title and stumbled upon this one in random desperation.
JAZ: Random or not, it is perfect.
Kim, while I waited for your book to arrive I visited the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore and bought a middle grade novel titled Ban This Book by Alan Gratz. Although it is for a much younger age group, you would love it!
Amy Anne Ollinger, a painfully shy African American fourth grader, relies on books as her havens from life’s unfairness. When her favorite book: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is banned from her school library along with a list of other titles, Amy Anne is horrified.
What can she do?
She starts up a Banned Books Locker Library in her school locker. As librarian in charge of the B.B.L.L., she loans the books to classmates and gradually grows less shy, makes friends, and leads kids through dramatic twists and turns as they stealthily battle the censorship they believe is unjust. The school librarian is fired for resisting the banning; a fabulous campaign is enacted in the school bathrooms; and turmoil at home adds narrative tension.
In a tremendous crescendo of bravery and wit Amy Anne finally gives voice to her convictions at a school board meeting. She uses a massive display of dramatic evidence accumulated by all the kids in her school, concluding with the most solid piece of evidence in her favor – an old library due date card from the back of one of the banned books. Truth is revealed and the perpetrator of the banning is shown to be a good, if misguided, person in spite of the banned book she had read and reread when she was young.
One element of the kids’ strategy in this story is to run with the realization that books are banned for many crazy reasons. Sometimes it only takes one person’s opinion that an element of the story is inappropriate. Looking at it that way, nearly every book can be objectionable to someone. One of the kids finds on the internet that The Stupids books were challenged because “it ‘reinforces negative behavior’ and ‘might encourage children to disobey their parents.’” Other reasons for book challenges were ‘too mature’, ‘too immature’, ‘promotes poor nutrition’, and so on. If it only takes one or a few people to find something wrong with a book, then even books like Frog and Toad Are Friends could be challenged because the characters might be a gay couple and therefore the story might be viewed by someone as promoting a gay lifestyle. Small biases thus become censorship.
The ultimate message is that parents can choose to prevent their own kids from reading certain books before they are deemed ready, but banning those same books from everyone makes no sense. And, as the book jacket says, “You’re never too young to fight censorship!”
At the conclusion of Sometimes We Tell The Truth, Kim Zarins includes an Afterword that enumerates the parallels between Chaucer’s original literary work and this contemporary one, links for further reading, and a Dramatis Personae pairing the original cast with the new fictional characters. Just as Rent is an adaptation of Puccini’s La Boheme and West Side Story a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet, Sometimes We Tell the Truth can be used in any high school’s exploration of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s story is bawdy, sexual, and true to the people of the time. Those who seek to ban Sometimes We Tell the Truth are perhaps not as familiar with Chaucer’s original as they could be and perhaps are not being honest with young readers.
Note: The New York Times posted an article on 1/31/19 titled Y.A. Author Pulls Her Debut After Pre-Publication Accusations of Racism that adds another dimension to this discussion. It poses the question: when is it right to withhold some literature from young adults and when is that an act of censorship? The author, Amélie Wen Zhao, withdrew her YA fantasy novel Blood Heir from Delacorte’s offerings based on objections to her depiction of slavery. The article also lists books by other authors that were withdrawn or rewritten after publication due to complaints from readers to the handling of race or other issues in these novels. Also mentioned is the practice of publishers including “sensitivity readers” in the process of choosing which books to publish.