Saturday, September 23, 2023

Q&A with Jonah Winter




Jonah Winter is the author of the new children's picture book Banned Book. His many other books include The Little Owl & the Big Tree.


Q: What inspired you to write Banned Book, and how did you decide on the book's format, which includes censoring?


A: In the last few years, censorship has seemingly taken over the children’s book world – and so it struck me as a very relevant and timely topic, one that very much affects the lives of my young readers.  


I have had books of mine banned in schools – exclusively due to the pressure of right-wing activists. And I have had contracts cancelled and have struggled to save my career as a children’s book author from being shut down – largely due to the activism of the illiberal left-wing social-media mobs who have taken over the publishing world, applying pressure on the publishers, effectively coercing them into cancelling certain authors and adopting new rules about who is now allowed to write about what particular subject matter.  


So, this is a very personal and very emotional topic for me.  And I think it’s something that children need to wrap their minds around, since it is indeed a phenomenon that surrounds them. 


The book’s format evolved over the course of several revisions. But the initial trope that got the whole thing started was the notion of redacted text.


As a writer, I’ve always believed that the structure of the text, whether that be in a picture book or a poem, should reinforce the central idea – that the two should work in tandem. “Form follows function,” as the architects used to say. 


Over time, I realized that the story itself should reinforce the notion of banned books – thus it is a redacted story about a banned book. (The original story was about something else.)  


It wasn’t until the final revisions that I came up with the idea of adding bracketed commentary beneath every text section. Who knows how many other tropes I may have added if I’d kept revising it for a few more years!  


Q: What do you think Gary Kelley’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Gary Kelley had a very challenging job in illustrating this book – a sort of Mission Impossible as an illustrator! How do you illustrate such a wacko book? 


I believe the approach he came up with is perfect. It gets across the fear and mood of the story – that which surrounds the story. Just as the story itself is a novel variation on what a children’s book is “supposed” to be, his illustration style is a novel variation of what illustrations usually do in relation to the text. 


It’s as if he’s illustrating the world that surrounds the text. Very inspiring. And I believe it’s something children will have a strong response to. 


Q: In a piece earlier this year for the Dallas Morning News, you wrote, “Which kind of censorship is worse for authors: The kind that increases the visibility of a book and sells more copies, or the kind that silences an author quietly, behind the scenes. The kind that restricts an author from writing about the subject matter he’s always written about, or the kind that robs a book’s right to exist. There’s no question mark, because there’s no question.” Can you say more about that?


A: I can say thousands more words about that! And have!


The right-wing book bans, so rampant now in states like Florida and Texas, have gotten a huge amount of media attention. That sells books. I in no way mean to defend this form of censorship, which is absolutely harmful to children and to democracy and the “freedom to read” in general, but it has not hurt me as an author. Just the opposite.  

The sales for my Clemente book were off the charts after the media attention given to the Duval County book ban. And, crucially, neither my book nor the other 173 banned in that school district were unavailable elsewhere. They remained available at public libraries, at book stores, through the internet.  


Compare that to the books that have been cancelled – either by the publishers or the authors themselves – after social media mobs descended on them. Those books get erased altogether. 


Self-righteous mobs of left-wing activists, many of whom by their own admission have not even read these books they attack, decide it is their holy right to decide for the rest of us that these books have no right to exist. They claim, as do their right-wing counterparts, that certain books are “dangerous” and “harmful.”  


And so, due to their social media pressure, these books get disappeared, and the authors get silenced (at least in the particular instances of the books that were permanently cancelled).   


As mentioned, I have had contracts cancelled due to the publishers’ concerns about my identity in relation to the subject matter (not in alignment with the “own voices” or “lived experience” rules now firmly in place in the publishing industry) and due to fear of controversy, negative social media backlash. 


I have been told point-blank by my main editor that they will no longer publish books by me on “people of color, women, or white men” – and that I should try writing about animals instead.  


I’ve been told by other editors that I do not have “the right” to write about Black people – this after a career spent promoting racial justice through my books, and having defended my right, to my nervous editors, to talk about racism in my stories. 


I have been called “a racist, in words, works and deeds” on the website, Reading While White, with no supporting documentation for this untrue, damaging, and libelous charge.  


I have seen a book of mine that had gotten five starred reviews, The Secret Project, basically get disappeared. Positive reviews in trade journals were withdrawn and revised.  


I have spent the last few years feeling as though a censor is perched on my shoulder, telling me before I even set pen to paper that I am not “allowed” to write about this or that topic, and that no editor will touch this. 


Were I to try and get my Roberto Clemente book published today, no major New York publishing company would touch it – because I do not share Clemente’s racial and ethnic identity.  


So yeah, that’s a lot worse, for me at least, than having that book banned in one county in Florida for a couple months (and seeing my sales for that book increase dramatically).  


I would advise your readers to check out the very important report released by PEN America in August, “Booklash:  Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm.”  


It is an extremely thorough examination of the sort of censorship I’m talking about here, coming from within and around the publishing industry, driven entirely by the activism of those who would describe themselves as “progressive.” 


Q: What do you hope kids take away from Banned Book, and what do you see looking ahead when it comes to book banning in this country?


A: I hope that my book will help young readers navigate through the troubled waters created by the censors at both ends of the political spectrum, waters winding their way through the shelves of their school libraries.


I hope it will get them asking questions.


I hope it will inspire curiosity. There is nothing more subversive (and potentially dangerous to the totalitarian state of things created by censors) than curiosity.  


I hope they will try to figure out what words have been blacked out – though I’ll never tell….  


I hope my book will inspire kids to challenge the unfair things adults do in relation to their young lives. 


I hope they will stand up for their right to read.


I think the sort of censorship that’s happening now will continue indefinitely – both in the schools and within the publishing world. 


This is basically a war being fought between Far Right activists and Far Left activists, using children’s books and children as pawns. With every passing day, both sides are getting more entrenched.  


Meanwhile, I think the majority of people think that all censorship is wrong. But the majority of people don’t have the time or the passion or the power to exert their influence over the system. And so the extremists dictate our reality. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on essays in which I describe my recent experiences with all this and defend my right to write. I’m working on trying not to let this affect my physical health as much as it has over the past few years. I’m working on trying to keep my spirits up, not sink into despair. 


I’m working on reaching the hearts and minds of fellow liberals so as to change the world – into a place where I am once again allowed to write about whatever I want to write about (and once again earn an income doing so, as I have for the past 32 years).  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I very much admire the courage and vision of Creative Editions, which wanted to publish this book that no New York publishers would touch.  


I appreciate the integrity and support of the publisher, Tom Peterson. His company provides a light in the darkness – and reminds me of the book-loving environment I first encountered when I entered the publishing world back in 1984.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jonah Winter.

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