Banning books appears to be as American as freedom of speech these days. If a book does not fit “community standards,” make a fuss and let the world know that it is verboten. There is something paradoxical about this protocol. Banning is now a badge of honor. The Strand Bookstore in Manhattan has a table devoted to the culprits—a veritable A-list of “B”-books—representing the folly of repression and suppression of freedom (which, as I said, is a paradox turning in on itself). For many authors, having a book banned is highly effective PR: When news outlets announced that a Tennessee board had removed Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus: A Survivor’s Tale from an eighth-grade curriculum, the ban became a global story and Maus sold out on Amazon.
Jonah Winter‘s new book picture book Banned Book (Creative Editions), illustrated by Gary Kelley and designed by Rita Marshall, reveals the folly of ceding the power of communication to a prejudiced few. The book is a benign text that is increasingly redacted as the text grows into ideas that landed it on the contraband list.
Banned Book is not a morality play or polemic, but it has ironic and cautionary resonance. I asked Winter, Kelley and publisher Tom Peterson to discuss the intent of creating the book.
The increase of book-banning in the U.S. is obviously the inspiration for this project, but who had the idea to produce a banned book?
Jonah Winter: I did. The increase of book-banning in the U.S. is not the only inspiration. I was just as inspired by the sort of censorship coming from within and around the publishing world—the social media pile-ons and demands for books or authors to be cancelled (something I’ve experienced). That being said, I have had my fair share of books banned by right-wing schools. All censorship stinks.
Tom Peterson: As Jonah said, the inspiration for Banned Book is solely his own. His message, his passion, however, immediately resonated with both myself and Rita Marshall, our art director. It is the type of story, the kind of message, that Creative has been committed to publishing and sharing with the world for 90 years now.
Creative Editions certainly lives up to its name, but who is targeted as the audience for this book?
Winter: I write picture books for very young readers (K-4), and that is absolutely my intended audience for this book. Kids know what banned books are! There’s not a child in Duval County, FL, who doesn’t know what a banned book is—or probably any other county in Florida! All the picture books I write for young children—including books about the making of the atom bomb (The Secret Project), the Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill (Oil) and the history of racism in America (Lillian’s Right to Vote)—are predicated on the idea that children can handle the truth, including a much wider range of “difficult” truths that many adults don’t give them credit for being able to handle (one of the reasons, to be sure, why book-banning is so rampant).
Peterson: Thank you, that is our intention with every book we publish, but of course, we are only able to do so with the help of such incredibly talented people as Jonah, Gary and, of course Rita, who is able to weave the wondrous words of Jonah and the incredible illustrations of Gary, seamlessly, into the unique book that Banned Book now is.
As for the target audience, it is my long-held belief that a great book is for everyone—from young to old to all ages in between.
Whether the book is 24 pages or 240 pages, thoughtful, beautiful content is for everyone. Enjoyed in different ways, appreciated on different levels, but still carrying a message for all. At the risk of being questioned for exaggeration, who is any great piece of art for? Michelangelo’s “David”? Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Aren’t they for everyone?
It would seem to be a balancing act—the book is a children’s picture book, but is the satire understandable for them?
Winter: I think kids have much more imagination, and more open minds, than adults. They invent absurd games with absurd rules, engage in make-believe situations. In a word, they play. That’s how I conceived of this book, at least—as opposed to “satire.” Kids like things that are clever, and this is a clever book—if I do say so myself! I think they will appreciate the novelty of a book that has lots of blacked-out words. And I think they will be able to handle the idea of a book about a book being banned … itself being, in a way, banned. Adult readers will immediately see the blacked-out words as redaction—and as such will appreciate it on a different level. And having read lots of news stories about book-banning, they will appreciate the political significance of the story. (Hopefully!) But I don’t think young readers need that sophisticated understanding of the story in order to get a whole lot out of it—including the basic idea that book-banning is bad. Kids understand right and wrong, fair and unfair. That’s what this book is about.
Do you anticipate that there is an audience that will learn from this book, or is it conceived as a symbolic gesture?
Winter: Not to sound like a stuck record, but no! This book was certainly not conceived as a symbolic gesture! I would have no interest in writing such a book. I know there are books like that out there (such as the genre of books I refer to as “I love you so much” books—mainly intended to make parents feel good about themselves). But I always intend my books for an audience of children, and I certainly hope they will connect with this story. I think that “learning from it” is not really my goal either. I hope they see it as a good story—that it helps them process or understand a certain phenomenon that very much affects their world.
Peterson: I worry more about what happens if stories like Jonah’s, illustrations like Gary’s, are not published. What happens then? What is the impact on today’s children if such thoughtful, caring voices are silenced?
Certain parents (and school board members) will definitely take offense. Do you anticipate the banning of this book?
Winter: I sure hope so! That would be the best publicity ever! And it would be hilarious! The banning of Banned Book! Nothing sells more copies of a book than getting it banned—unless it’s getting it banned and also getting national news coverage of the ban, as I recently did with my Roberto Clemente book (Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates), after it was banned in Duval County, FL.
Gary, the illustrations are decidedly somber. Was this approach intensely considered prior to committing to publishing?
Gary Kelley: I was not asked by the publisher, Tom Peterson, or the designer, Rita Marshall, to create a certain style or focus of my illustrations. Rita always prefers that I make my own choices.
The illustrations are somber because the story is somber, but well-written, important and fascinating. It is “contemporary history.”
This type of story will always inspire me to tell it visually. I’m not specifically a dark visual storyteller. I am inspired by variety, cultural history and art history. And thanks to Creative Editions, I get to work on stories with that inspiration. The words spark my visuals but always with total respect for the readers!
It is bound to be covered in the press. Jonah, what is the intention? Is it a call to “reaction,” “action,” or a cautionary tale?
Winter: My intention is to get kids and grownups talking together about what it means to ban a book—or censor a book in any way. I went out of my way not to pinpoint the particular politics of the book-banners in my story. I mean this as a story about censorship. It’s a story about the fact that some people think they have the right to decide—for the rest of us—what books we are allowed to read, or what books deserve to exist … or be destroyed. It is a cautionary tale. But I think a cautionary tale such as this can also be a call to action—to fight censorship wherever it rears its ugly head. And I mean for children to fight this fight.