Photo by Blake Arens

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, in celebration of Banned Books Week 2017, we’re publishing a series of interviews with writers whose books have been challenged or banned. Today we feature an interview with Alex Gino, author of George.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I was a writer from before I could write. I would dictate stories to my parents, who would copy them down. I’ve always played with language, and I’ve always put words to the page. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I genuinely realized that what I wrote could reach other people and affect them. And there are still plenty of days I question myself, which is one of the hallmarks of being a writer.

Your novel George landed on the Top Ten Most Challenged Books list for 2016 for reasons including the fact that it features a transgender child. What was your initial reaction to the news that it had been challenged?
I wasn’t surprised. Sad and disappointed, but not surprised. Parents want to protect their children. But hiding information about who’s in the world isn’t about protection; it’s limiting access to reality. And for trans and gender-nonconforming kids, it’s discouraging, damaging, and downright dangerous to not see reflections of themselves in books. The road back from invisibility and shame is hard, and not all of us make it.

What book(s) do you wish you had access to as a child, but didn’t?
Oh, so many. Books in which characters were proud to be queer and trans, and books in which characters weren’t quite sure about their sexuality or gender yet. Books with black and POC main characters outside of the contexts of slavery and civil rights.  Disabled characters who weren’t portrayed as either deserving of pity or as superhuman. Books that reflected the larger world I was living in and didn’t see in the options available to me at the library, at school, or at home.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
It’s a little on the nose here, but I’m completely infatuated with words. The ways they sound; the ways they play; the ways they morph; the ways they are shaded by context and informed by their speaker; the ways they come together and dance into sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Oh, and ice cream. I really, really, really like ice cream. I have yet to work it into a book, but that’s merely a matter of time.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I’m working on a second middle grade novel now (Scholastic, 2018). The main character is a white 12 year old who names some of her family’s behaviors as racist at Christmas dinner. I feel like this answer is cheating because it wasn’t daring of me so much as daring of my character. It’s also a shameless plug for my upcoming book. But I’m hoping it will help young folk make sense of the racial crisis this country has been trying not to wrestle with for hundreds of years.

What is the responsibility of the writer?
I think that writers provide insight into what is happening in our culture, whether it’s through nonfiction, contemporary fiction, or the most esoteric sci-fi. Particularly as writers for children, we have the job of connecting young people with the world. We are the ones who can provide alternatives, paths to self, and tools for surviving and thriving.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Writers both expose what is happening in society and give escape from it. We share reality and explore alternatives. But we aren’t in step with each other. Do we have a collective purpose? At a simplistic level, yes: We provide material for people to read and reflect on. But I don’t see a thick line between the artist and the non-artist. I think we’re all, as people, providing opportunities for each other to learn and reflect. So I lean toward saying that it’s not a meaningful description.

What’s your favorite banned book?
I’m not good with favorites, but the one that strikes me to mention at the moment is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Blume is, not surprisingly, a literary role model for me, and this book speaks so sincerely to the confusion of figuring out one’s place in the world. As a banned book, what’s striking to me is that much of the concern was about mentioning menstruation, which is something her readers either have experienced, will experience, or have close people in their life who do, have, and will. Half of the world has periods. Not talking about them doesn’t make them not happen—it just makes people who menstruate less prepared and more likely to feel shame when their bodies mature.

What book would you send to an individual or institution that bans or challenges diverse books?
Well, I’d rather send any book to someone or a group who would read it rather than challenge it, but perhaps this is the perfect place for Red by Michael Hall. I’m practical and my goal is to get books into kids’ hands. Red is often seen as an allegory for trans people and others who aren’t seen for who they are, but in itself, it’s pretty hard to challenge. It’s the story of a blue crayon with a wrapper that says “red.” Other crayons try to box Red in, but it’s not until they’re asked to draw the sea that they get to share themselves.

Speaking of censorship—when, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
The more censorship seems appropriate, the more important it is to question it. Who does the censoring and why are they so keen to keep information and stories from people? Certainly, some works are terrible and harmful and deserve never to be read, but that is the choice of the reader, not the school board. Censorship may be acceptable in cases when someone(s) with privilege and power says something that incites violence against marginalized people, but having to go to such an extreme to find a “yes” only underlines the point that censorship is unacceptable in most other instances. And when it’s a marginalized voice speaking their truth? No, I can’t see an instance where censorship is justified.