Jeff & Will present a re-broadcast of the October 14, 2022 episode of Fated Mates that discussed book bans in the U.S. Ahead of the November elections, this is a crucial topic that affects everyone, and is just one of many important issues on the ballot across the country. Fated Mates hosts Sarah MacLean and Jen Prokop interview three experts on what’s happening, who is most impacted, and, most importantly, how we can all help.
In this extended episode you’ll hear from Jarrett Dapier, librarian, activist and author of the children’s book Mr. Watson’s Chickens; Lily Freeman, an activist and student in Central Bucks County,Pennsylvania; and Melissa Walker, a political activist at The States Project, journalist, and a middle grade and YA author.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Episodes Featuring Book Ban Discussions
- Show notes from Stop Book Banning: A Special Episode of Fated Mates:
- Fated Mates website
- Fated States 2022 Phone Banking and Action Info
- Guests and Their Books
- Jarrett Dapier website
- Mr. Watson’s Chickens by Jarrett Dapier, Illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi
- The Most Haunted House in America by Jarrett Drapier, Illustrated by Lee Gatlin
- Jazz for Lunch by Jarrett Dapier, Illustrated by Eugenia Mello
- Lily Freeman Project Uncensored on Instagram
- Lily Freeman’s op-ed from The Philadelphia Inquirer: I’m a trans teen in Central Bucks. Here, it doesn’t ‘get better.’
- Melissa Walker website
- The States Project website
- Violet on the Runway by Melissa Walker
- Let’s Pretend We Never Met by Melissa Walker
- Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker
- The Youth Censorship Database at the National Coalition Against Censorship
- Book Riot’s censorship coverage
- How To Find and Develop a Local Anti-Censorship Group on Book Right
- Intellectual Round Table Freedom Blog
- Report: Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools on PEN America
- PEN America Index of Education Gag Orders (Google Sheet)
- American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom website
- Top 10 Most Challenged Book Lists on American Library Association website
- Central Bucks School Board Passes Library Book Policy; Community Members Say It’s a New Kind of Book Ban on WHYY/PBS
- A Parade Against Book-Banning in Doylestown, as Central Bucks School District Targets ‘Sexualized Content’ on The Philadelphia Inquirer
- Advocates for Inclusive Education website
- Banned Books – Rodems: Finding Banned Books on Illinois University Library (includes an interactive map from the American Library Association)
- Book Ban Busters on Red Wine & Blue
- Brooklyn Public Library Offers Free eCards to Teens Nationwide Facing Book Bans in Local Communities on Brooklyn Public Library
- Ballotpedia website (local ballot and election map information)
- Vote.org website (check vote registration, polling place information and more)
- How to Help
- Educate yourself about the book challenge process in your school district: How it works, who sits on the book challenge committee, how those committee members are appointed.
- If there are book bans and protests in your school district, attend local school board meetings and support students, teachers & librarians who are speaking up.
- Tell your local public and school librarians they have your support. Write letters. Visit the library. Thank them for standing for intellectual freedom.
- Research school board candidates in your district. Vote accordingly.
- Consider running for something! Your school board and your state legislature need you!
- Vote to flip your state legislature blue. Rally your friends to join you in a Giving Circle at the States Project.
- Donate to organizations (listed below) that support intellectual freedom and combat book bans.
- Organizations to Support and Volunteer With
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Links
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Coming up on this episode, we’re pre-empting our regular programming to bring you an important conversation on book bans in the U.S.
Will: Welcome to Episode 401 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of queer romance fiction. I’m Will, and with me as always is my co-host and husband, Jeff.
Jeff: Hello Rainbow Romance Reader. It’s great to have you here for another episode, and especially for this conversation we’re bringing you today.
Will: Before we dive in, we wanted to let you know that the episode we were planning to bring you this week about the Happily Ever After Collective will be coming your way in episode 405 in just a few weeks.
Jeff: So, book bans… We’ve talked about them a few times in the past several months. We had a full episode on it as Pride month began, in episode 381 when Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, the authors of the children’s book “And Tango Makes Three” were here talking about the uptick in bans they were seeing. Even before that, it was part of our conversation with Eric Rosswood and Rob Kearney when they joined us in episode 377 to celebrate the release of their children’s book “Strong.” We’ve also discussed it with TJ Klune back in August as part of our conversation in episode 391. And it’s crucial that we talk about it again, more in-depth, as the U.S. elections are just weeks away, coming up on Tuesday, November 8. We’ve said often in the past few years that voting is crucial, and it remains so. Where conservatives get a majority foothold, whether it’s at the city, state, or Federal level, it means more book bans, more restriction on reproductive rights, more attacks on LGBTQ+ people’s rights, as well as the rights of other marginalized communities, such as persons of color, members of the disabled community, those who are not Christian–basically anyone who doesn’t fit the right wing, conversative mold. It also means more attacks on democracy itself.
What we’re about to bring you now is the complete special episode that our friends over at “Fated Mates” released on October 14, 2022. As soon as we finished listening to it I said to Will, “We need to see if they’ll let us rebroadcast the episode.” And here’s why the rebroadcast is important to us, while we could tell you on social media to go listen to it–which we have–or we could’ve mentioned in the introduction to the episode we had planned for this week, actually bringing it directly to your ears means you don’t have to click on something else to listen to it. It’s right here.
We must thank the “Fated Mates” team, romance author Sarah MacLean, romance reader, editor and critic, Jen Prokop, and their producer Eric Mortensen for putting together this powerful and education episode, and for allowing us to bring it to you as part of our programming.
Sarah and Jen did three amazing interviews. First up is a librarian, activist, teacher and children’s book author; second is a teenage student and activist from Central Bucks County Pennsylvania, and third is a political activist, journalist and middle grade and YA author. Sarah and Jen will introduce them to you and they’ll each give you some perspective on what’s happening with book bans, why we all need to pay attention to this topic–because it’s not going to stop with YA books…there’s little doubt that books with any type of queer content, including romance, will become targets along with other books that reflect the lives of marginalized communities. Perhaps most importantly from these interviews, you’ll learn about what actions you can take right now to fight back.
At the end of the episode, you’ll hear Jen say that a very special episode of “Fated Mates” is sometimes a downer. It’s true, this episode made me alternately angry and sad–to the point that I shed a few tears as I listened because I got that emotional. But as Jen also says, this is an inspiring episode to hear about people doing good work and how you can do good work too. So, if you need to, listen to this in several parts to give yourself a break, or read the transcript if it’s easier for you to take it in that way. However, you take in this information, we thank you for listening and hope that you get as much out of this episode as we did.
So that’s enough from us, let’s get to Sarah and Jen and this special episode of “Fated Mates” that’s entitled “Stop Book Banning.”
Stop Book Banning: A Special Episode of Fated Mates
Sarah & Jen’s Intro
Sarah: So we’ve got an urgent off-Wednesday episode today, Jen.
Jen: Yeah. We’ve been working on this one for a while, everybody. You’ve heard us talking about this wave of book banning that has been happening all over the country. We are concerned about this at many levels as readers primarily, as parents, as a teacher, but also as romance readers. Anyone coming for sexual content writ large, as all bad, is eventually coming for romance. And we are foolish if we think that it won’t, but also even if it’s not sort of…I don’t want it to sound like it’s just, like, self-motivated. I think it is deeply worrying as a reader to live in a country where book banning is so widespread.
Jen: And in a way that isn’t just like people saying, “I don’t want this book in the library,” but that is being written into laws in ways that make it impossible for librarians and teachers to even talk about the presence of these books. It’s so…I almost, like, lack the words for it because it’s so evil to me. Like, that’s really the only word I have for it.
Sarah: And antithetical to what we like to call the fabric of, you know, a nation. When we talk to people who…you know, constitutional purists, like, book banning feels like it’s a hard limit, or should be a hard limit in America. It’s funny because I just recently did an event with Hilary Hallett, who is a professor at Columbia of women’s history. And during our conversation, it came up that in the United States, you can’t ban a book before it’s written. It has to be written in order to ban it. And that felt for a long time like it was the safety net, like, you can’t ban a thought.
But now here we are, and we are in a place where important texts are being written, texts that are about identity, and about culture, and about hope, and that give students and other people, you know, of all ages access to empathy, and storytelling, and identity, and are being stripped from our kids’ libraries and our public libraries. And so this episode felt really important.
It reminds me that we have not introduced ourselves. I’m Sarah MacLean. I read romance novels and I write them.
Jen: And I’m Jennifer Prokop, a romance reader, editor, and I’m a teacher.
Sarah: And you are listening to what we would like to call a very special episode of “Fated Mates.” Because we’ve been recording it for a while, you’ll hear from three really interesting people on this episode, people who are much smarter than us. And we felt that it was really important that this episode get out in advance of the election. Election day is the first Tuesday in November [Correction: In 2022, Election Day is Tuesday, November 8]. And you can check your registration at vote.org, which is essential. Make sure you’re registered. We need you at the polls in the United States. And we’re gonna do this.
We’re gonna hear from three people. We’re gonna hear from an author and librarian who has a lot to say. We’re gonna hear from a kid who’s impacted every day by these bans in Pennsylvania. And we’re gonna hear from an author and political activist.
Jen, tell us about our first guest.
Jen: So, our first guest is Jarrett Dapier. He is a Chicago guy. My friend Elisa set us up with him, so thanks to Elisa. He is an author and a librarian. And he also teaches a class at the University of Illinois, like, librarian school, whatever it’s called, in censorship. So it was really important for us to talk to someone who has, like, the big broad scope not just of what’s happening now, but of censorship, kind of the history of censorship in America. And he does a great job, I think, at laying out sort of what’s happening, how it’s impacting schools and libraries across the country, as well as teachers and librarians, and the legal ramifications of what’s going on.
One other thing I guess I should say before we hear from Jarrett is our goal really with all three people, you’ll hear us asking similar questions, is what can our listeners do? What can our listeners do? So we hope that as you listen to today’s episode, that you are inspired to take some kind of action. And maybe all you can do is donate money, but writing letters, going to a school board meeting, you’re gonna hear similar things from each person voting.
So our goal, everybody, like, we don’t usually give you action steps, we give you books to read… is at the end of this, we hope that you will be inspired to do something. And one of those really important things is also, no matter what you are going to do, is to share what you have learned here with other people.
One of the things that I’m shocked to find, I think everybody is, that even though this wave of book bannings is happening, many people are unaware of it. They’re unaware of what’s happening in their local community, they’re unaware of what’s happening across the country. Or they feel like it can’t happen in their local community, it can only happen somewhere else. And we’re telling you that’s just not true.
So we hope that you’ll vote, you’ll share the news, and that you yourself by the end will think, “This is something I can do.” So I just wanna be really clear before we hear from Jarrett, like, you have a job to do, too, listeners. And that is to try and make this better in whatever way you can.
Sarah: Two, I just want to, before we start with Jarrett, point to show notes which will be filled with links. All of our guests gave us great links, great resources. Also, I wanna underscore, if you are curious about what’s going on in your own community, you can visit the PEN America site, which has a comprehensive list as of now of book bannings and book challenges across the country. You will be shocked by the states where this is happening on the regular, including places like Vermont, which you would never expect to be on this list. So, yeah, it’s important.
And, also we should say Jarrett is the author of a book called “Mr. Watson’s Chickens,” which is possibly the most delightful picture-book concept ever, about Mr. Watson and his partner, who have a house full of chickens.
Jen: All right. Without further ado, here’s Jarrett.
Jarrett Dapier Interview
Jen: Hello, everybody. So, as you know, we are talking about censorship this week on “Fated Mates.” And we are lucky to have a very special guest with us. We’re gonna let him introduce himself. This is a friend of…I have a friend, Elisa. They were really instrumental, their school librarian. And I was like, “Elisa, help me find the perfect guest to talk about censorship.” And they said, “You need to talk to Jarrett.” So, welcome, Jarrett, to “Fated Mates.”
Jarrett: Thank you so much.
Sarah: Thanks for joining us.
Jarrett: I’m really happy to be here. Yeah.
Sarah: I said this before we started, but Jarrett actually wins Best Guest Award because he came with his own show notes, so it’s terrific.
Jarrett: Like I said, also, I’m a librarian, so I have to come prepared.
Sarah: So, Jarrett, just for everybody, tell us a little bit about yourself, like, how you came to…you’re an author, too. So, give us the whole frame. And then, why don’t you bring us to how you came to be so interested in censorship, and what’s happening now?
Jarrett: Yeah, of course. Again, thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this all week because things are so upsetting and so difficult right now that any opportunity to speak with people who understand what’s happening, and why it’s so severe and threatening to a lot of rights that that we hold dear or want to see strengthened, is important. And I think it’s important to my own mental health. So thank you for talking with me about this topic.
So, yeah, I’m Jarrett Dapier, and I’m a librarian. I’ve worked as a young adult librarian with teens in the Chicagoland area since 2009. And I’m also an author of books for children and teens. So I have three picture books out. One is called “Jazz for Lunch!” The second is called “Mr. Watson’s Chickens.” And the one that just came out is called “The Most Haunted House in America.”
And in one year, Chronicle Books will publish my first YA piece of writing. It’s a graphic novel about an infamous censorship incident that occurred in Chicago Public Schools in 2013 when the administration for CPS sent out a directive to all schools to remove the graphic novel, “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, from every single school, classrooms and libraries.
And a group of students, it was a almost totally student-led response, they protested and made a very big deal, and were quite savvy about including media and comic artists, and just alerting the public. And as a result, it became a lot bigger than I think CPS ever thought it would be. And they were instrumental in getting the sort of blanket ban mostly reversed. I say that because there was a caveat.
But it’s a graphic novel. It’s a fictionalization of that whole sort of string of events. But I remember when it happened in 2013, and I’ve always just felt really, really connected to that story. “Persepolis” is one of my favorite books. And I was really inspired by the teens who organized very quickly to fight back against the censorship of that book. So that comes out in a year, and it’s called “Wake Now In The Fire.”
Jarrett: Thank you.
Jen: What this also tells me is that you have been interested in censorship for a long time.
Jarrett: Yes, I have. My first job out of college was at the ACLU of Illinois. And I was a legal assistant for the First Amendment project. And I was always, first and foremost, passionate about the rights of teenagers, particularly their rights to speech and freedom of expression. It really sort of professionally started there, but I also know when I was a teenager, I felt really passionate about it then, too.
Jen: I’m in my late 40s. And, like, in the ’80s when I was a teenager, a really popular movie was called, like, “Field of Dreams.” I don’t know if you remember this.
Jarrett: Oh, yeah.
Jen: But there’s this throwaway scene where the people in this small Iowa town want to ban books. And, like, they’re clearly the bad guys.
Jen: And it’s like Kevin Costner’s wife is like, “Is that who we are? Like, book banners?” And I just remember sometimes I think about that scene and think, what happened to my generation, that we grew up with a movie where clear…this was like a easy shortcut for, like, being a bad guy.
Sarah: And it’s not like “Field of Dreams” was like a way-out-there movie.
Jen: No. Exactly.
Sarah: It’s pretty conservative, like, small C movie.
Jen: Yes. And I keep thinking to myself like, what happened to my generation that, like, now we’re the book banners? And I mean, obviously, not we, but when we think about, like, the history of book banning, like, what’s happening now does seem qualitatively different in some ways? Is that true or does it just feel that way to me?
Jarrett: I think it is absolutely true. It’s unique to our time right now. And that is because the sheer pervasiveness of book challenges and book bans in schools, and also public libraries, it’s staggering, and it’s nationwide. And it has varying levels of extremity…extremity, extremity, extremeness? You know what I mean?
Sarah: I do.
Jarrett: Depending on the place and, I guess, the sort of twisted imagination of the people who are organizing these bans. So it’s nationwide and it’s affecting school librarians, teachers, public librarians. It’s definitely affecting administrators whose feet are being held to the fire by very aggressive people. And it’s, most importantly, really harming teenagers’ access to a wide variety of materials that I would argue are life-saving at times, and are definitely affirming for many, many teens.
And the thing about the people who are doing this is that they are organized, they’re strategic, and they are well funded. And while a lot of it looks very grassroots, a lot of it is funded by conservative right-wing, you know, political action committees, as well as just private donors in places like Texas and Pennsylvania, Tennessee, so on, and especially Florida, of course.
But looking specifically at American history of censorship, I teach intellectual freedom and censorship at University of Illinois for their library school, and we were just talking about this last week. That while we can say that now feels different, we have to acknowledge the strains of authoritarian laws that have constricted, and ruined, and harmed the lives of people of color, women, LGBT folks, religious minorities, people with disabilities, you know, throughout the history of America to the point that those stories were not allowed to be published. Or if they were, it was underground or it was, you know, even sort of samizdat. That’s, like, the Russian sort of, like, underground, like hand-copied zine style, you know, passed from person to person.
Jen: The way people read, like, “Animal Farm.”
Jarrett: Exactly. And, so we have to acknowledge that when you look at Jim Crow and the segregation of public libraries, and the fact that, you know, people of color had to go in a different door, if they were allowed in at all, and their materials were garbage. And there was no open access to information for, you know, Black folks before the Civil Rights Movement. And just the country in a lot of ways is founded on censorship of perspectives that are not white, heterosexual, cisgendered, and male.
Sarah: And wealthy, right?
Jarrett: And wealthy. Yeah. And I was listening to your interstitial podcast in 2019. The things you talked about, the patriarchy, and the white wealthy male drive to control bodies and minds has been alive since the beginning, and is alive right now. And we’re seeing it in a different form.
But one thing I think is true is that it’s good news in a way that these stories are out there to be censored in the first place. Because 20 years ago, they weren’t, especially not in schools. Maybe a little bit in public libraries, but publishers just weren’t publishing, you know, more than a handful of Black authors writing for teens, or less than that. And certainly not LGBTQ materials or representation unless it was, you know, probably, like, stories that, you know, warned.
Sarah: Exactly. The dangers of this.
Jarrett: Exactly. But, yeah, I think what is different is just how unabashedly out in the open the sexism, and misogyny, and homophobia, and racism going on right now.
Sarah: Can you talk a little bit about what’s happening from the perspective of the librarians who are really, like, front-lining this? Like, what is going on among all of you to combat this? Or, I mean, what’s it like? Well, I mean, this is sort of a…I mean, what’s it like being the person the kids are coming to?
Jarrett: So, I really feel for the school librarians that are being attacked right now, because oftentimes if a school district has a school librarian at all, it’s just one. And so that person is in, you know, by its nature, a kind of lonely role already. And they are being scapegoated, absolutely, for so many things.
There’s a intellectual freedom expert named Dr. Emily Knox. She’s a friend of mine. But she always, always encourages people to try and think about what is behind the motivation to ban a book? Not necessarily because we want to justify it or excuse it in any way, although I do believe, you know, empathy is a very important force. But to be effective and to be strategic in countering it, we have to understand not just what it is on its face, but what is driving it.
And a lot of librarians right now, I just think, are feeling…well, for one thing, a lot of people are running from the profession, because they’re getting death threats. In some states, they are being criminalized. So some states are passing laws, or hoping to pass laws that will criminalize a librarian for providing a material that the state or the school board has deemed obscene or pornographic. And this, number one, threatens jail time, but also the possibility of being ruined financially because of lawsuits.
And so you’re seeing this…librarians in a lot of ways are a very vulnerable population. We don’t have much political power. The school librarians are often on their own, though they have networks online and, of course, professional networks. But I think, to answer your question, we’re feeling very demoralized and very scared. Personally, I think public libraries are a bedrock institution of democracy. And the fact that some are closing down because they’re being defunded, and the fact that some are closing down because the staff just, you know, in one fell swoop, quit, which I don’t blame them for, is really alarming and scary.
Jen: Like, I mean, obviously right now, if everyone could see our faces, we’re all just like…it’s so scary. The weight of this is so overwhelming.
Sarah: It is worth saying that Nora Roberts…we’ll put this in show notes, but Nora Roberts a couple of weeks ago funded a library that was closed by the town board…
Sarah: …because of the materials within. And I love the idea that she just called them up and said, “How much does it cost to keep you open for the year?” And she wrote them a check. And someday…
Sarah: …I promise I’ll do it if I can. But what can we do in the meantime?
Jarrett: And I do want to be sensitive to the interests of your listeners. We should talk about, like, what materials are being challenged and banned, because I think it directly ties into the interest of your listeners.
Number one, there have been 1,500 or more instances of book challenges/book bannings that have been reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association. That is more than has ever been reported to that office in the office’s history, which is over 50 years old. And when I say 1,500, that’s just reported instances. That’s not 1,500 books.
What those 1,500 represent is probably thousands and thousands of books being challenged, removed, banned from school districts, classrooms, and libraries. And over half of them are young adult novels, a sizable sliver is adult novels for sure, but it’s mostly children and young adult materials. And among children and young adult materials, it is materials that have even the slightest whiff of LGBTQ content or representation, the tiniest. And anything with that kind of representation is being deemed in, city after city, after city, in town after town, as pornographic or obscene.
So, one that I always talk about is Raina Telgemeier wrote a sweet, little graphic novel called “Drama.” And it’s for, like, third, fourth, fifth, sixth graders. And there’s two boys who have a crush on each other. And I think maybe one kisses the other on the cheek, or maybe they just hug, but this book has been assailed as pornographic and obscene by hysterical parents and motivated school boards. And that’s the thing. We have to acknowledge that they have targeted, like, extreme right-wing conservatives and Christians, you know. Or maybe they’re all one and the same, but they have targeted school boards and library boards.
And so this is something I think they’ve been building towards for a while, but it’s been a very big takeover. And usually when they just tip the balance of power, they go to town on the literature. And they have friends in town who bring challenges, and so on and so forth. But LGBTQ materials, absolutely, and then materials that depict, or show, or talk about, or feature characters of color. And then on top of those two, anything that deals with human sexuality.
A lot of the non-fiction books that are being targeted are books that provide just basic, respectful information about physiology, relationships, consent sex, and how it works. And if you look at…PEN America has an index on banned titles. And if you scroll through that…I was doing it yesterday. And it’s not funny because it’s so serious, but so many of these books on sexuality have titles like “It’s Perfectly Normal,” or, you know, “Sex.” And they are written respectfully and appropriately for their audience.
Sarah: For “Field of Dreams” watchers.
Jarrett: Yes. Baseball fans who love Kevin Costner will love these books. But those are being removed completely from the shelves. And a writer in “The Washington Post” yesterday wrote something that, also, I was thinking about your listeners because romance readers are so passionate about the genre, and read so much. And I also teach a class on literacy and reading, and we talk about the romance genre as truly being a genre of readers, or the fan base is a fan base of true readers. And so many of them, as I’m sure you can attest, and I think you did in one of the episodes I listened to, read romance on your own, or motivated to read it, loved it, and it was your choice. It wasn’t assigned to you, obviously. But you came to it on your own.
And this writer in “The Washington Post” was talking about what is different about now is that the books that are being targeted are overwhelmingly books that are available to teens and kids to choose to read instead of being assigned to read. And what we know about the motivation to read is that, number one, being able to freely choose your own book is crucial, and two, being able to see yourself or see some information that is identifiable or pertinent to you and your life, and your interests, those two things are the basis for the motivation to read.
So, you know, romance readers…romance has been, like, mocked and dismissed by critics and elites, you know. I mean, I don’t think you can…maybe horror fans and mystery fans are, like, the other two fan bases, but I can’t think of another fan base that, like, reads more books just from being in a library. Like, I know that and I’ve seen it, and having friends who own bookstores, you know.
So the fact that books that kids and teens can see themselves in and choose themselves are being yanked out of their hands is a disaster for literacy, but it’s also a disaster just for their own education. And, I can’t remember, one of you was talking about just learning about sex and body parts from romance books.
Jarrett: And how that happened for you. And, so think about this country does such an abysmal job of educating children and teens about sex to begin with. And now, you know, any kind of mention of it or depiction of it in a graphic novel is just…it’s verboten.
Sarah: Well, we talked about this on that episode, too, but, you know, understanding mitigates fear. So if we understand how our bodies work, which all of these books…which books like, you know, “Sex” teach us, then suddenly they can’t use fear of what our bodies are and how they work to control us.
Jarrett: Exactly. Yeah.
Sarah: And these kids need that. I mean, they should not be learning about their bodies from romance novels. They should be learning about them from, like, real books.
Jen: Porn is easily accessible.
Jen: At least when I learned about sex from romance novels, like, it was deeply entrenched in the idea that, like, women and their pleasure were important. I learned that from romance. I didn’t learn that anywhere else. If I learned about sex from porn, I don’t think that’s what I would have learned.
Jen: It just, like, hurts. Everything in my brain hurts thinking about not every child is a reader. And as time goes on, less…like, there’s so much competition for reading time.
Jarrett: So much. Oh, my God.
Jen: And as an adult, I’m already entrenched as a reader. Like, nothing’s gonna take that away from me. But I have watched kids become less interested in reading over the course of a school year as they become really interested in something else. So when I think about what this will do, the long-term effects on an entire generation of kids who are told, “You aren’t allowed to read the books that are interesting to you, that speak to you. That are real about the experience of, like, what it means to be in a relationship, to have human sexuality, that is not just like a binary. It only means this,” it’s painful for me to think about.
Jarrett: Me, too.
Sarah: Well, and empathy.
Sarah: Like, raising a generation of kids who have no empathy or understanding of people outside of themselves. Which is maybe the point. I mean, it has to be the point.
Jarrett: Yeah. In a lot of ways, if you take it back to the patriarchy, which we have to, it’s about like returning humans to being objects, you know, for the pleasure of white males. And easily manipulated and exploited. And that’s the thing, is ignorance really begets suffering. And it’s very ignorant to go attacking these books. But you’re also spreading ignorance. And the irony is a person might be afraid, understandably, of a really wild and ugly world of imagery, sexual imagery online. A parent might be really upset about that and feel out of control. And I completely sympathize.
But the irony is that by removing well-written books about sexuality and relationships, you’re sort of leaving the kids to only go looking for…because they’re gonna go looking for information about it.
Jarrett: And unless they’re, like, naturally skilled at, you know, critically…
Jen: Discovering Scarleteen.
Jarrett: Yeah. Exactly. Critically surfing the web. Showing my Gen X roots by calling it surfing the web. But…
Sarah: The world wide web.
Jen: I support you.
Jarrett: Yes. Surfing the internet.
Jen: I think that, for parents who are not readers, there probably is nothing more threatening than seeing their children read books that they don’t understand, or were not privy to, or did not…you know what I mean? And I will admit I also think, like, a lot of parents are wildly, to the point of hilarity, honestly, oblivious to what their kids can easily find on the internet.
So the book banning probably seems like, “Well, look, this book is in front of me, and I see that it’s bad, and I don’t agree with it.” And it doesn’t even occur to them what these kids can find in 0.3 seconds on the world wide web. And so there’s part of me, too, that’s like, it just shows also a really profound kind of ignorance about, like, what’s out there.
Jen: Like you’re closing…it’s not even like closing the barn door after, like, you know, the cow is out, or wherever that saying is. It’s, I mean, like closing the mouse hole and the entire rest of the barn is open.
And as you said, and the thing I just want to reiterate over and over again, is, like, these books are the ones that are the safest. They are fact-checked. They are coming out of traditional publishing probably, if they’re in a library. These are deeply researched. You know, these are people who’ve talked to psychologists and wrote there. Like, it’s perfectly normal. You’re not getting that from some rando site on the internet that kids aren’t…you know, so it’s just so backwards, if you love your children and you want them to be happy and successful. I am dumbfounded by it.
Sarah: So, Jarrett, we are going to talk in a bit with somebody about the political ramifications of all of this, how politics are impacted by, and are impacting this whole world. But for people who can’t run for…you know, are not people who run for office, and, you know, people who… “Yes, I’m gonna go vote in November.” But what can they do on the ground in their school districts, in their libraries, at their school board meetings? What are the things that our listeners can do today, tomorrow, next week to help?
Jarrett: Yeah. This is so important, because they’re so organized and well-funded. We have to speak up and we have to show up. And absolutely, we need to look locally as much as possible. So, everybody needs to look locally, locally, locally. What is going on in your school district? What is going on at your public library? Who is running for school board coming up maybe this year or another year? Who’s running for library board? What is their platform? Be very wary of the term “parental rights” because that’s code for suppressing all of the stuff we’ve talked about today.
So find out about upcoming elections and do everything you can to support the people who are going to defend the right to read and the right to access information that children and teens need. One very tangible thing is, please thank librarians. Go into the library and tell them you support them. Because we do feel very lonely right now and feel very attacked. And honestly, a number of them feel extremely scared.
And I was just listening to a podcast the other day, or, no, it was an NPR interview with a librarian in Louisiana who was sobbing in this interview because her life has been threatened multiple times. And we shouldn’t ignore the fact that predominantly this is a profession staffed by female workers. So that’s another layer that, you know, makes, you know, them a target for scapegoating and attacks. But if you have children, please let your school librarian, if your school has one, know that you support them and that you are not down with this.
The Freedom to Read Foundation is an independent organization associated with the American Library Association. The Freedom to Read Foundation, they don’t bring legal actions, but they join legal actions and reinforce legal actions to protect the right to read. And so, if you could donate and become a member of the Freedom to Read Foundation, it would be hugely helpful because they are all over the country, but they are a staff of, like, two people right now.
Make art and get it out in any way possible. You know, authoritarian systems depend on people, you know, isolating, not expressing themselves creatively, and not connecting with each other. And especially, they suppress art. So, especially if you’re not in one of, like, the elite centers, you know, LA, Chicago, New York, definitely make art because your perspective and your point of view is important, and we need that in every community.
So, part of showing up, too, is if there is a challenge going on in your community, show up at those school board meetings to speak out to defend the materials being challenged. Because more often than not, it’s just the teens showing up, and sometimes it’s, like, one or two of them. And they feel terrified because there might be 50 or 60 parents who are enraged. And then you have two teenagers speaking up to say, like, “Leave us alone, and let me live.”
Jen: How can people find out? I mean, I guess I would assume, like, your local newspaper. But, you know, of course, local news is…
Jarrett: Yeah, I know.
Jen: …you know. I mean, it’s like when you think about all of the ways the safety net for this…
Sarah: It’s a big mess.
Jen: …has been removed, is there, like, a clearing house or a place that is kind of keeping track of that? You know what I mean? Like, someone could find out, like, “Oh, this is happening in my community?”
Jarrett: So “Book Riot” is doing fantastic work to update readers about censorship news on a weekly basis. So is the Office for Intellectual Freedom. They’ve got a long sort of clearinghouse list of new developments. But PEN America now has not only just exhaustive, constantly updated index of book bans that is searchable, so you can search for your own town, you could search for certain titles, certain states, they also have an index on gag orders, which affects librarians, too.
We didn’t even talk about how in Oklahoma you can be arrested for providing information to a patron about where they can obtain an abortion locally, which would be considered illegal there. That’s criminal now. Gag orders are a new sort of weapon where librarians aren’t even allowed to talk about certain things. And so, PEN America runs these indexes, and you can search both book bans and, sort of, like, actions against librarians and information professionals.
And then…yeah, those are the big ones. For me it’s PEN America, “Book Riot.” Kelly Jensen there does amazing work. And then there’s a person on Twitter, Tasslyn Magnusson. And I wanna say that the index on PEN America is her index that she created. And she may be the one updating it, but she is doing incredible work advocating for readers. So follow her if you’re on Twitter. But, yeah, make your support for freedom of expression as visible as possible. Talk to neighbors. And so many people don’t even know this is going on. I was talking to a neighbor yesterday who has a child who would definitely be affected by this, and she had no idea.
Sarah: Well, I also just want to say, because I spent some time this summer in a small town in Rhode Island, and there were school board election signs everywhere, which is a great tell because that didn’t used to happen, where there would be tons of school board with whole slates. Like, “Vote for this entire slate of school board officials this November.” So if you see those around, that could be a very easy red flag that something’s up on your ballot in November.
Jarrett: Absolutely. And I think we need to develop language to push back against the really vile language that the opposition is using to vilify librarians. They’re calling them groomers, and they’re calling them pedophiles for providing materials that might have sexual content or might have LGBT content.
And I think we need to really push…nobody wants to engage with those terms because they’re so terrible, but it’s also incredibly insulting to call a librarian a groomer, especially to people who have been targeted by predators, and have survived assault. It’s just despicable, and we need to call it out for what it is, as just like a despicable tactic. And we need to come up with wording that, I think, counters their arguments about, like, “Well, how can you defend this graphic novel when on page 67, there’s a penis, right there? It’s drawn in this graphic novel.”
And I think a lot of people shut down because it’s like, then the second you go, “Well, what’s the context for it?” You know, then they scream, “Groomer,” at you, you know. So they pull things out of context. And we have to find an effective way to counter it, but I think strength in numbers is the key. The more of us that are there to say…
Sarah: And you don’t have to be a parent to go to school board meetings. You don’t have to be a parent to thank school librarians. It’s okay, you vote for these people, you have a place at those meetings as well.
Jarrett: Absolutely. You’re part of the community that…I mean, you’re a part of creating the community you want to see. So that’s a great point.
Jen: And I would even say, even if there are no challenges in your town, it’s still worth it for you to write a letter to your local library, to your local school saying, “I hope this doesn’t happen here. And if it does, please know that you have my support that kids in our community deserve to have books that represent who they are, to see a different world. And I hope that, you know, if a book banner comes along, you’ll say, ‘but, like, we’ve received these letters in support.” So you don’t also have to wait for it to be a crisis in your town, you can preemptively decide to, like, sort of make your voice heard.
Jarrett: Absolutely. Yeah. I wrote a letter to the staff of Downers Grove Public Library, locally here, just to thank them for their efforts to support LGBT, not just materials, but programs at their library. And they just shut down a Drag Queen Storytime because they were…nobody knows the details but people have been saying it must have been pretty severe what was coming in on the phone lines and on email, that they would shut it down. So, yeah, the opposition is a mix of Christian sort of fascists and white power groups like the Proud Boys, and, I think, misinformed parents who feel out of control in a really out-of-control world. It’s a sort of confluence of a lot of factors, but it’s all ugly.
Sarah: But there are more of us than there are of them.
Jarrett: There are. That’s the thing.
Sarah: I know.
Jen: We just gotta all say something. One last thing is, if you are in a town like this and your child’s access to these materials has been compromised, the Brooklyn Public Library has committed to essentially giving a library card to every teenager in America, if they ask for one. And so, we’ll put out those links in show notes as well.
I mean, the thing that’s really hard, I also think it’s scary and not something we can predict right now, although, you know, publishing is a business, and one that I think has shown…I don’t know, they seemed very quick to roll over. I’ve been really unimpressed in a lot of ways with publishing’s response to this. It is not hard to imagine that the pipeline of why literature is now deeply compromised.
Jarrett: Yes. I agree.
Jen: And so, I think the other thing that’s gonna be really important, I mean…and I think people sort of like to think, like, “Well, I’ll just buy a copy and put it in my little free library.” But, you know, that is not gonna stop necessarily what’s happening. And if it is clear to publishing that these books are just too much trouble for them to deal with, they won’t acquire and publish them. And that is tragic.
Jen: The tragedy of this is like a ticking time bomb that’s gonna explode at different levels at different times, like, a month from now, a year from now, five years from now. And so the important thing, too, is for us not to give up, to keep saying, like, these books are important to us, important to our community, important to our children, important to us as parents and teachers, and Americans as opposed to just saying, like, “Okay, fine.”
Jarrett: Absolutely. The more points of view, the better. Yeah.
Jen: Jarrett, what else should we know, you know, before we go? Any last words of hope? Are there ways in which…are there, like, good stories out there we can share? Something?
Jarrett: I personally have a good story. “Mr. Watson’s Chickens,” my picture book, features a loving same-sex couple. And it was challenged in a very small town in Alabama. And a mom there who’s very, you know, tapped in to the library and what’s going on in town contacted me to let me know. And she was certain this book is done for at the public library. Everything you’ve seen in the movies is what my town is like, you know, small town, Alabama. She said it’s just a matter of time till when they make the decision.
But, she did just absolutely heroic work gathering together 16 or 17 letters of support for “Mr. Watson’s Chickens,” including her ex-husband who wrote about raising their son who’s gay, and friends and neighbors. And she made this package she handed out to every board member. She spoke passionately at the school board meeting. And then shockingly, they unanimously voted to keep the book. And that was huge. We were shocked.
Sarah: Listen, that’s one person.
Sarah: Everybody out there…it takes one of you. One of us can do that. We can save “Mr. Watson’s Chickens.”
Jarrett: “Mr. Watson’s Chickens.” And books like it. You know, a book came out called “Bathe the Cat,” maybe a couple months after “Mr. Watson’s Chickens.”
Sarah: Well, that does seem dangerous, bathing cats.
Jarrett: It is. The cat does not wanna be bathed. But, you know, it’s a family with two dads. And they’re a loving family, and they’re dealing with having to get ready for a relative who’s coming to visit. And one of the tasks is, someone needs to bathe the cat. And the cat keeps, like, subverting that. But, like, a book like that is an absolute target. And it’s so delightful. And what a wonderful hopeful thing for kids to just read books with representation like that and not even question it, because the story is really about the cat, and the chickens. There’s no issue with the relationship.
Jen: And I guess that’s probably what makes it so dangerous to people, right?
Jarrett: Yeah. Exactly.
Sarah: We say all the time, happiness is subversive. The reason why, like, reading romance is powerful because joy is subversive. And…
Jarrett: So many books, especially the YA books that are being challenged, especially the LGBT content, are very, like, affirming books. They provide visibility. And a lot of them are stories of self-acceptance. And “Gender Queer,” the number-one banned book now in America, even the scene that parents object to as, you know, graphic and obscene, it’s a scene of consent. It’s a scene where two people are trying to figure out, “What works for us sexually given the fact that one of us doesn’t like certain things, and the other one does. But we’re figuring it out.”
I mean, if you look at the scene as a whole, it’s two people communicating openly and lovingly with each other, and with respect. And that is what I took away from that scene when I read it.
Jen: Yeah. I think it’s also just really important to say if you see, you know, a list of banned books, and it has, I don’t know, like, “Catcher in the Rye,” listen, that’s not what they’re trying to ban right now. We are talking about, like, the wholesale banning, essentially, like, trying to pull us all back, 35 or 40 years to a time when every queer kid had to be in the closet, preferably for the rest of their lives. And we just aren’t gonna go back to that.
Jarrett: We can’t.
Jen: We can’t. And what we say inside the industry, and you mentioned at the beginning, is, like, having these books on your shelves, in your home, in your classroom, in your library, it is suicide prevention.
Jen: And the idea that anyone would take…I’m gonna cry. Like, we just can’t. We can’t go back. We deserve better, our kids deserve better. And this is just the most urgent work of any reader, has to be making sure that every other reader gets to read whatever they want.
Jarrett: Absolutely. Thanks for saying that. And the fact that even online resources like The Trevor Project are being filtered out of schools, projects and organizations that provide information about suicide prevention, and the fact that you’re not alone, and there is help available, is really grim. And one thing I noticed in the list, too, is there are a lot of books that if there’s sexual assault involved in the story, or if the book is about that, it’s attacked. It’s removed.
And one thing that is different about this time is boards are removing books when they’re challenged instead of leaving them on the shelves until we decide whether or not we’re gonna remove them. So that’s how parents are getting away with submitting a list of 380 titles that they’re challenging, and then half the library’s gone. And so this is happening more and more, and boards just don’t seem to care that they’re violating, you know, their own policies.
Jen: And presumably they’re pulling these lists. These are just lists that they have. And so they haven’t looked at the books.
Jarrett: There’s a story of a northern Idaho librarian who was vilified in her community by parents who were angry at her. They came in to ask if they had “Gender Queer,” and they didn’t. And this parent had a list of books, and they didn’t have any of them. But they somehow turned it around on the librarian that she was…she quit. I mean, she quit and is moving from the town she’d lived in for, like, 20 years. But they vilified her, and she wasn’t even providing the books they wanted to ban. She just…
Jen: Was a librarian.
Jarrett: Absolutely. So…
Jen: I don’t know. I mean, like, we’re really far afield. I said we’d be on for 30 minutes, it’s an hour later. But I think the thing I think about a lot is, like, you have to believe. I hope all of our listeners believe, like, your child is his or her, their own person. And book banning is really instead about control. Is, like, “I want to control the type of person my kid is.” And let me tell you, it just doesn’t work that way.
Sarah: No. They fail. This will fail.
Jarrett: Completely. They’re in for a big shock. But I think, if nothing else, let your motivation be the fact that the people doing this are trying to control what your child can have access to. And they’re doing it under the mantle of parental rights. And what about the rights of parents who have LGBT kids, or who are passionately allies of LGBT folks, or have family, whatever, I mean, or are people of color? What about their rights? They’re talking about a subset of certain parents’ rights.
Jen: Well, as you said at the beginning, in America, that’s always been our subtext, right?
Jarrett: Yeah. But do believe one person can make a difference. I’m glad you said that because that mom in Alabama gives me hope, because it might just take one person knowing about this, hearing this podcast, and then doing something. That might be enough.
Jen: Yeah. So if you’re looking for the one thing to do while you’re all listening right now, we’re all book lovers. We all know how important school librarians and public librarians were to our own reading journeys. It takes no time for you to google what’s going on in your own town. And that’s your job right now. That’s the task you can do today, and go from there.
Jen: Jarrett, thank you so much for being with us this week.
Jarrett: Thank you.
Jen: We really appreciate it. Jarrett gave us tons of information in show notes, which you’ll see. We’ll also put it on social media. But this is really all hands on deck. If you care about reading, if you care about freedom to read, then it’s starting in YA, it’s starting with kids. It’s coming for all of us. And that doesn’t mean it’s, like, selfish or self-motivated. I guess it maybe is. But I care about kids, and I care about making space for them to be who they are. And librarians do that more than probably anyone, so they really need our support.
Sarah: Thanks so much, Jarrett.
Jarrett: Thanks for having me.
Sarah: What a delight.
Jen: I know. Amazing.
Sarah: Look, there is a double-page spread in “Mr. Watson Chickens” of the house full of chickens. And it’s too many chickens, is what it is.
Jen: Yeah. It’s like Richard Scarry’s Busytown, only chicken town.
Sarah: If I can find all the chickens.
Jen: So, anyway, I was so grateful to have him really paint the picture of, like…
Sarah: What’s happening and how scary it is for librarians and teachers.
Jen: Yeah. Absolutely.
Sarah: We can’t afford to be losing librarians in this country right now.
Jen: I don’t think…again, I keep using the word “evil.” Like, the very idea that you would fire people for supporting their students is, like, beyond for me. I can’t even wrap my head around it really.
Sarah: And the big takeaway for me from the conversation with him aside from all the obvious things is, like, just being a presence, a supportive, positive presence for librarians, and teachers, and other activists in the community, but particularly, like, sending a letter to your local library. You know, dropping in and telling them that you support them, even if, even if it’s not happening in your community.
You know, we talk all the time in writer circles about how essential libraries and librarians are to not only how we became readers, but also how we became writers, and how readers find us. You know, those of us who are here, and able, and lucky enough to make a living doing this work, like, we wouldn’t be here without librarians. And, so…
Sarah: I, sort of, was instantly, sort of, thoughtful about who are the librarians who I can write a letter to right now, and say thanks to?
Jen: I think the thing about school board meetings, I’m thinking back to a conversation… I was at a conference away, like, conference in Las Vegas. And one of the authors was talking about how, you know, these kids mobilized to show up at these school board meetings. And, like, maybe one teacher, or one author, or whatever, is with them to support them, and then it’s like all these rabidly angry parents who have been stirred up by, like, watching Fox News.
Sarah: It’s scary.
Jen: That is scary. I mean, and I know it’s hard, but if you hear that there is a action happening at a school board meeting, one of the most important things you can do if you are free is to go and just sit there, and be a support to those students who need to see that not all adults feel that way. So those in-person meetings can also be very contentious and angry. And it is hard for me to imagine how brave it must be as a high school student or an elementary school student to get up and say, like, “You should let me read the books I want,” right?
Lily Freeman Interview
Sarah: Right. So, let’s talk about students.
Sarah: Because our next guest is one. Lily Freeman is an 11th grader in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. And we discovered her because Jarrett actually pointed us in the direction of her incredible op-ed in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” about being Jewish woman of trans experience, and her experience with book bannings in Bucks County. Bucks County feels like it’s the county that we hear about the most in the media, I think, because the school board and the superintendent have really made a coordinated effort to…
Jen: Allow book banning to go forward essentially.
Sarah: I mean, right? It’s a very restrictive, really concerning level of book banning that’s going on there. It’s not that far from Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is somewhere we think of as a swing state, but it’s usually blue. Like, it’s an okay swing state. And I think Pennsylvania is a great example of, like, a real bellwether for what’s happening for the rest of the country. But Lily is here to talk to us about how these book bans are impacting kids specifically, and families in schools every day, and how we as grown-ups, adults, and parents, and family members can do our part.
Jen: Hi. Good morning, Lily. Why don’t you introduce yourself to our listeners?
Lily: Yeah. So, I’m Lily. My pronouns are she/her. Some stuff about me, one thing is that I am a GLSEN National Student Council member. And GLSEN is an organization dedicated to disability, racial, and LGBTQ justice in schools. I am also a Jewish female of trans experience, and I am an 11th grader at Central Bucks High School East. But what I like to think of most importantly is that I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, and I’m a student in school. It’s more than anything else.
Sarah: So, Lily, we found you because you have been a really active participant in combating a sort of move toward book banning in your home county, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what’s going on actually on the ground in Bucks County, because it feels like it’s just one example of what’s happening nationwide.
Lily: Yeah. So, in my opinion, I feel like there’s always been sort of, like, a discriminatory culture in Central Bucks. When I first started my transition, it was a lot of, like, harassment and just general lack of support from the school. But I feel like with the pandemic and with the increase in a lot of these situations happening in other states, our district has kind of taken on those…how do I say it? Like, they’ve taken on the challenges that have been brought up, which aren’t really supposed to be challenges.
So one thing that’s happened is a lot of book banning and censorship happening in my area. First it started off with a neighboring school district called Pennridge. And they start by pulling the book, “Heather Has Two Mommies” off the shelf in December of 2021. And me and my family, we were a little concerned because this district was very close to ours. And it didn’t really make sense why this book would be pulled off. Like, we read it. It was very innocent. It was just about a little girl and her two moms. Like, nothing anything inappropriate in that book.
So, what we really wanted to do is, like, bring attention to this and highlight LGBTQ literature in K-12 schools, and why it’s so important to have on shelves, and why censorship and banning is wrong. So I started my own little project, which I’ll talk a little bit about later.
But our book policy that my district has adopted now, which was just passed this past summer, so it’s the most restrictive library policy in all of Pennsylvania. And it was actually stolen from a school in Texas. So they have this policy. What it is, it’s very, like, highly restrictive, and most importantly, it’s very vague. So people could challenge books, they have the right to do that.
But the main focus that a lot of groups in my area are focusing on is that these books with LGBTQ and racial themes are sexually explicit, nudity and sex acts. Which, it doesn’t really make any sense because a lot of people are pulling excerpts from the books when… how the librarian said it before is they would take a look at the entire book and they would kind of score it on who it was appropriate for, what grades they were appropriate for. But just in general, the wording of this policy is very vague.
So the superintendent gets to put together a committee of teachers, librarians, and parents to decide if the book gets removed. And then if it does, what book does it get replaced with? Which, again, it’s like, what kind of parents? Who has the qualifications to read these books and decide whether it’s appropriate or not?
Sarah: So, what’s going on? Because that was enacted at the beginning of the school year. No, I’m sorry, last year.
Jen: That’s over the summer.
Sarah: Over the summer. Tell us what you guys started doing. Yeah.
Lily: So, right now librarians can’t even decide on their own anymore what books get to go into the libraries. And the superintendent will now…or the superintendent and the school board now have a say with this, like, whole committee and stuff. And so new books that have LGBTQ and racial themes won’t be able to get into these libraries.
Jen: And I think it’s worth pointing out, and I share in other segments, like we’ve mentioned this. But, like, “Heather Has Two Mommies” is a great example of, if this book had had a heterosexual couple, a mom and a dad, there would be zero objectionable things about it. So what these bans are really objecting to is the very presence of gay or queer people, or people that aren’t white, and in the most benign ways as parents, as community members, as people who have chickens. So this is the thing that is really scary about these bans, is there’s no sexual content in these books. They’re queer people just living their lives.
Lily: Yeah. And there’s, like, this whole vilification of librarians and teachers, that they’re trying to indoctrinate kids or stuff, but really it’s just getting that representation in schools and just putting these books that are good to read. And I’ll talk a little bit about that later. But, yeah, there’s really just no trust for, like, the teachers. And, like, one of the reasons school board meetings where this policy was put into place, like, teachers were crying, and they’re honestly just scared to speak out against these policies because of fear of backlash and…
Sarah: And of losing their jobs, right?
Lily: Yep. They have to choose between supporting their students or being fired. And I really think that these books are just so important for kids because not only are they like mirrors for these kids, but for other people, for all students, they’re like windows into other people’s lives. And they can be used as, like, a really good education tool. Like, what I like to say is that, like, these books lead to education. And when you don’t have that education, you’re ignorant. And ignorance leads to that hate, and it causes that discriminatory culture which was seen in schools before these policies went into place.
Jen: Lily, do you think…one thing that I think people maybe don’t quite realize is how highly organized these groups are that are bringing these bans. You know, this isn’t necessarily like a grassroots group of people in Bucks County. Like, it’s probably a couple of people backed by these big organizations. So, like, one of the goals of this podcast for our listeners is, like, what can people really do? What kind of support do you and your students in Bucks County need?
But the truth is every student everywhere is gonna need this. These bans are spreading really fast, even to places that, you know, people might be surprised to find out. Suburban Philadelphia doesn’t really seem like a place where, you know, it’s like the most discriminatory, you know, laws in the state of Pennsylvania. That’s not where I would have guessed they would be. So one of the things that you can talk about maybe with GLSEN or other organizations is, how can people help?
Lily: I think that the number-one thing that, I mean, students like me are looking for is just speaking up in general. That’s the most important thing, because a lot of us students, even though we’re, like, speaking at school board meetings, we’re not necessarily being listened to, because it’s the school board and superintendent that are making all these decisions. For example, like pride flags being taken down in classrooms, and also with our, like, student portal, about name changes and stuff, it just…we are kind of being, like, silenced a little about these things. We’re not being listened to.
And actually, the superintendent came to each of our schools to ask us, like, what they should do, and this was last year. And we were like, all this horrible stuff is happening to us in schools. And I actually said to him, like, “Well, what are you gonna do about it?” And he was like, “I’ll bring it up with the board.” And then at the next school board meeting, he said, “Well, why don’t we all just move on?” But clearly that’s not the issue. And I think we really need, especially adults and communities to really say, “No. This isn’t something we have to move on from. This is something that we have to learn from, and we have to continue to fight for.”
I think, like, another thing is to vote. Voting is, like, a huge thing because…or even running for school board. We really need those people who are willing to educate others, and who are willing to learn for themselves. And I think those two things are the most important.
Sarah: Lily, in your school district, are you finding that there are a lot of kids who are protesting? And, you know, I saw that you’ve had walkouts. I wonder if you could talk about, like, what is the support network that you have, that Lily has in Bucks County working against these bans?
Lily: Yes. So, definitely, in my community, we do have a lot of adult and student support. I know there have been, of course, like, community events. And I’ve had really supportive teachers in my school, so that’s one thing. But yet again, it’s been really hard for… and their students.
Yeah. So I’ve been working with this group called Advocates for Inclusive Education, which has a website that lists what’s going on in Bucks County and stuff. And a lot of the things that we do is just educating on what’s happening because a lot of people don’t know. Like, a lot of my friends don’t even know that these book bannings are happening in my school, which is kind of crazy. But, yeah. So, along with that, well, what we’re really trying to do is just speak to the silent majority, which, kind of, don’t know about what’s going on, or don’t really know how to help. And that’s, kind of, what we’ve been doing, and that’s kind of the student support network right now.
Sarah: That’s what we’ve been saying in some of the other conversations that we’ve had for this episode. There are more of us than there are of them, but we need to be louder.
Lily: Exactly. Yeah. And I think that with a lot of people, they don’t necessarily want to get involved unless it affects them. And I feel like the word that needs to be put out is, well, this affects all people. This affects all people. This affects all education because, again, if you don’t have this education, and if you don’t learn to be kind and to accept others, then that ignorance leads to hate, and it leads to a discriminatory environment in schools.
Sarah: So, Lily, what’s happening in November in Bucks County? Is there an election that is important? Are we electing out a superintendent? What are we doing?
Lily: Yeah. So, in November in my area, it’s some school board members that are being elected out. So that’s definitely something that we’ve been trying to get running about the election, stuff like that, even with the governor, and with the House, and just voting in general. I feel voting is so important. It dictates everything this year.
Jen: One thing I also feel is, like, really important to mention, we in this segment just mentioned “Heather Has Two Mommies.” Is that the title, right? And that’s a picture book. That’s a book for little kids.
Sarah: Like “Mr. Watson’s Chickens.”
Jen: Right. But a huge number of the books that are being targeted are actually young adult books, books that you would choose for yourself. And unlike, you know, “Heather Has Two Mommies,” which is just about a family, these books are really about kids and teenagers exploring their own identity, making choices for themselves. And these are books that don’t get…you know, kids by that age are picking out books for themselves really at the library, or in the school. And it’s really important to realize this, too, like, these fights are not about curriculum. These aren’t fights where, you know, someone was teaching with…although they could. I would have no problem with it.
But these are books that are, like, free reading. These are just widely available in the library. And so it’s especially pernicious because, again, to have adults say, “I don’t want these materials available for anyone,” as a choice. And so that’s the other thing that, I think, people don’t realize, is, you know, it’s not targeted like, “I don’t think this class of kids should be reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I don’t want any books that have to do with an identity that’s not white, straight, cishet in the library at all.” And that raises, like, what are libraries for? They’re not just for, you know, that constituent group of people. They’re for everyone. And I think that that’s part of what is really scary about it to me. Yeah.
Lily: Yeah. Exactly. And a lot of people, I mean, especially, like, in my community, people that are for the book bannings, they just say, “Well, those students, they can just, like, buy it off of Amazon.” They can do that, but not every student can. Not every student can go to a public library. Not every student has a supportive family to bring those books home to. And it’s the school’s job to best support those students as they’re discovering their…
Jen: I think the other thing about people who are like, “I can just buy these books,” is what they don’t also understand. And I think we talked about this maybe with Jarrett, is the pipeline for these books is gonna dry up. Publishing is a business. And if they think libraries won’t buy these books, they’re not gonna take a stand because it’s the right thing to do. They’re gonna be like, “Well, we shouldn’t publish these.” And that’s my other, like, big concern, I think, all of us, is fighting for these books now isn’t just fighting for kids who are in school now. It’s fighting for kids who are gonna be in school in 10 years and in 20 years. Like, it’s keeping this robust and available for everyone, everywhere.
Lily: Yeah. Exactly. I think there’s, like, this big question right now. It’s like, where does this end? When is it gonna end where we’re banning books and taking down pride flags, and stuff, you know? I’m reading “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in school right now, and I’m like, “This… is, like, crazily similar right now.”
Sarah: That’s so ironic to me that you’re reading “1984” in school and the school district is doing this. I mean…
Lily: I know. And it’s all about, like, banning books and media.
Sarah: It’s like the school board has not read “1984.” So that’s a lot. I’m gonna just have to sit with that for…
Lily: All of these classics have that, like, “pornographic material” or, like, allusions to stuff that they’re trying to ban from schools. I mean, it’s very hypocritical that when it involves an LGBTQ couple or people of different races that it’s seen as inappropriate.
Sarah: Lily, can I ask a more personal question about your family? Your mom is so active in all of the work around protesting these bans. And I wonder if you could just give us…because we have a lot of parents who listen to the podcast who wanna know, like, how to be the best parent they can be in situations like this. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, like, ways your mom and dad, or, you know, your whole family have helped you with this.
Lily: I think something that has been, of course, taken away by all this stuff in the school district is just having a safe place. And my parents, they really strive to make a safe place for anybody. So if they want to talk, then they can talk, and just kind of highlighting other students’ voices and helping to uplift people. I feel like that’s the best thing that you can do to best support students right now.
Jen: Lily, anything else you wanna tell us about or, you know, organizations that our listeners can support?
Lily: Yeah. So, like, besides GLSEN, which I work with, I also have an Instagram account called Project Uncensored where we’re sharing student stories and, like, different LGBTQ books. I would go follow that. And, of course, The Trevor Project and the National Coalition Against Censorship are also really good places, as well as that website I talked about specifically with Bucks County, advocatesforinclusiveeducation.org.
Sarah: We’ll put all of that stuff in show notes, everyone. You’ll have access to it all. And, Lily, you’re the best. So, I’m watching you from New York City, Jen’s watching you from Chicago. We want to help however we can, and you’re doing amazing work. So thank you.
Lily: Thank you.
Jen: Thanks for being with us today, we really appreciate it.
I think it’s impacting students the most right now, and so we really wanted to have a student voice on. And, you know, everyone, we’ll put in show notes, Lily wrote an amazing op-ed for the “Philadelphia Inquirer.” And I think that’s one of the things where we first kind of found her. And, you know, just really teaching your kids…what I think people don’t realize is you teach your kids to stand up by standing up yourself. And sometimes kids stand up and we have to support them, but ideally we’re all doing it. We’re all in it together.
Lily: Yeah. I mean, what my mom tells me the most is, like, “Even though you’re feeling, like, down, and even though you are not being supported in schools, you’re paving the way for other people to be supported in schools.” And I feel like that’s what really motivates me, is that it’ll be an easier time for people like me going through schools.
Jen: Well, you’re a rock star, Lily. We love it.
Sarah: Thanks so much for joining us, Lily.
Lily: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah: The kids are all right.
Jen: I know. I’m like, what an amazing kid. But also, I just think I know how proud I am of, like, my… Little Romance, when, you know, he does something. And I’m just like, “God, her parents must be amazing.” I don’t want to, like, give all the credit to them, but, like, what an amazing kid. Yes.
Sarah: I wanna bring my daughter to Bucks County to meet Lily and, like, hang out.
Jen: Yeah. Well, and the truth is, you know, Lily spoke really powerfully about, like, organizations that helped her and her fellow students, but also, you know, how hard it is to have adults, sort of, ask you…you know, like to have the superintendent come and have a meeting, and say, “How can we support you?” And then not do any of those things.
Sarah: And then, like, pat you on the head and send you along like Cindy Lou Who, like you don’t really have opinions.
Jen: Yeah. So that’s the thing, I think, one of the…it’s just really important, I think, for us to hear from students because they know that the teachers that support them. And to have that support be something that can be litigated by the school, or that teachers can be punished for, like, that’s our job as teachers to support students. And so to be snipping away the safety net under these kids as they are actively in school. And that takes a lot of bravery for Lily to be such an active voice, but also is really inspiring to hear her say, like, “I’m doing it because I know it’s gonna make it easier for the kids coming after me.”
Sarah: Yeah. I wanna talk about two things that came to me after we talked to Lily. One is, your school district, wherever you are right now, has a system in place for challenging books.
Sarah: And in many, many school districts, part of that system is a board of…it’s not the school board. It’s usually sort of connected. There’s maybe a school board member on it. But it’s a panel of adults whose job it is to read these books when they are challenged. You, whether or not you have a child in the district, or whether or not you have a child, period, are able to volunteer to sit on these boards. It’s a really powerful volunteer position that needs more people who…like us. Yeah.
Jen: I think the thing that’s really become clear to me, though, is that…and this, like, will shock no one, is watching conservative, evangelical fascists essentially run the table using the rules that are…essentially, like, using the rules against us. Because in a normal school year, this rule exists. Like, these sort of, like, procedures exist. For like, you know, one parent who, like, “I’m worried about this one book,” or whatever. But when people bring hundreds of books or list hundreds of books, you essentially are, like, jamming up the law.
Jen: And it’s all bad faith. That’s, like, a bad faith effort. They have not read these books. They don’t actually have any kind of knowledge of what’s in these books. They just know that they don’t want books like this to exist.
They don’t want books that make kids feel safe to exist. They want everyone to just crawl back in their holes so they can do whatever they want. And I feel really strongly like…I will be honest, and I don’t know if it’s ever gonna happen. But until school boards refuse to, like, let people use these procedures in this way, it’s gonna continue to be really messy. I just feel really strongly, like, you know…I don’t know if I’m explaining that right. Like, at first I was like, “Yeah, just use the procedures.” And I’m like, “Oh, no. They’re using the procedures.” And it’s different.
Sarah: You’re saying we need to be ungovernable?
Jen: Yeah. Right.
Sarah: Yes, cool. But also there are the…you should know in your own district how school book challenges and public library book challenges work. Yeah. And if you have time to help be ungovernable by being on this committee, we love you, and we’ll send you “Fated Mates” stuff.
The other thing that I just wanted to say, too, is the city of Brooklyn, my home city is providing young people across the country free library cards to the Brooklyn Public Library collection so that they can access eBooks through the Brooklyn Public Library anywhere in the country. So if you and your children or students, or friends of yours live in a district where these bans are restrictive and pernicious, as Jen says, you can access the Brooklyn Public Library and get a free library card from them. We’ll put links to that in show notes. I’m really happy that my tax dollars are going to do this, be ungovernable.
Jen: Yeah. I mean, and that’s it. It’s, you know, look for the helpers.
Melissa Walker Interview
Sarah: Okay. Oh, next. Our final person is Melissa Walker who, aside from being a friend of mine, is a magnificent YA writer. She’s written YA, she’s written middle grade. And after the 2016 election, Melissa got very active, became very politically active with an organization called The States Project, which, it’s a fundraising organization that connects the importance of state legislatures to every aspect of our lives, the idea being that these laws, particularly laws around school boards, around book bannings. And lots of other laws…I mean, we just saw the overturning of Roe v. Wade, all these laws are built at the state level.
And this is a perfect time to talk about state legislatures because this is an off-year election. Off-year elections tend to get fewer and fewer voters out. The name of the game in off-year elections is voter turnout, and it’s voter turnout for, yes, Senate seats and House seats, and sometimes governorships, but it’s also voter turnout for literally your school board representatives in a lot of places, for your local district, for your local House, for your state House, for your state representatives, for your mayors, your, you know, town councils, all of this stuff up and down the ballot.
The State Project, and Melissa work really hard to flip these state legislatures that are eminently flippable. So we’ll put links to the project in show notes. You’ll hear more right now from Melissa. But this is really about what we have to do in November.
So, thanks, Melissa, for joining us.
Melissa: I’m so happy to be here.
Sarah: We’re thrilled to have you. Can you tell us a little bit…why don’t we start with The States Project first, which is where you are? And tell us what the project does and how it works.
Melissa: Yeah. Absolutely. So, at The States Project, we focus exclusively on state legislatures, which are an area of government that often gets overlooked. And we work to help elect majorities that are focused on improving people’s lives. So that’s electing folks into state capitals that are people-focused and ready to pass bills that will help. And we do that through the work of Giving Circles, which are people organizing their communities to… target state and help change the balance of power, and also through our broader community and amazing groups of lawmakers who are working on all of these policies as well.
Sarah: I think a lot of people when they think about, like, law making think of Congress. So, why focus on states? Why is that so important?
Melissa: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I will say that I am a little bit new to this world, since 2016, which, I think, is an activation point for a lot of folks. And I really realized how important state legislatures were when, really, I attended a holiday party. I heard a New York state senator speak, and I started to realize that everything that he was talking about and everything that I cared about was being controlled in state legislatures and not in Washington D.C. So everything from education policy to environmental protections, to gun safety, to healthcare, to civil rights, and then to the core of democracy, voting rights, controlled state by state. And, of course, gerrymandering, the drawing of the district lines that decide who goes to Congress.
And I started to see state legislatures as the ultimate power center, because they were controlling the kitchen table issues. Things like, I started realizing I’m in my home state of North Carolina right now visiting my mother. This is the state where the bathroom bill was passed under President Obama, and I started realizing, “Oh, that was lawmakers in Raleigh who did that.” And thinking about Florida and the stand-your-ground gun law that let Trayvon Martin’s murderer go free, and realized, “Oh, that was Tallahassee that did that.” And then it passed in 25 other states.
And things like the Flint, Michigan water crisis. I started to realize, “That’s a Lansing problem, not a Washington D.C. problem.” So I started to see the power of these state lawmakers. And most people don’t really know who their state lawmakers are. Most people don’t know who’s in their state capital for them. They’re not the names we see on TV.
But they have this immense power. And they also have the power, again, over voting rights and deciding who goes to Congress. So they touch the kitchen table issues. They also touch who’s in power in Washington D.C. And it’s a real lever of control that the radical right wing has built up and co-opted over decades, while we stared at Washington D.C. and felt good about the direction the country was headed in.
And, you know, I learned that from 2016, we lost nearly a thousand state legislative seats as we stared at Washington D.C. And in those states where right-wing lawmakers took over, they made people’s lives bad. They defunded education, they put in right-to-work laws, they gutted environmental protections. But when people’s lives got bad, they didn’t say, “Oh, that must be my state legislator,” because no one knows who their state legislators are, or sometimes even that they have one. But they look at Washington D.C. and they hit a change button there because that’s what we hear about on the news every night. Little did they know that the roots of Trumpism were being seeded in state legislatures, and they are such immense power centers.
Sarah: And we’re really seeing that right now in the…I mean, we’ve been seeing that for so many years. But obviously the reason why we’re doing this episode is about a very specific kind of state and local problem, which is book banning. And obviously we’ve talked on the podcast about the ban on trans books and books that touch on sex and sexuality for kids. In a lot of these states, we’ve talked about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida.
And then, of course, this month we’ve seen in Oklahoma a ban on both sexual assault awareness programs and romance novel book clubs in local libraries. Which, you know, feels like the sublime to the ridiculous in a lot of ways, but obviously is like a much larger question of sex and sexuality, and identity, and experience, that is being silenced. And so we’re really interested in how these kinds of laws come to pass, and, you know, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how books, and libraries, and schools, and all of that gets sort of rolled together.
Melissa: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, this has been happening for a little while. So, you know, it’s nothing new to have certain books banned. And, you know, for a long time, like, in publishing, we’ve known that states like Texas, which is a huge book market, has requested changes in textbooks in order to sell to their education market. And because of the size of the Texas market, publishers are willing to do it. And so, you know, conservatives influenced what’s been taught to all American kids for a while, you know. And that has been happening.
This new wave is something a little different and bigger. You know, these bans that target first, kind of, school libraries, and then school librarians and teachers, and then moving to public libraries, this is expanding. And really, like, make no mistake, these bans which can look very local and small, and battles to be fought district by district, are much bigger than that.
I know that the American Library Association has reported that in 2021, it recorded 729 efforts to ban books at school or public libraries, which is the most that had ever happened since they started tracking this in 2000. And, of course, the most challenged books were from black and LGBTQ+ authors or centered on characters from those communities.
But, you know, this fight is expanding to right-wing state legislative efforts to create statewide policies, which is what you’re talking about laws designed to… more books, and the silencing of more of these voice voices. You know, Florida just rejected 40% of math textbooks for claiming they included things like social-emotional learning and critical race theory. You know, that just happened. And this is a long-standing multi-pronged effort to undermine faith in public schooling. It’s part of the work to dismantle public education. It’s a decades-long campaign, and this is one prong of the takeover at the state level for the right wing.
So, in thinking about it, you know, how does it connect to these other laws that we’ve been hearing about passing state by state? So, Oklahoma legislature just proposed a state law that would allow parents to seek up to $10,000 for each day a book is kept in their child’s school library after it was nominated for removal. And that hasn’t passed but it’s been introduced. And it reminded me of something. It echoes the abortion bans that Texas passed, where you can have a… on your neighbor. And how terrifying is it that you can turn your neighbor into the government? I mean, these are wild, and they are part of a larger plan.
Sarah: So, I guess, I mean, that’s a terrifying thing to think about, especially when you’re…many of our listeners are women and non-binary people, marginalized people.
Jen: And also I would like to say, like, living in states that they love with their families, and, you know, having people sort of partly be like, “Well, why don’t you move?” And I feel like this is such a grave misunderstanding of, you know, the world and the way it works, and fascism, and how it spreads. And I think one of the things that we are really concerned, I think it’s so easy when it’s summed up like that to have the, like, “let me go lay down now” moment, and feel powerless. And I think what we really want to give our listeners is a sense of power. What can we do? More than just raising money, maybe. What can we do?
Melissa: Yeah. Absolutely. So, thank you for asking that question, because I start with doom, but I’m really here to deliver some hope because I give a lot of hope. You know, and this is true for the book bans. It’s true for the other laws that we’ve talked about today. And it’s also true, honestly, for the death of democracy, which we also are reading a lot about lately at election subversion efforts, fraudits, all of those things. But this is all being organized through state legislatures. And there is a path to action here. And the path to action is changing the balance of power in state legislatures.
So, here’s a sentence that’ll give folks a little bit of hope. It is often cheaper to change the balance of power… than it is to win a single competitive congressional seat. Congressional races cost millions and millions of dollars. State legislative races do not. They are still local, they are still small, and there are many states that are very close to shifting majorities. And when you shift the majority, everything changes in the state. And state laws spread.
So states are meant to be laboratories for democracy, they’re meant to be marriage equality going from state to state, to federal, or healthcare going from Hawaii to Massachusetts to becoming the ACA. And that’s what they can be. Right now, too many are laboratories for other laws that are passing state by state. But if we can win back some of these majorities, we can shift the tide there.
And some more hope, there are many states that are close. In Arizona, we are one seat away in each chamber. One state house seat, or one state senate seat stops right-wing control in Arizona in 2022, in November. In Michigan, it’s three state senate seats or three state house seats to tie, four to flip the chamber entirely, stopping right-wing control, or gaining Democratic control in Michigan in 2022. In Pennsylvania, it’s 12 seats in the House on better maps than we’ve had in a decade. So there’s real places for movement here and real places for action, in terms of focusing on state and local elections.
And I live in New York which is a state that has a majority, that is mostly focused on improving lives. There can always be improvements anywhere. But I really care about these other states, because this is where the foundational stuff is decided for our country, you know.
If we think about something like the ACA, we think about how, okay, that was the law of the land. But 12 states still haven’t expanded Medicaid because their right-wing-led legislatures don’t feel like it. So there are people who don’t have the full benefits of the Affordable Care Act in their states, and that’s because of their legislatures. And so what happens at the federal level, yes, has a lot of power, and carries a lot of weight. But when we feel frustrated at watching not a lot get through in Congress in D.C., we have to understand that anything that gets through gets implemented at the state level, and that is determined by who’s in the majority there. Focus there, watch things move very, very quickly.
So, there is hope in focusing on these state elections, and knowing who goes to your state capital for you is a huge piece of it. Most people don’t. I will admit that I did not, until I heard that New York state senator Daniel Squadron, who’s also now…he’s the… Project, by the way. He started it in the summer of 2017. But I realized that, you know, this is a place where people aren’t looking, even people who feel really well-informed. So focusing there and knowing whether your state has a majority that represents your values is key. And then helping to change the bounce of power is key.
Sarah: Melissa, is there a website or somewhere that we can go…?
Melissa: Yes. So, to find your legislator, there’s a great site called openstates.org. So you can go there and you can find your state legislator. It’s actually kind of hard to find, so that’s a great site resource. If you go to statesproject.org, which is my organization site, in our states, it’ll show where we’re targeting this year. And it shows the current balance of power, the stakes, the landscape, the opportunity, and then some clicks for how to get involved. We mainly work through Giving Circles, which is people organizing their friends and family to raise money to try to change the balance of power in a state. And it is about raising, you know, our electoral dollars. It is also about organizing, about learning how to bring attention and resources to something that you care about.
So we do kind of core trainings and storytelling, fundraising, and organizing, because those are the three key elements of leading a Giving Circle and getting involved. And when you have those skills, you’ll be able to bring attention and resources to anything that you care about throughout, you know, in your local area, for a Giving Circle project, for all of these things. And you walk with more power and more hope when you do that. And when you walk with power and hope, people will walk with you, because everyone is looking for a way to get involved right now.
Everyone…the path that feels impactful, and organizing friends and family is incredibly impactful. So it is about giving a little bit, but then organizing 10 other people to give the same amount. Because that is where real power lies. And I have to be honest, we are up against a very, very well-funded right-wing machine, and money is the sharpest tool in the drawer… We have to level the playing field on that to win some of these races. So that is one way that folks can get involved in. We give everyone the tools to do so through our Giving Circles program. So that is a big way. I also have some other ideas for local involvement.
Sarah: Yeah. Tell us.
Melissa: Great. So, there’s an amazing group called Red Wine & Blue. Their website is redwine.blue. They’ve created a resource to help people fight back against far-right extremism in kids’ schools. So there’s a ton of helpful information. They have a handbook that kind of tells how to organize a group within your community and get the message out on social media, how to speak out at school board meetings, and how to run for school board.
Sarah: Which is so important. For those of you listening and thinking about how to protect your kids and how to keep this kind of stuff from happening in schools and from your kids hearing about it in schools.
Melissa: Absolutely. Know what majority of your school board looks like. And if it doesn’t reflect your values, run, or find someone in your community to run. There’s a stat that says that women, to run, need to be asked seven times, or it needs to be suggested to them seven times. Men, it’s more like once, or they usually…
So, you know, definitely, I know that running for office isn’t for everyone, it’s not for me. But I do also know who of my friends, every once in a while, say, “Thought about running? Thought about running?” Because that’s really important, too. And I will say, you know, school boards, again, like we talked about, they’re really important. They’re a great way to get…
I would also encourage folks to run for state legislature because, again, these are still local races. It sounds bigger, but it’s a part-time job. It pays very little in 40 out of 50 states. And, you know, people are going to their state capitals once a year for session and deciding whether to ban abortion, and deciding whether to expand healthcare, and deciding on gun safety laws for your state and your kids, and deciding on these curriculum decisions that, like Florida is making in this wild way.
And, by the way, those laws that have passed in Florida, we’re now seeing pop up with almost the exact same language, state by state, by state, being spread. So if it’s not your state, it can be. And we have to make sure that we are protecting democracy, electing majorities that stand for your values. And, you know, running for state leg is not a bad idea either, because school boards are important, but the rules of the road, the laws are determined at the state level. And the laws will rule what local is doing, what school board is doing at the state level. So that’s where we have to secure these foundations.
Jen: And I would also…you know, I think the three of us…I live in Chicago, or, you know, kind of live in…I don’t know, it feels like “safe,” you know, “states.” And, you know, they are still organizing in Illinois. So it’s also really important to, you know, call your state legislators, you know, keep up the pressure that says, “This is, like, who we are and what we stand for.” Continue to vote and support, because, you know, they are working just, you know, as hard as we are working. They are working the same way.
And so I feel like that’s the other thing is, like, you know, what does it…I mean, I live in the blue bubble, but I would like to keep my state that way. So, you know, I can’t just let…you know, if you are in that lucky position, you have to work to keep it that way. And I feel like in Illinois, you know, we had a Republican governor, and then now it’s J. B. Pritzker, who is a great governor. And I really was like, wow. Those four years, you know, where we had a Republican, like, I noticed. And so, you know, that’s the other thing is…I know I’m preaching to the choir, but it’s, you know, don’t feel like, “Okay, I don’t have to worry about that in my state.” We all have to worry about this.
Melissa: Absolutely. You feel it. You feel it when it’s coming out of your state capital in a way that you don’t from Washington D.C. I think that’s, like, an important point for folks to know, you know.
And the other thing is this is 2022, and there’s a lot of talk and chatter about the federal elections, and what’s gonna happen there. And not that they’re not important, but the thing that’s not getting attention is actually foundationally important for our country. And it is where this right-wing movement grew. It is where we have to push back. And, like I said, it is also a fraction of the cost. These races, getting involved in them with your time, your talent, and your treasure, as the Giving Circles world likes to say, is a huge bang for your buck. Huge bang for your buck.
I mean, you know, after 2020, we saw things like, you know, Sara Gideon, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign against Susan Collins in Maine, finished her campaign with $15 million left over… And that’s because this is where we focus, this is where we give emotionally. There will be so much emotional giving in 2022.
If you are organizing for a state legislature, and you’re doing a Giving Circle, or you’re working in a state, you know, locally, when you can channel people’s emotional rage, sadness, donations into a pot, that actually has this impact and they can watch what it does, that feels really key, as well. It helps people come together and have a shared goal and mission, and, you know, impactful total to bring to these things. And it’s really…like I said, it’s the sharpest knife in the drawer at this point.
Jen: So, the other knives, the knives that are less sharp, I think that one of the things that we keep coming back to and we think about a lot here is, you know, we flipped the country in 2020 without Democrats even knocking on one door. But this year, we get to knock on doors. So all of the things, all of the people who joined us for “Fated States,” the phone banking, the door knocking, the canvassing, the postcards, everything, that’s all still in play, right? And is it in play locally, as well?
Melissa: Yeah. That’s a great question. And it’s huge, I would say. We have a very specific lens on state legislative races, which is that door knocking, door knocking, door knocking, door knocking. And specifically candidate door knocking, the candidate themselves going out on doors. We actually measure and we get weekly door knocking reports from all the candidates we endorse because it’s a really key piece.
Jen: So here’s something fascinating. Everybody knows that I moved in February. Within 10 days, our local person knocked on my door.
Jen: I mean, we’re having primaries this year, just like everywhere else, so, you know, he was introducing himself and telling us about the primary. But he knew we had just moved in, and I was like, “This is wild.” I mean, because we live in New York City, so…
Melissa: That’s good organizing.
Melissa: That’s really cool. Yeah. It’s absolutely about that. And I would say that, like, door knocking is incredibly important. And, you know, the other things that you mentioned, too, it’s all about how many touches a candidate has, how high their name gets. Something that often happens in states is that we organize for the state level races, so for governor’s races, secretary of state races, attorney general races, and then we watch something happen like what happened in Georgia, which was incredible. It’s like organizing on the ground for 10 years, Stacey Abrams in Fair Fight, and all the other groups that worked on that. Incredible, incredible, incredible. We win those two federal senate races.
And it didn’t touch Atlanta. Atlanta still has a Republican super majority that then gutted more voting rights, closed more polling places, and still holds the power over voting rights in Georgia and over all the other things that we’ve talked about. And so, when people say Georgia went blue, we have to say, “Look, the frosting on the Georgia cake may be blue, but the inside is deep red. And unless we focus on these target districts to shift, we’re not gonna be able to get to this foundational level of power.”
So, I would ask folks to get involved and organize in phone banking, postcarding, door knocking, all of those things, and look at state legislative districts. And it’s not easy to do. Whenever people are talking about gerrymandering, they’re talking about congressional districts. But the truth is that state legislators also draw their own districts. They’re different from the congressional maps, but they’re drawing themselves back into power in many cases, and that’s a key piece of why they’re doing it. And so, looking at state legislative districts and knowing whether you’re in an area that you could really make a difference in with your volunteer time is huge.
Sarah: So, is that something that The States Project also has for states that you’re not, you know, super focused on? Where do we find those districts? And how do we understand those maps, I guess?
Melissa: Absolutely. Yeah. No. It’s difficult. And I think it’s difficult by design in a lot of ways. But I think it’s about kind of just looking up where you live. Looking up your state legislator, and understanding, “What’s the balance of power in my state?”
We have a lot of states listed on our website. If your state’s not there, Ballotpedia is a great site to go to look at maps. And, you know, understanding, like, is there a place where I can work in my local area to knock on doors and try to shift a district? Or try to protect a district. I mean, these races are really won on the margins. That’s something else. You know, that’s one reason why it gives me a lot of hope.
In Arizona in 2020, you know, if we’d shifted 1,024 votes, we would have won in Arizona. And in Michigan, it was something like 2,600 votes over 3 districts. So knowing that, like, these are the margins, and this is what we’re fighting for, it can go either way. We have to hold ground. We have to win a few more seats in these states. But shifting power would change everything.
Jen: And also getting involved even on the things that don’t feel so political like joining your local library board. I mean, it feels like everything is political these days. And we’ve talked about this a thousand times on the podcast, but it’s all politics. But the truth is that, you know, you can join your local library board pretty easily. That is not an elected position. So, thinking about those kinds of things, too. And that’s a nice low-hanging fruit for somebody who’s, like, interested and doesn’t quite wanna run, or doesn’t quite know how to get involved. It’s a good place for passionate people to get started.
Sarah: And just to go back to your recommendation, Melissa, for Red Wine & Blue, those documents also have ways to speak up at school board meetings, ways to participate. So we’ll put everything in show notes, guys.
Melissa: Absolutely. And I think, you know, once people do kind of tiptoe into involvement, which is really what I did, it can really sweep you away in a very powerful and positive way. And when you’re the person in your community who kind of rallies people, who organizes people, who does that, it just gives you a lot of hope and you start to recognize that you’re part of this long chain of people who’ve come before, and people who’ve had to push back and fight for democracy in ways that our generation has never known.
I mean, I will say I didn’t know that I was stepping into a place where I was gonna need to tend to democracy for the rest of my life when I started doing this, but I know that now. And I know that it’s an area where a lot of us feel tired and, like, we want to lie down and pull a blanket over our heads. But that is not the way, you know.
And for me, I always think to myself, like, I lead a very comfortable life. You know, the pain of what’s happening in this country has not knocked on my doorstep yet. And so it is my job to not get tired, and to get up and do what I can, and, of course, to protect my joy around certain moments, like those Georgia senate races, yay. And then to say, now what’s next? What else can we look at? What are the… we need to impact here? And I will say one more piece of hope is that…I don’t know if y’all have talked about this yet, but the Brooklyn Public Library.
Melissa: Yes. Okay, great. Shout out to the Brooklyn Public Library for making books accessible to kids around the country. It’s really super exciting.
Jen: Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing.
Sarah: Melissa, thank you so much for joining us.
Jen: Yes. Thank you.
Sarah: Thanks for making time for us. Thanks for being so quick to turn around and say yes. And thank you for all the work that you’ve done since 2016. I’ve known you from the jump, and I’m so proud to know you. So…
Melissa: Thank you. Thanks for all…
Jen: Can we just have, like, two minutes where you talk about your books? We didn’t even say that you’re a writer. Melissa is a fabulous YA writer, and middle grade. So just give us a little bit, a little taste of what you’ve got.
Melissa: Sure. So, I write mostly contemporary coming-of-age stories, some YA romance and some middle-grade dabbling into romance, I would say. And I think I miss writing, I have to say. My last book came out in 2018. It’s called “Why Can’t I Be You.” It’s available, if you all want to check it out. And I do miss writing, and I’ve talked to my writer friends about this a lot. And they’ve all said to me very comfortingly that life is good for writing, and that when I sit back down at my writing desk one day, I will have a lot more stories to tell, and writing is always there.
So…exactly. I’m really excited about it. I will say that, like, my inner introvert is, like, crying in a corner somewhere because…but I will absolutely return to it. And I miss writing. And just so grateful to, like, all the readers who are still reading and all the writers who are still writing, because I think it is a way for us to see each other, you know. And it’s so important and so valuable. And we have to work to make sure it doesn’t get taken away. So just appreciate all the organizing y’all are doing around this.
Jen: We will put links to Melissa’s books in show notes so you can hear more from her in all the ways. So, thank you so much. Thanks to The States Project for all of the work that you’re doing. Everyone, all of the resources that Melissa has referenced and that we talked about during this segment will be in show notes. And, Melissa, let us know if “Fated Mates” can ever help.
Melissa: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Sarah & Jen Wrap-Up
Sarah: Feels like we ought to talk about “Fated States,” Jen.
Jen: I think we should.
Sarah: Look at us. We’re so…
Jen: Bringing it right back around to the states. It’s like we planned it all in advance. We didn’t think. That’s what’s great about everybody. So, everyone, one of the…so we’ve talked a lot about what you can do, how you can support your local school district, your local library, your kids.
We also think that we can support people in other states, and that is what “Fated States” is all about. This is our phone banking initiative where we are calling a different state pretty much every weekend to phone bank on behalf of Democratic candidates, and for abortion access. And, you know, although there aren’t…we can’t really phone bank to a library district. Like, trust me, we’ve…
Sarah: We’re school board members in tiny places.
Jen: They’re not enough numbers in the dialer for this. That’s an inside joke for all of our phone bankers. We can get on Pennsylvania State, you know, voters’ lines and talk about John Fetterman. We can call Georgia and talk about Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock. So we hope that if you are inspired by this, one of the other things you might consider doing is joining us between now and election day, every Saturday from 3:00 to 5:00 Eastern, where we will be calling a variety of states, like, one state every weekend, or a different call in order to help keep the Senate and Congress blue, and to try and get governors to be Democratic in some of these places, again, that we feel are really close.
Sarah: Yeah. We have a friend who’s a constitutional scholar, and he was here yesterday. And he said that one of the things that he’s most concerned about with the Supreme Court over the next term is there’s a sort of obscure reading of a law that would allow for secretaries of state and state legislatures to basically deny election results. And there is precedent at the Supreme Court level for that to potentially be legal, and he thinks that’s not great, and we think that’s not great.
So the answer is, don’t give them the chance. Which means, Tuesday, November 8th is election day. You can go to vote.org to check your registration, to check registration deadlines, to check absentee ballot deadlines, mail-in ballot deadlines. And, of course, you can always volunteer for your local candidates. There are more of us than there are of them. And there are kids like Lily, and librarians like Jarrett, and people like Melissa working every day to do everything they can. And we can help them.
Jen: I know. A very special episode of “Fated Mates” is sometimes a downer, but I also feel really inspired by hearing people that are doing good work, and being told really explicitly what we can do to help. So, you know, it’s only hopeless if you let it be. The thing is we can’t afford that mindset or attitude. So we hope that you have heard some ideas today that you feel like you can, like, you know, turn off this podcast and take some action.
Sarah: Show notes, show notes.
Jen: That’s what’s really important.
Sarah: We’re gonna make it as easy as possible.
Jen: Get out there and read a banned book.
Will: This episode’s transcript is brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, simply head on over to the show notes page for this episode at BigGayFictionPodcast.com. And don’t forget, the show notes page also has links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.
Jeff: Thanks once again to the “Fated Mates” team of Sarah, Jen and their producer Eric for allowing us to bring you these conversations. We hope you’re inspired to get involved and take actions not only ahead of the election but going forward as well so that we’re defending not only our right to read, but ultimately our democracy as a whole.
Will: We hope that you’ll share what you learned here with others and get more people in your life involved in this important issue. It was said more than once that there’s more of us then there are of them, which is true, but we need to show up and fight the good fight, and, as John Lewis once said, make good trouble.
Jeff: And one last quick note, if you’re not already listening to “Fated Mates,” we highly recommend adding them to your lineup. We listen to Sarah and Jen every week. Their takes on romances of all kinds are interesting and fun, and they also do in-depth episodes like the one you just heard. They also do a terrific job interviewing the trailblazers in romance. So, we hope you have them in your listening lineup.
Will: All right. I think that’ll do it for now. Coming up next, in episode 402, this podcast will be turning eight years old. Plus author Lev Rosen will be here to talk about his new book “Lavender House.”
Jeff: “Lavender House” is an extraordinary queer historical mystery. I loved it so much, and I’ll review it for you next week, and also find out from Lev what went into making his incredible story of murder and found family set in 1950s San Francisco.
Will: On behalf of Jeff and myself we want to thank you so much for listening, and we hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kind of stories that we all love, the big gay fiction kind. Until then keep turning those pages and keep reading.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at frolic.media/podcasts. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.
“Fated Mates” content is copyright 2022 by Sarah MacLean & Jen Prokop and is reproduced with permission.