Episode 87! "Now You See Me, Now You Don't", conversation KA Holt
Welcome to episode 87 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, KA Holt and Grace Lin discuss KA Holt’s essay, “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t,” (which can be heard in episode 86) as well as her educator on soft censorship.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Kari Anne Holt is the award-winning author of many middle grade novels in verse including the #ownvoices Redwood & Ponytail(Chronicle, 2019), Knockout, House Arrest, and Rhyme Schemer. She is also the author of From You to Me, Gnome-a-geddon, Red Moon Rising, Brains for Lunch: a zombie novel in haiku, and Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel. Her debut picture book, I Wonder, published by Random House Books for Young Readers and illustrated by Kenard Pak will find its way to bookshelves in October, 2019. Kari Anne lives with her wife and three children in Austin, TX.
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist and her most recent picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf. She can also be heard on the Book Friends Forever Podcast, with her longtime friend and editor Alvina Ling.
GRACE: Hello I'm Grace Lin and I'm here talking with author Kari Anne Holt. Hi Kari Anne.
GRACE: So a new thing I'm doing on this podcast is asking people if they would like to self identify. So I am an Asian American female that goes by she and her. Kari Anne, would you like to self identify?
KARI: Yes, I am a white lesbian lady who identifies as she/her.
GRACE: Thanks so much for coming on today. One of the reasons why I'm talking to you today is because of a very interesting story about a school visit you did recently. Do you want to tell me a little bit about that or tell our listeners about that?
KARI: Sure. I'll see if I can ... I'll give you the short version maybe.
GRACE: Oh give us the long one. We want every little detail.
KARI: I had a school visit and it was something that had been set up months and months ago, like September. It was a one book one school read, so everybody in the whole school had read my book Rhyme Schemer. And I was coming to do two presentations for 9th through 12th graders, and a book signing. All pretty much the way things are supposed to be, right?
KARI: And so I got there and everybody was super nice, super friendly. Like, "Oh we're so glad to have you. We're really excited to have you." And I was very excited to be there. And then they said, "Things have kind of changed a little bit. We've had a lot of snow days so some of the kids are not going to able to come, they have to study for exams." And I was like, "Oh okay," it seemed reasonable. It was in the Midwest and I know the weather's been bad.
KARI: So we get into the auditorium and the tech guy is there. And the teacher who was leading me in, she was like, "Oh don't worry, we're not going to need a microphone today. Don't set that up." And I was like, "Wow, a microphone." These were supposed to be hundreds of kids in the assemblies. Just how many have to study? So the first assembly ended up being 20 kids that were all AP English seniors. And I was like, "Well, since there's only 20 kids here, why don't we just talk about writing? I don't need to do this whole presentation, we'll just have a chat."
KARI: And the teacher was like, "No, just stick to the presentation. Remember, you're just here to talk about Rhyme Schemer which is the book that we read." And I was like, "Okay." So I was feeling things go sideways.
GRACE: So, you felt a little bit of a strangeness?
KARI: Yeah, I did, and there were a couple of administrators who came and they shook my hand and sort of didn't really say anything and then went and sat in the back of the auditorium for the presentation, which I did. And the kids were great, they asked some questions at the end, the reading was fine. The next group came in and there were like 30 kids. And then there was no signing, they were like, "Thanks for coming." I was ushered out and I was thinking, "That was weird." Particularly when the principal came in and the teacher said, "Oh, do you want to stay for the presentation?" And she was like, "Oh no." She was very sour and wasn't going to stay. And the whole time I'm thinking, "It's weird." But I couldn't figure it out.
GRACE: So there was definitely a strange vibe going on.
KARI: Right. I could tell something weird was going on but it didn't really strike me what exactly it was. And then later that evening, a student sent me a tweet and she was like, "The underclassmen wanted to see you and we were basically forbidden from seeing you. Keep being you. Discrimination is real. Rainbow flag" and I was like, "What?"
KARI: You know, wait, wait a second. What? So I direct messaged her which I felt was ... It felt a little weird to send a DM to a student but I was like, "Hey, I was told you guys had to study? What other information do you have?" And so she sort of ran down a bunch of things that the principal had googled me and seen pride flags and parents had complained. And they determined that the underclass men, I was inappropriate for the underclassmen.
KARI: And so that's-
GRACE: So, was this a religious school?
KARI: It was a private Catholic school. But, I have done school visits at private Catholic schools before with no problem. You know, it seemed to be this school in particular for these whatever these reasons were. Yeah, I felt really stupid afterward, you know, for not seeing it as it was happening and for not understanding that's what it was. Because I wasn't even there to talk about ... I have a book coming out in October. It's a middle grade book about two girls falling in like. And it's a sweet verse novel that goes along with two of my other verse novels. So I wasn't even talking about that.
GRACE: What's Rhyme Schemer about?
KARI: Rhyme Schemer is about a boy, he's a bully in 7th grade and he goes to library, he tears pages out of the books and he makes these blackout poems that make fun of teachers and other kids and he puts them around the school and he gets caught and then he gets bullied and it's this whole ... It's actually one of the younger books that I've written. And I was told that at this school they chose it because they liked the message which is cool, right?
GRACE: So, let's just recap for the listeners. Because I like to recap to make sure everybody is getting [inaudible 00:05:57]. And so you were invited to a school visit.
GRACE: That was supposed to be a one book one school event which was supposed to be a really big, a lot of kids coming to your presentation.
GRACE: You got there and then you were told that most of the students couldn't come after all because of snow days and so you ended up just seeing maybe 50 students out of the huge, like 700 kids?
KARI: Maybe 50 top. Probably closer to 45.
GRACE: Yeah, like 45 kids out of let's say ...
GRACE: Hundreds and hundreds of kids. Right? And you had a strange vibe during the whole thing but you kind of blew it off. But then, when you got home that night, you got the tweet from the student which spelled out, and after you talked to her, spelled out the reason why there were so few kids at your presentation.
GRACE: And the reason why was because the principal had googled you.
KARI: From what I understand, yes. The principal became aware of my queerness and was not cool with that being on display, I guess, to the whole school.
GRACE: So, what's interesting about this is that it was you as a human that ... Interesting is not the right word. What's offensive about this is that it's you as a human that was considered not appropriate, not your books, not what you're representing.
KARI: Exactly. And what's funny in a not funny way is that I, because I have this book coming out about middle school, burgeoning lesbians figuring things out, I've been trying to figure out how to maybe intercept challenges for that book. I have not thought about how to intercept challenges to myself as a person. It just never occurred to me that me going into a school to talk about Rhyme Schemer, I never ever anticipated that there would be any kind of a problem with that, right?
GRACE: So why do you think the school handled it the way you did? Would you have preferred if they just canceled on you or uninvited you?
KARI: Right. See, I I feel that this kind of ... So this term soft censorship which is a bad term because this, to me, is much more insipid because there is an ability for the school where, if I challenged them publicly, they're like, "The kids had to study." There is nothing on record, there is nothing on record, right? So, this is a way for them to not be bold. It's particularly cowardly, I think because they're not standing behind their convictions. If your convictions say this woman, it's going to make the children burst into flames, say it. Right. Stand behind it. We'll let the chips fall, right?
KARI: But if you're going to be a coward about it, that makes it particularly worse. I think. To me, that's an insipid kind of discrimination because when I call it out, it's very easy for them to be like, "Oh, she's just crazy. We were nice, we smiled. We were polite all day, we paid her."
GRACE: It's that fake politeness that is so, so, I feel like dangerous.
KARI: Yeah. And I think ... I mean, I don't have any numbers behind it but I feel like this is a thing that's happening more often where you get that kind of polite, "You're a very nice person, it's so great to meet you, you can't talk to these people." Or whatever.
GRACE: Don't talk to the students, don't talk to the kids. So do you feel like it's always been there or do you think it's worse now?
KARI: I think it's worse now because I think people are learning that if they have an open challenge or they uninvite an author, we're getting loud about it. People fuss now. It's not just like, "Oh, I got uninvited, that was bad." It's like, "I'm going to tell all my friends and everyone else." And then there's that sort of dogpile which is deserved. And I think the schools or the parents or whoever see that coming and don't want it. So, there are these other tactics.
GRACE: Yeah, you know, it's so interesting to me because you know, after the election, I remember feeling so upset with everyone. Right? And the biggest feeling that I always had, because where I grew up was mainly white. So I always had this secret feeling that people didn't really like me and that they were just pretending to like me. And then after the election, I was like, "Oh, it's true. You really don't like me. And you are all just pretending."
GRACE: So it's that terrible feeling that you have that you kind of start to ... It affects all your interactions with people, I feel like.
KARI: Yeah, and I think the idea that if I was brave enough to say, "This is the name of the school, this is where they were located, fuss at them." The idea that they are going to say, "Oh, no, no, no, no." It's still very gas lighting. I feel like this kind of gas lighting has become welcomed almost?
GRACE: What's gas lighting, just in case people don't ...
KARI: So, gas lighting is when you know a thing has happened but the people who are doing the thing to you tell you it's not happening.
GRACE: Like, it's all in your heard.
KARI: It's all in your head. There was a movie called The gaslight, years ago, and that's exactly what the men in that movie do to the main character, a woman. Is basically make her insane by telling her these things that she sees and she's experienced are not happening as they're happening and as the men are making these things happen. And so that is exactly how it feels.
GRACE: Yeah, I think this is a pretty prime example of that. You know? So, okay, we call this ... You say you call this soft censorship. Why do you call it soft censorship?
KARI: Well, I've heard of it call soft censorship just because I guess because it's not that kind of loud, public thing. It's kept quiet and the sort of secret secret-y kind of discrimination. I've also heard it called moral censorship or programming censorship where they're telling you you can talk about these books but not this book or you can talk about this book but not yourself or something like that, where they're trying to control the message.
KARI: Those last terms were terms that I was unaware of until I contacted the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom and I was like, "Hey, I know you guys work with authors whose books have been challenged. Do you ever work with authors whose selves have been challenged? I know this isn't really your purview but, do you-"
GRACE: What did they say?
KARI: And they said, "This sounds like the programming censorship or moral censorship and here is some things that other authors have done and yes, this it's not a book challenge but we can kind of guide you." They sent me a bunch of links and said, "Here are some things you can look at."
GRACE: What are some of the things some authors have done?
KARI: Well, and this is something that I was thinking about doing is maybe going back to the community and doing an event that's outside of the school. And trying to get people to come to that. I have some reservations about doing this because if the parents were complaining, then the parents aren't going to drive kids to an event.
KARI: I could donate the honorarium to LGBTQ+ charity or some sort of outreach program in the area which, unfortunately, doesn't look like there is really anything out there. Things like that where you sort of take it and turn it on its end, right?
GRACE: Which is admirable. But I also feel like it's a lot of responsibility, you know?
KARI: It is, yeah.
GRACE: You know, I love the idea of you going back to the area and trying to do an event outside, but you know, that's a lot of work.
KARI: It is. And I talked to my publisher. So my publisher, to their credit, Chronicle Books has been fantastic and they were like, "We will call that school and we will tell them they cannot treat our authors that way." And I was like, "That's awesome guys but don't because I feel like that's the wrong fight." We want a bigger, broader fight than just that.
GRACE: And the problem with things like that, which I completely can understand, that would be one way to handle it. But the problem is, it puts the kids in the crossfire.
KARI: It does. And we talked about ... We were like, "We could send a box of ARCs of my new book to the kid who tweeted me and be like, "Give these out to your friends if you want." But then we were like, "No, because we don't want to get her in trouble or put the onus on her." But if a kid from the school wanted to contact me, I could give them a book. I don't know, we're trying to figure out something to do because what happens these kids know exactly why they couldn't come and see me because kids are not stupid.
GRACE: Was it something that all the kids knew or just a couple?
KARI: I feel like just a couple but the word appears to be getting out based on the amount of followers I'm getting on Twitter now from the school. And the amount of retweets I see happening to the one student's tweet, even weeks after. I mean, I'm kind of watching it bloom out a little bit as the word gets out.
KARI: And I worry for the kids who hear. If this author is inappropriate for underclassmen, then I, this 9th grader, this closeted 9th grader or out 10th grader or whatever, I am inappropriate. That's the message that they're sending.
GRACE: Oh, completely.
KARI: And as a kid who internalized that, I mean, that's kind of the reason why we're where we are today.
GRACE: I mean, we already have so many problems. And I also think for kids, they already feel like there's something wrong with them and then to have this extra thing.
KARI: Right. I mean, yes, I am offended and grouchy about this, for sure, but it makes me really sad for the kids to know that this is the message they got.
GRACE: And it's hard because it's like ... I feel like you're kind of in a weird spot. Because they ghost-lit you, you can't really fight it. And you can't really ... And there's nothing you can do. It's almost like the only thing you can really do is almost let it go which seems wrong, right?
KARI: Right, right. And that's yeah, that's the thing. I don't want to let it ... I mean, this particular school, yes, I will have to kind of let it go. But I do want to do something, right? And even if it's just continuing to reach out on Twitter or whatever, I let the kids know, I said, "Hey, if you missed my presentation, you can email me any questions you have about my books, about writing, about whatever you want. My inbox is open." And I've gotten emails from them.
GRACE: So, do you know if they read the book?
KARI: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
GRACE: Oh, so they did read the book.
KARI: They did read the book because I've gotten ... The emails I've gotten are like, "How do you choose your characters' names? And why did you use this particular book for one of the found poems?" They really read it and paid attention and they had questions about the book and the characters, you know?
GRACE: So, when you do your school visits, does your sexuality ever come up then?
KARI: Yes, I walk. I make the 6th grade band learn how to play I'm coming out. I just walk right in.
GRACE: I think obviously this school thought you would.
KARI: Right, yeah, just like I don't even know. Because no, I mean, when I do my school visits, they are about my books and I do talk a little bit about my kids and you know, when I was in middle school and that sort of thing. And really, the only difference between my presentations and a straight author's presentation would be if a kid said, "What does your husband think about your job?" And I say, "Oh, I don't have a husband, I have a wife." Or, if they say, "Are you married?" And I say, "My wife and I got married last year."
KARI: And then the fact that I can stand there as out and proud and I'm not wearing a shirt that says, "I'm a lesbian." But the kids, eventually, they figure it out. I feel like the ones who need me to see it can see it. And I know this because they ask me coded questions. They say things like, "Has anyone ever told you you look like Ellen DeGeneres?" Or they say, "Why is your hair so short?" Or these little questions where I can kind of give them a little wink and we've had a conversation without having a conversation, right?
KARI: So they see me there and I maybe the only queer woman they have seen in real life or that they know, other than Ellen or whatever. It's not even that I have to talk about it. It's just me being there. And for the straight kids, too. They see I am not a stereotype, I am not ...
GRACE: That you're just a person.
KARI: I'm just a person, I'm like a dorky mom with kids who wrote books and that can be a game changer a lot of times. I mean, if I had seen them when I was 12, that would have been huge. Huge.
GRACE: So, I think one of the big misconceptions about books with LGBTQ topics is that they are about sex.
KARI: Right, yes. And this is, again, this was something I was naïve about. I didn't realize people thought that until I tweeted, "If you tell kids an LGBTQ book is inappropriate for them, you are telling kids they are inappropriate." It was basically something like that. And then, I got some comments from people that were like, "Why do you even have to write books about sex for kids anyway?" And I was like, "What?" You know, okay, I'm going to say this slowly and loudly, just because it's labeled as a queer book doesn't mean it's about sex. And that seemed to confuse people.
GRACE: I think it does, yeah.
KARI: Yeah. I don't understand why because basically, having a queer label lets kids find the book. And I don't know, it lets everybody know, these are the main characters or whatever. It's not erotica. Erotica is a sex book, LGBTQ just means there are characters in this book who identify that way. It doesn't mean we're going to talk about what happens. I mean, these kids are like 11 years old who star in the book. Any straight kid book is not going to be about them having sexy times. That's a ridiculous notion.
KARI: LGBTQ does not mean sex in a book. It just means there are characters that identify that way. Period. There might not even be handholding in the book, there might not be any of it.
GRACE: In some ways, it would be almost better if they ... It's hard because you want to have the label so kids who need it can find it but in other ways, you wish you didn't have this ... There would be talk like that [inaudible 00:23:02] diverse all the time.
KARI: Yeah, it would be great if we could get to a point in the world where we didn't have to say. But the problem is that there are so few of these books that parents and teachers and kids seek them out. I want to find a book where there are two moms like I have two moms or I want to find a book where an 8th grader has a girlfriend like I have a girlfriend and if we don't label them-
GRACE: They can't find them.
KARI: We can't find them, yeah. So I mean, we're not there yet.
GRACE: It's the ideal that in the future we won't need the labels.
KARI: Did you ever watch Battlestar Galactica or it was the prequel to Battlestar Galactica, Caprica.
GRACE: Oh yeah.
KARI: And like one of the main characters in Caprica, he was like this mobster guy and he had a husband. And there was nothing in this show, I mean, it's not an LGBTQ show but there was a dad who has a husband and that was just part of the show. That, one day. It's sci-fi in so many ways.
GRACE: So, what do you think we can do to stop things like this happening for school visits? This kind of soft censoring of authors, do you think there is anything we can do?
KARI: It's hard to know exactly what to do. I mean, I was thinking I would add a line in my contract that says something like, "You're aware of the author and the author's works." Just something very simple like that. So that if somebody came back and said, "Well, we can't have you talk to all of our kids," I could push back and say, "Why not." But again, then they would have to be honest about why.
GRACE: Yeah, and I think it's when you talk about soft censorship, there's just so many times when authors just are not invited because I feel like if people don't want to hear about diversity, they're just not going to hire me.
KARI: I know. And I've been joking with my wife since I knew this book would be coming out in October, I was like, "Well, here we go. We'll see. The school visits are here and will it go down or up?" And she's been very encouraging, she said, "You know, maybe in certain places, it will go down. But other places, they'll go up. And maybe they will even out." But, I mean, we'll see. Now, that I know that they are going to soft censor me just as a person that changes things a little bit.
GRACE: But I guess what I wanted to speak to you about is more about this idea that as authors, our books are one thing and our personal lives and who we are is another thing. And how now it's getting more and more or less and less separation of that.
KARI: Yeah. So I was talking about this with somebody the other day. The separation of art and artist, right? And how that topic has lately tended to be about disgusting men and the art that they create. Can you separate Woody Allen from the movies that he makes, can you separate Louis C.K. from the comedy that he makes? And my answer to that has always been, "No. No. If a gross person makes this, I'm not going to partake of it."
KARI: And now, I find myself like in this same sort of argument only I'm the gross person to other people, right? So, I feel sort of hypocritical if I say you can't separate the artist and the art except for me. But also, I will publicly say, "Louis C.K. is a disgusting person and I don't want to enjoy his art." But the difference is, these people will not publicly say, "K. A. Holt is a disgusting person, we will not partake of her art." What they say is, "We love your art, we want your art, we want our students to read it. It's great, it has a good message. But you can't talk about it." And so that's different somehow. But I don't know, it's weird to think about a little bit.
GRACE: It is weird. And there is no easy answer for that at all. It's something I've been working in my head over and over and over again, kind of this spinning circle, over and over again.
KARI: I think ultimately, I get it that I don't want to be anathema to a group of people but if I am then say it. Right? Don't be wimpy.
GRACE: And because we want to know, I guess it's kind of like people are saying that one of the things, the good things that happened with our new presidency and stuff like that is that the veil is off, we see everybody for what they stand for. And maybe that's what we need.
KARI: Yeah, I mean, I pride myself as a person who can have conversations with pretty much anyone. And so I would love to sit down say with the principal of this school and have a chat and just not be mean or hateful or whatever and just say, "Talk to me, tell me why you made this choice. And let's talk about it." And I might not be able to change her mind but she can at least see me as a human and not as a weird thing.
GRACE: Yeah, I'm just so curious what they were so afraid of, you know?
KARI: Right, right. What would I bring other than representation?
GRACE: Which is out there. To hide you means like do they think that they will never see a gay person in their lifetime?
KARI: Right. And maybe it all comes down to people thinking that gay books are sex books or not? Or it's just because we've lived ina world for so long where the media has created the message or stereotypes have created the message that they don't understand what gay people are like and how we're all just sort of the same people. I mean, being able to change the mindset would be nice. And I know that's another naïve thing to think.
GRACE: We have to start somewhere, though.
KARI: But the more representation there is, the more people understand it. And I mean, that's how it is with kids. The more they can see themselves and the more that they can see that I am not the brunt of a joke that they've heard from a friend or on TV or whatever, then their mind's open. And so yeah, I'm not there waving a rainbow flag. I'm just there as a person.
KARI: So when I was in 7th grade, I got to see Paula Danziger give a talk about books. And when I was in 7th grade, I felt authors were basically like Madonna. Like angels singing behind them and they were like beautiful movie stars or whatever. And Paula Danziger comes and she's just like a regular mom, sweaty lady up there. It's super dorky, jokey and hilarious and wonderful and it blew my mind that a regular person wrote the books that I loved. Right?
KARI: And so I want to be that for the kids in these schools. Particularly, these little proto-lesbians, right, who have a rocky path, some of them. And if they can see, "Hey, look at me, I'm a regular dorky person, here we are."
GRACE: Especially if they go to that school. They're on a rocky path, obviously.
GRACE: So, okay, so, there is the soft censorship of authors which we've talked about and then there is also the soft censorship of books. And you started a survey you've called Identifying Challenges involved in diversifying Classrooms and School Libraries. Okay, so this is something you've been doing for a while. So when did you start this and why did you start this?
KARI: So, I went to NCTE, which I never can remember what that stands for conference last November, it's like the National Council-
GRACE: Of Teachers for English.
KARI: Yes. And I was in a panel about the importance of diversity in classrooms. And it was a very organic conversation and it got very emotional because so many of us were talking about not being able to see ourselves in books when we were growing up and how important that would have been. And then we started talking about how, kind of like I was saying before when you say this book about a kid getting shot by a cop or this book about opiates or this book about gay kids, these are inappropriate or they have to be kept behind the counter or you have to have a permission slip from your parent before you can check them out.
KARI: What that message is sending the kids is that you are somehow weird and not okay and rated R or whatever. And so the conversation just built and built from there. And, what we learned was that some of the teachers and librarians, I think a lot of them, will not purchase books because they fear the challenge. And they're not bad people at all. They're busy and they work hard and they don't get paid enough and they have these kids who look to them for everything.
KARI: And they don't have time to deal with noisy parents and administrators who don't support them and whatever. And so it becomes an easier choice for them to just not order a book. And so what I wanted to do was find out what are some of the topics of the books that won't get ordered? Who are the educators afraid of? Is it mostly parents? Is it the administrator? What's the problem?
KARI: And then what would happen if they had tools that were at their disposal to help them just feel confident like they could buy a book, they could have this toolkit, whatever it is, in case the challenge comes back, right? What would make them have the confidence they need to put any book in their library and let any kid check out that book? What can we as authors and publishers do to help them? Because it's hard. And I get it, man, I get it.
GRACE: They are really in a hard place. So these are some of the questions you asked on your survey just to give the listeners an idea. You asked, are there any topics you avoid in your school library or classroom, if there are topics you avoid, why do you avoid them? If you are not including a book in your classroom or library, what was the topic, what was the book and why did you make this choice? So how did you come up with your questions?
KARI: It was partly just from listening to educators talk about building their libraries and books that they wanted to get but that they didn't get. And partly selfishly because I want to know when my little lesbian book comes out, what I can do to make sure it gets in the libraries. So, I don't know, I sat down and thought just if I was a teacher, what would be my concerns? What would I be worried about? I don't know, and just kind of build them from there.
GRACE: So, how did you get people to respond?
KARI: I went out on social media. My publisher also ... They contacted some people to see if they would spread the word. I talked to ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom again, and asked if they would share it. So it got ... The link got shared on some librarian listserv and things like that. So it was just kind of word of mouth.
GRACE: So you got over 400 responses. And thank you for letting me see some of the results.
KARI: Sure, yeah.
GRACE: So, did anything surprise you about the responses?
KARI: Well, I'll say that I got ... A lot of the responses were I absolutely will not put anything on the shelf with sexual content or sex scenes which is completely understandable because most of the survey, I think the majority of the survey respondents were middle school educators. But, now that I know people think LGBTQ are sex books, I feel like I'm going to need an asterisk when I go through and try to extrapolate some things. Because I was thinking like, "Of course that's a thing that isn't going to end up on an elementary shelf or a middle school shelf." But then I also started thinking, "Well, why not?" I mean, we try to protect kids from a lot of things and a lot of things are happening to them and books are safe places for them to see these things and to give them a jumping off point, to talk about it.
KARI: So, even the sexual situations books that really do have that, there are kids who need to read it. You know? So, I was surprised at that a little bit. And I was surprised in a really good way, well, sort of bad good. There were a lot of respondents who said queer books were books that they are afraid of the most, the are afraid of parenting challenges. But of the respondents who were challenged, when they had a one on one discussion with the challengers, more than half of the time, the book stayed in the classroom and it did not get removed and kids continued to read it.
KARI: And I thought, to me that's very important. Right? That when a discussion was allowed that the teachers were able to say, "Hey, this is why we're reading this book." And then the challenge ended more than half the time, that's impressive to me. And that's, you know, without any kind of toolkit or support from other teachers or whatever. That's just them doing it on their own. And I found that impressive.
GRACE: So, was there anything that was the most memorable out of people were saying? Because I was reading the comments. I found that very memorable, all the comments. All the other, like the numbers, I kind of said, "Okay." But the comments that they wrote at the end because you had ... Was very interesting to me.
KARI: Yes, there are so many. I haven't even been through all of them yet. There were a lot of I wish I coulds. I want to but. And that's exactly what I'm trying to figure out how to help with. I do appreciate the ones who were like, "I quietly put every book in my library, I don't ask for permission, I wait to ask for forgiveness. They're just there for the kids to find. I don't book talk them or whatever, they're just in there." So I get that kind of sneaking them in. There were quite a few of those.
KARI: Yeah, I don't know. The ones that make me sad are the ones that are like, "I live in a conservative town and I don't do this or that or the other." There was a lot of that, I felt like. I'm going to say as an excuse and I don't mean that in a aggressively mean way or whatever but as an excuse, I live in a conservative town and I can't do this or that. And I would like to help with that.
GRACE: Yeah, one of the comments was like, "Our community is very conservative and my area does not have any of these marginalized groups."
KARI: Yes, oh that was ... So when I see the ones that say, "But we don't have kids like this in our school," you don't know that. You don't know that.
GRACE: And my gut, coming from somebody who was the only Asian in an all white school, it's like, "Those are the schools that need it the most."
KARI: Yes. Yeah. And this is one of the things we talked about in that awesome panel was that obviously, the Asian kids, the gay kids need the books, right? But almost even more the other kids need these books. The straight kids. I was saying, "As a gay kid, I read every book I could get my hands on. And I identified with all these characters. I was able to take things from those books and build a life around these things, never seeing myself as a main character, never seeing myself as a hero."
KARI: So, maybe now it's time for everyone else to be able to see the gay kids or the Asian kids or whoever as the heroes and as the main characters. And you know, those white cis, straight kids aren't going to burst into flames, seeing other people as heroes, they're not. They're going to be able to pull the universalities out of those books, just like we did when we were growing up. You know?
GRACE: What I felt was interesting when I was going through your results was that the ones that they were least likely to put in their library was if they had one, sex, two, language, three, LGBTQ content, four, religion, five, drugs, six, race. And what was interesting to me was violence and suicide were actually way down on the list. And what was interesting to me was like, "Oh, so the things that are actually harmful is less dangerous than those that were perceived harm." The idea, the perceived harm of sex and language, this perceived harm or fear of LGBTQ content. It's so interesting. They were more worried about LGBTQ than actual violence or suicide.
GRACE: Whereas if a child were to go through one or the other, I'm going to come out versus I'm going to commit suicide, what would you ...
KARI: What book do you get to read?
GRACE: What would you rather them do?
KARI: It is very ... And I don't know, I mean, I think part of that comes down to dealing with the noisy parents, right? And yeah, I don't know.
GRACE: Yeah, there was the one quote in the comments that really struck me was like, "All you need is one vocal parent to cause a ruckus." And I just thought that was so-
KARI: And so that's why I don't know, if there is anything an author or a publisher can do. But, you know, let me Skype into your board meeting or principal's officer or whatever, let's talk about it.
GRACE: I think what's so interesting, all you need is one parent to cause a ruckus. So you only need one voice. But you know, we're all one voices too. It's the power of the one voice. You would think that these-
KARI: Right, how is their voice.
GRACE: That one voice seems to be so much stronger than everybody else's because nobody else wants to make a fuss, right?
KARI: Right. It's making an interesting connection right now because my youngest son who's in 5th grade has had some trouble with bullying, particularly last year, this year's been better. But he's going to middle school next year and he's very worried about it. And I have been telling him over and over, I said, "A kid is going to say something mean to you but no one gave that kid power over you. You know? He is not your boss, he doesn't get to decide things about you, only you decide those things. You have the power, no one told him he's bigger or better than you. He decided that. And so you have to know that is not true. In your heart, you have to know that."
KARI: And I don't know what else to tell you about that, punch him in the face, whatever. And I will come and bail you out of school. But it's similar. Who gave that one loud voice the power over my loud voice? Right? I don't know.
GRACE: And, the other thing that I felt was so interesting was that so many of the teachers said it was the lack of administrative support that caused them to soft censor books.
KARI: Right, yeah. And I get that because then they're in a fight by themselves, you know? And a principal will say, "This book George is just going to be too much of a hassle, don't even put it in the library. And if you do, I told you not to. So you're on your own." Like we were saying before, they're busy, they're dealing with a lot of stuff and if you don't have a support group behind you to help you raise your voice, then yeah, that's tough, man.
KARI: And how far the teachers take it. I don't want them to get fired because of my book. Absolutely, I don't want them to make that kind of stand because I get it. But, you know, kids needs the books and so why do we ... there has to be a happy medium that we can find.
GRACE: Well, one of the happy mediums, well, I don't know if it's happy medium but one of the ways a lot of the teachers seem to use is the parental permission section of a library. So how do you feel about that?
KARI: Well, I mean I don't love it but I would rather that than nothing. And I do understand, the teacher doesn't supersede a parent. I get that. I totally understand. But also, like I was saying before, when a kid identifies with someone in a book and that book is, "That's our PG 13 shelf, you got to bring in a note from your mom," then your mom knows you want to read this book and then maybe you're not ready to talk about it with your mom yet everything. So there's a slope there that I would not discourage a permission slip type thing and then have books where the kids could walk by and just grab it and the librarian looks the other way or you check the book out at school and leave it at school or I don't know.
GRACE: Should be like a free library, like a little free library.
KARI: Because I feel like sometimes, and not all the time, I hope, but there are times when a kid wants to check out a book and their parents find out what book that is, that could bring harm on that child. And that is not ... And books are not for that, books are safe places and they are places for us to experiment with how we're experimenting and see consequences without doing the thing or whatever. And I would never ever want a book to bring harm to a child and I worry that permission slips ...
KARI: I mean, if it's a broad thing that just says, "We're going to be reading some books this year and some of them have language, just FYI," that's okay. But, calling out a book and making your parents sign a thing so a kid can check it out, I do find problems with that.
GRACE: This is a little off topic. What I felt was interesting was, when I was reading the comments, I remember feeling some of them were ... I remember feeling slightly confused. Some of them were like, "I felt the graphic novel Hey Kiddo had language not inappropriate for my 3rd graders." And I was like, "Wait, that book is considered YA." So I was almost like, "Wait, that's not supposed to be for elementary school anyway."
KARI: Yeah, there are some things like that in there where I was like, "Oh my gosh, I didn't realize I needed to clarify this much." Of course you're not going to put Ellen Hopkins in your 5th grade library. Right?
GRACE: But I think that kind of is ... What I wanted to talked about, I kind of feel like there has been this blurring of middle grade to YA. People kind of don't know where that line is.
GRACE: And a lot of people are making that line when it comes to LBGTQ just like, "Oh, that's YA," because they think it's a sex book.
KARI: Totally. And that has created this black hole in middle grade for no queer books. I mean, there are some, there are definitely some and people will say, "Oh, there is so much more now than there was." And yes, yes, yes, there is so much more now. But that means five books or 10 books.
GRACE: Versus zero.
KARI: Versus zero versus like 9,000 for everything else. So yeah, the fact that you can find a handful of middle grade books with queer kids is better but we need more. And they don't need to be shelved in YA because you have to trust us as authors, we know what we're doing when we write middle grade and this is middle grade because they are kids. You know? They want to know, they're identifying this way, they're curious, they just want to read an interesting book, you know?
GRACE: I think we can't hammer home enough that just because it's an LGBTQ book doesn't mean it's a sex book.
KARI: Right. It is not a sex book.
GRACE: Let's repeat [inaudible 00:51:57].
KARI: Right. Please go to the middle school library and find all the queer books, take them out and tell me which one is the sex book.
GRACE: So, what do you think we can do to change all this as authors, anyone listening? Do you think there is anything we could do to help change any of this?
KARI: That's a great question and that is one of the reasons why I did the survey for the ghosting because I think that supporting each other, right, and knowing that you're not jumping into this sort of morass on your own is very helpful if a teacher has experienced a challenge and has made it to the other side and you could go somewhere and say, "Hey, this thing is happening to me, what did you do?" That, I think, would be really helpful.
KARI: I think just things like discussion guides and videos from authors and-
GRACE: I love the idea that you mentioned earlier about the toolkit that goes with-
KARI: Yeah, yeah. What I was thinking is ... So my parents were huge Beto O'Rourke fans, I live in Texas. And so when he was running for Senate, they had this whole big deal set up in their house, like a call center. And one of the things Beto does is they give you a script when you call people and it's like a flowchart. Sort of this if they say this, you go here, if they say this, you go here. And I was like, "What if we could come up with some kind of flowchart like that for teachers where a parent says, 'This book has gay kids in it and it is full of sex.' And you go here and be like, 'Actually, it's not in here.'" So they have a script to kind of help them predict what some of the arguments might be.
KARI: That seems like that might be a helpful thing. And I don't know, I mean I'm hoping that educators will kind of come together. Once I go through the survey and publish the results of it, that's not the end. That's really the beginning of the discussion because we can say, "Here is what's happening, here is what we're afraid of, tell me what you need to help you." And then we'll create our toolkit.
GRACE: Yeah, I feel like we need a double pronged approach and I think the toolkit and things like that is great for ground up but when I read all the things that the teachers were saying about, they need that administrative support. How do you go from top down? That's something I don't know.
KARI: I don't know. Especially when the principals go rogue and they google the authors and they see your pride flag and they shut it down. What do you do?
GRACE: What do you do?
KARI: It's a good question. And I mean, ultimately, what we do is have more representation everywhere so people stop being afraid of us.
GRACE: Yeah. I guess that's the best thing. Maybe not the best thing but that's the easiest thing that we could all do.
KARI: Yeah. And you know what's interesting, because I visit a lot of middle schools every year and it doesn't matter where I am in the country, the kids are all right, man. The kids know to ask about pronouns, the kids don't care about any ... Yes, they're looking for representation but they're so accepting and they're not so rigid the way adults are.
GRACE: Oh yes. You are so right. My daughter is six years old and she's got all these stuffies and she's got this duck stuffy, she's got a lot of duck stuffies but she's like, "This is [Yoki 00:55:37]." And I was like, "He looks so cute." And she's like, "Yoki is not a he. Yoki is a they." And I was like, "Oh, I'm so sorry."
KARI: Okay, yeah, sorry for assuming that.
GRACE: I was like, "I should have asked." It's like even at this young age, [Pato 00:55:50] is a boy, this one's a girl, this one is a they. [crosstalk 00:55:57]
KARI: And I thought, because I live in Austin, Texas, I know it's a bubble and so I thought that seeing my daughter is middle schools and how the kids are there, that was kind of a bubbly thing. But, it's not, really. I mean, I go all over. And I admit sometimes I will feel a little concerned going into some of these rural areas by myself and just you know, I don't know what to expect. But, I mean, 90% of the time, 95% of the time, I go into these libraries in rural Kentucky or wherever and the librarians say, "The kids have such a small view of the world and it is my job to give them a bigger view. And that is why I need to get these books in my library, help me get these books in my library because this is the only way right now they can see what the world is like."
KARI: And they are our Dumbledore's army. They are out there, just on the front lines, fighting the good fight. And just finding out what they need because like I said, so many I don't fault for ghosting books or even authors because I mean I get it. I want it to stop and I want to take so much of the pressure off of them. Put the pressure on me or my publisher or whatever and let us have the conversations with administration or parents or whatever. I don't know.
GRACE: It's tough, too, though.
KARI: Oh, I know, because I need to write books. I don't need to ... I don't know.
GRACE: Spend the only time fighting the fight but it's hard. I mean, all of it is hard. But, that's why we're here, right?
KARI: Yeah, I know. We're all slogging through it, together.
GRACE: All right. Well, thanks so much Kari for coming on. We've talked for almost an hour. So I'm going to ask you the last two questions I ask everybody on the podcast. The first question is, what are you working on that you would like the audience to know about?
KARI: So, I have this book Redwood and Ponytail, it's coming out in October and Redwood and Ponytail is the-
GRACE: October 2019?
KARI: October 2019. Yes it is a middle grade novel in verse and it is about a girl named Tam and a girl named Kate and one is a volleyball player and one is a cheerleader and they make assumptions about each other and they learn those assumptions are wrong. And they both are figuring out how life works and how relationships work and Redwood and Ponytail happens concurrently with my book Knockout that came out last year. And so Levi in Knockout is Tam's best friend. And in Knockout, you see the two of them kind of growing apart. And so when you read Redwood and Ponytail, you're getting Tam's side, you see what's happening in her life and how that's affecting her relationship with Levi. So they're very interconnected.
GRACE: Cool. That's awesome. So that's October 2019.
GRACE: Can you say the title again?
KARI: It's called Redwood and Ponytail.
GRACE: Redwood and Ponytail, awesome. Okay. And then the question that I ask everybody who comes on this show and I'll put the caveat, like I always do, I want you to dream big and goofy and as huge as possible something that you're almost ashamed to say loud, what is your biggest publishing dream?
KARI: My biggest publishing dream, oh my God, I have so many of them.
GRACE: The craziest one.
KARI: The craziest one. Oh my God, the craziest would be a publisher saying, "We're going to pay you a million dollars a year, billions of dollars a year to write whatever books you want. Here is your fuzzy deadline. Try to do maybe a book a year. We really love you so much and so do the kids and we just want to make sure that your family is taken care of and that you never have to write infographics for computers again. So you buy groceries. Here is all the money, here is freedom to write what you want, go."
GRACE: That's cool. On a silver plate.
GRACE: Or gold. That sounds pretty good.
GRACE: All right, well thank you so much, Kari.
KARI: Oh, well thank you, Grace. This was so nice, thank you.