Chilling Expression: Knox County Public Library Uninvites Author From Festival

Julia Watts was chosen as a featured author for the upcoming LitUp Festival: Arts and Innovation for the Next Generation, an event sponsored by Knox County Public Library. It’s an event for teens with writing workshops, career information, author talks, and other activities. Watts has several published, celebrated works aimed at a teen audience, such as Finding H.F., and Quiver.

Watts, who has participated in Knox County Library programs in the past, was surprised and saddened when the library suddenly uninvited her from the event. The reason? According to the library’s assistant director for marketing Mary Pom Claiborne, the organizing committee discovered that “Some of her work is described as erotica and is inappropriate for teens”. (Knox News, 2019)

So again, Ms. Watts has several lauded YA titles, which was what made her an author choice for the festival, but the fact that she had written risqué material in the past prompted her removal from a library event.

While it wasn’t explicitly expressed in her dis-invitation, Watts questioned if LGBTQ+ themes in her work were a spark for the action taken against her:

They say if it were erotic content of any type that they would have had the same concerns. As somebody who has been uninvited because someone goes, ‘Yikes, that’s gay content,’ that was certainly my first thought.

Julie Watts (WBIR, 2019)

The implication of this cancellation should send a chill down the spine of any writer. Those who write should not have to be boxed into one genre, age group, or format for fear that their body of work will impede their professional progress.

The library did not expect Watts to read from or reference the adult material, but it didn’t want to be perceived as promoting her entire body of work at a festival for young teens, Claiborne said.

Kristi Nelson, Knox News, 2019

The fact that Watts has written erotica (which, she mentions to Knox News, is a subjective term) should not be an issue for the festival, because that wasn’t the focus of her attending the event- her YA books were the focus.

Some of my writings⁠—not my work for YA readers—contain erotic content. Not just erotica, but lesbian erotica…kids might Google me and find out I’d written erotica, and that freaked [the committee] out. If they’d Googled me and found that I’d written Harlequin romances, I don’t think there would have been this same kind of pushback.

Julie Watts (Publisher’s Weekly, 2019)

The committee effectively shunned this author after previously inviting her simply because a teen could hypothetically google her name and find out that she has written books for adults- books with S-E-X-, oh no!

Are libraries the newly appointed Decency Police Force? Does writing erotica make you suddenly unmentionable or a bad role model? No, and no! Libraries are supposed to be places where information flows freely and people are supported, not judged.

Honorably, Knoxville’s poet laureate, Marilyn Kallet, withdrew from the festival in solidarity with Watts.

As writers we need to stand up for one another, and to require being treated with dignity and trust.

Marilyn Kallet (Knox News)

This decision by Knox County Library to cancel Watts’ invitation was a huge misstep. Libraries are not places of censorship, and those who write should not have to hide their works in the shadows or self-censor for fear of being outcast from public events and civil discourse in the library. Authors are multifaceted, complex people who wear many hats and should not be shamed for writing for a variety of audiences.

One thing I’ve learned from this: I shouldn’t take my freedom of expression for granted.

Julia Watts (Publisher’s Weekly)

I hope that this mistake can be learned from so that it does not set a dangerous precedent. Ms. Watts has accepted an apology from the library, and perhaps the dialogue sparked by this occurrence will prompt other libraries to examine their own biases and reaffirm their commitments to intellectual freedom.

References

Kirch, C. (n.d.). Author Julia Watts Disinvited from Teen Lit Festival. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/81097-author-julia-watts-disinvited-from-teen-lit-festival.html

Nelson, K. L. (2019, September 5). Young adult author pulled from Knox library’s teen festival because she also writes ‘erotica’. Retrieved from https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/education/2019/09/04/julia-watts-author-pulled-knox-county-public-library-teen-festival-because-writes-erotica/2215193001/

WBIR Staff. (2019, September 6). Knoxville author uninvited from local teen reading festival for publishing ‘erotic content’ in the past. Retrieved from https://www.wbir.com/article/life/books/knoxville-author-uninvited-from-local-teen-reading-festival/51-cb005c4a-71d1-44e7-a74c-a624e1a2ab0f

The Drama about Drama

Drama, a popular graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier, was recently ordered removed from Catholic elementary schools in Ottawa. The decision was swiftly reversed amidst much criticism.

The removal of Drama came after complaints from parents about LGBT content; Drama, which centers around a middle-school theatre production, features a panel where two boys kiss onstage.

on-stage-kiss-drama

The School Board had asserted that the choice was made to remove the book not necessarily because of LGBT content, but because of relationship content:

“It is not a book we really need younger kids reading without guidance.”– Robert Long, Ottawa Catholic School Board

I’ve read Drama, and I feel confident that if the LGBT characters were instead presented as a boy-girl coupling there would have been no perceived “issue” and no censorship of this title by the School Board.

Drama features young students, some of which have crushes on other students (shocking, I know), but the book isn’t heavily focused on romantic relationships- it’s also an intensely readable comic featuring diverse characters who are excited and passionate about theatre. The students are busy addressing all of the intricacies of designing a set, planning the lighting, creating the costumes, rehearsing and getting ready for their big performance.

drama2

Scholastic recommends Drama for ages 10-14, which covers about grade 4-9. Age recommendations aren’t set in stone though, and I take them with a grain of salt- readers often enjoy titles above and below their “reading level”, especially if the content is relatable to them. When I was in elementary school and middle school, I was involved in several school plays, and this is just the kind of comic I would probably have enjoyed.

While the decision to ban Drama was thankfully reversed due to the pushback, we can still learn a lot from this act of censorship.

What does it say when we remove a book like Drama? The School Board had claimed that the book’s relationship content was age inappropriate, but the book was originally contested because of LGBT content (a gay character, a kiss). If the school was truly concerned about relationship content and kisses they would have a lot more titles to ban, including heaps of classic fairy tales, bestselling kids’ novels, and tons of picture books.

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Take a look at the cute picture books up there created for young readers- why does society readily accept the love and affection of entire menageries of animals and creatures in a children’s picture book, but as soon as a boy kisses another boy in a comic people become uneasy?

Sadly, comics and graphic novels are subject to hyper-vigilant scrutiny on a regular basis. There’s something about the visual nature of comics that gets people all riled up, and this controversy over Drama is one more story showing that censorship is alive in Canada.

By purposefully removing Drama from a school library collection, the school board was effectively removing representation of LGBTQ+ characters. This removal insinuated that board members had concluded gay crushes are problematic and can only be handled by more mature readers. It implied that it’s unnatural for boys to like boys, it’s unmentionable for a boy to kiss a boy, that kids shouldn’t see LGBT relationships as normal, and that school libraries shouldn’t contain these types of content.

Representation isn’t trivial- it’s vital. Statistics show that in Canada, as in many other parts of the world, LGBTQ+ people are targeted at disproportionately high levels when it comes to violence, sexual assault, and discrimination.

We need stories with LGBTQ+ content to normalize LGBTQ+ people and relationships if we are to stop the violence that is directed toward them.

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This book wasn’t being used for a class- it was available in the library, where students had the choice to read it or not read it as they liked. Parents can control what their own kids read, but when a book is banned and removed from a school library it eliminates EVERYONE’S chance to read it.

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Drama could be the book that sparks a love of reading for a child. It could be the book that makes them feel less alone in the world, the book that they see themselves reflected in. It could inspire them, comfort them, entertain them, educate them, and more. It could do all of these things or none of these things, because every person is different and every reader brings their own ways of knowing into what they are reading. When the book is available, at least they have the chance to read it- if they don’t want to read it, nobody is forcing them to.

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I’m glad that Drama is back in the elementary school libraries. Telgemeier’s graphic novels are popular for a reason, and kids read them voraciously. Drama could be just the book that a student needs.