Free Expression Friday: Authors Against Book Bans (Maggie Tokuda-Hall)

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Maggie Tokuda-Hall is an acclaimed author of children's and YA books such as The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea and The Worst Ronin. She is also a founding member and on the national leadership team of Authors Against Book Bans.

Can you introduce yourself and say a little bit about what you do?

I'm Maggie Tokuda-Hall. I am a children's and young adult book author and a longtime children's bookseller as well. And now I am one of the founding members and on the national leadership team for Authors Against Book Bans.

What has it been like as an author to live through this resurgence of book bans since 2021?

So disheartening. Deeply sad. So many of us have been doing so much work to allow kids to see themselves as wiser, bigger, wider versions of themselves. We take that work really seriously, and we do it with a lot of passion because we wish that kind of work had existed when we were children. And watching the backlash against it is both deeply predictable and really disheartening.

What's the story of how Authors Against Book Bans has come about?

Basically we all just kept looking around and being like, who's gonna fix this? Guys? We're not delusional. It's not that we think we're gonna be the ones who fix it [on our own], but we wanted there to be a central place where authors could be organized and deployed by the grassroots [organizers] who are already doing incredible work on the ground on this issue — because there is a ton of organization already on this topic. It's just about making sure that all of us who participate in this industry are able to do it as quickly and as effectively as possible, because we're a large group of smart, opinionated people who believe passionately that book banning is deeply detrimental to society. And there should be a central place where we can all convene and get marching orders. So that's really what Authors Against Book Bans is: it's for authors so that we can contact you and [let] you know when it's happening in your area, or if your book is being attacked, whatever the issue may be, to make sure that we can mobilize everybody together.

You say that you're not delusional, that you don't think you’re going to just fix it on your own… But from my perspective, you've done a really amazing job. It seems like you've come together relatively recently, and there's been this meteoric growth. Can you talk a little bit about when you came together and where things stand in terms of your scope?

We started meeting, just the founding members, in November of last year, and we rolled out through quiet shoulder-tapping of our own personal networks in January of this year, into wider calls in February and in March… so we're like baby deer with shaking legs, just figuring out what we're doing and getting going. But, like I said, because we partner with so many people that have been doing this kind of work, and because so many authors have been called on to be activists in this space already, we had a ton of expertise and best practices already available to us. So none of us had to reinvent the wheel. We offer training for all of our authors about how to speak on this issue, but we are usually following the guidance of those among us who have been leading the way already. It's very exciting. It has been coming together really quickly.

We are organized nationally, but also regionally: there's a California chapter, Virginia, South Carolina — there's all these different regions that we represent all over the country, and they are all starting to do things on their own now without us giving them marching orders or telling them what to do, because a lot of them were already connected to this fight. It really is in a lot of ways connecting people who were doing this work separately and making us aware of each other so we can borrow best practices and get inspiration when we need it, because sometimes it is a deeply crushing thing to be working on all the time and having success stories can be really powerful. 

I should also say, one of our biggest goals was to alleviate the burden on the authors who are the most often targeted by these campaigns. The organization on the right around this issue has been pretty effective, and they do things like demonize particular titles. They pull the most controversial-seeming thing out of context and say, look, they're giving pornography to our children! And so the same authors keep getting attacked over and over again. We really wanted to stress to everybody who joins our membership, but also to everyone in the world, that this is an all for one, one for all fight, and none of these people should have been fighting that fight alone to begin with.

You mentioned some success stories that lighten the burden of the work. Are there any especially inspiring moments to share that really stick with you?

One of our members wrote a letter to a very right-leaning school board in Texas explaining why she had written her book, which was being challenged in their district. Her name is Donna Gephart. [She explained] what she believed children were being cheated [out] of in being disallowed from accessing her book and books like it. And the leader of the school board, who's a staunch Republican and who was on the side of book banning, changed his mind because of her letter, and he actually read it at their meeting. Her book stayed on the shelves. And to me, that was such a heartening moment, because often authors feel like we're screaming into the void. No one cares what we have to say, and there's a bajillion of us. But that's not true, and our words hold a lot of power. We have a lot of authority in this situation that I think sometimes we take for granted, or we don't recognize that power within ourselves. What Donna's situation did was really drive home for me: our presence here matters. 

We also — also in Texas — sent four authors to a school board meeting. It was one of the first things that we organized, in February of this year. Christina Soontornvat was really the leader of that. There were 24 people at the school board meeting: ten were in favor of book bans, ten were against it, and there were four authors, who were the ones who changed the tide of the argument and broke the tie. That was another one of those moments. And then — it's not a success story yet — but in Huntington Beach, where they have passed a really noxious city ordinance that I know you're well aware of, but that basically removes all the children's books from the children's library so that they can be audited for pornography. (And I mean, just to give you a sense of how stupid this is, Everyone Poops has been removed. I'm not here to yuck anyone's yum, but if that's porn to you, that feels like a you issue, and you can just handle that privately. That doesn't need to be everybody's problem.) We organized a joint press conference with the city council members who had stood against [the ordinance] along with four of our members — our California chapter lead MariNaomi, Elana K. Arnold, Gretchen McNeil and Molly Ostertag — to bring fresh attention to the issue. And the following city council meeting had way more people coming to speak in favor of the library. We organized a protest outside of it as well, and some of our members spoke at that city council meeting. We are still meeting with the city council members in Huntington Beach to see how we can best support them. 

It's been so heartening to work with the people in politics who are trying their hardest to protect our freedom to read, but also to see immediately, from go, our membership has a lot of expertise, and brilliance, and such a valuable point of view in this fight. So having an opportunity to do things like host a press conference can be really valuable and can be really meaningful for the people who are participating, as well as for those city council members who were feeling pretty disheartened and like nobody was there to support them anymore.

Are there any particular initiatives or areas of focus that are especially on top-of-mind for Authors Against Book Bans right now?

Right now we're just trying to extend our membership. We just want more people so that we can do more of that grassroots-level work of sending authors to school board meetings. But we also need membership because we're going to be doing things like calling for volunteers to help PEN America create the content for a guide to what's been banned, to help parse the data of what kind of books are being attacked and banned so that we're extremely aware of the trends.

And so we need people. And even if people sign up and they never do anything with us ever again, their membership is still really valuable to us, because we need numbers to do things like go into different publishing houses and ask them to do more in this fight. But the more of us we represent, the bigger our voice, and so membership is a big push right now. That'll also help us do things like connect different pro-bono lawyers with ideal plaintiffs to bring some of these cases to court, which is work that we are trying to help with as well.

Who can be a member?

Okay, so we're called Authors Against Book Bans, but that's because authors, illustrators, editors of anthologies, translators, audiobook narrators, and the like, against book bans and also book challenges, was too wordy. If you have been published — ever — if your name is on a book in any capacity, you are welcome to join. We don't care if you're traditionally independently published. If there's a book with your name on it, if it's an e-only, we don't care. We want you. This is an all for one, one for all fight, and we need as many people as we can get to participate.

Maggie Tokuda-Hall, thank you so much for joining me, and thank you for everything Authors Against Book Bans is doing in this fight. Again, from my perspective, I think it's been a game- changer, and I'm so excited to see what you keep doing.

Thank you so much! And we’re so grateful to be partnered with ABFE as well, and with all of our independent bookseller friends. And a special shout-out to Rediscovered Books in Idaho, who are particularly doing an incredible job organizing in a state that is incredibly inhospitable to the freedom to read. 

And check out our interview with Laura Delaney, which was posted a little bit ago. And I forgot to ask, Maggie, where were you a Children’s Bookseller?

Oh! I ran the children’s department for Books Inc. for a long time. If you walk through their Chestnut Street Store, so I used to handle all their school events, teen events, author visits, school book fairs… salt mines, as any bookseller knows. And I trained all the kids specialists in the stores. 

You heard it here first, she is one of us!