A Q&A With Laurie Halse Anderson

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Bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson takes on tough subjects for kids of all ages and writes about them with sensitivity and humor. Her work, which encompasses picture books, an elementary chapter book series, YA novels, and historical fiction, has been awarded numerous honors. Two of her YA titles, Speak and Chains, have been National Book Award finalists.

Despite its honors, Speak has been the subject of censorship attempts in schools and local libraries around the country. Anderson has said that when her books have been censored, she has been bolstered by support from all segments of the book industry. It is appropriate, then, that Laurie Halse Anderson is this year’s honorary chair of the ABC Children’s Group Silent Auction and Reception to benefit the ABFFE Fund for Free Speech in Children’s Books.

In presenting Anderson with its 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) said of Catalyst, Fever 1793, and Speak: “These gripping and exceptionally well-written novels, through various settings, time periods, and circumstances, poignantly reflect the growing and changing realities facing teens. Iconic and classic in her storytelling and character development, Anderson has created for teens a body of work that continues to be widely read and cherished by a diverse audience.”

ABFFE President Chris Finan recently asked Halse Anderson, the recipient of this year’s Indies Choice Book Award for Most Engaging Author, about her role as Silent Auction chair and about the challenges to her books and the effects these have had on her, on kids, and on other writers.

Chris Finan: Why did you agree to serve as the honorary chair of the ABC Children’s Group Silent Auction at BEA?

Laurie Halse Anderson: This opportunity combines several of my passions: children’s literature, freedom of expression, independent booksellers, and art. Does it get any better than that? No, it doesn’t! When my books have been censored, I’ve been supported by all aspects of the publishing community. I want to make sure that other authors and illustrators (and teachers and librarians!) who have to deal with censorship attempts feel that same level of support and care.

CF: Why have some of your books been challenged?

LHA: The people who challenge my books are afraid of the world we are living in. They don’t know how to talk to their children about the kinds of typical adolescent challenges that the characters in my books run up against. Instead of dealing with their fears, they try to eliminate the books. They lie about the content in my books and pull quotes out of context in their attempts to demonize my stories about sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders and other subjects. Many of the censors I’ve dealt with want to go back to a mythological era in history when none of those things ever happened. At best, these folks are uninformed or misguided. At worst, they are dangerous.

CF: Have you been discouraged by these attacks? Is there a danger of a chilling effect?

LHA: Instead of discouraging me, these challenges make me furious. America’s children need a wide variety of books so that they can read about the situations and characters that have meaning for them. It is a parent’s right and responsibility to supervise their child’s reading. Censors want to take control of those decisions for everyone’s children. I worry that new authors, anxious about the possibility of personal attack, might hold back from writing about sensitive topics. That’s another reason it is so important for the entire publishing community to speak up about the evils of censorship.

CF: Why are groups such as the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Freedom to Read Foundation important?

LHA: Censors are bullies. They try to position themselves as the authority on what children should and should not be reading. They intimidate the people who disagree with them and refuse to enter into meaningful conversation. National groups like ABFFE, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Freedom to Read Foundation are vital players in the struggle against book banners. By standing up to the censoring bullies, they help strengthen the folks who bravely fight for our First Amendment rights.

CF: What can booksellers do to support the free speech rights of kids?

LHA: Censorship tends to happen in libraries and on school grounds. A bookstore can be a neutral setting, a place where information can be shared and discussions encouraged in a calm atmosphere. ABFFE also gives booksellers wonderful tools that they can share with teachers and librarians, thus strengthening the relationship between the store and the school community. When booksellers join the fight against book banners, everyone wins.

America needs locally owned bookstores to offer books of all kinds to all sorts of readers. That is a tangible example of the kind of tolerance that makes our nation so special. Kids learn from seeing that respect in action. It supports their growth as readers and as Americans. The freedom to read is as vital as the freedoms to think and to have your own opinion. I am so excited to see booksellers fighting hard to preserve those freedoms.

The ABC Children’s Group Silent Auction and Reception will be held from 5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on May 25 in Rooms 1E09/10/11 of the Javits Convention Center. Tickets are $69 for bookseller members of the ABC Children’s Group at ABA and $89 for all others. Buy your tickets here.

A preview of this year’s Silent Auction artwork is available online through Flickr and is accessible here. All BEA registrants will be able to preview select pieces of Silent Auction artwork on Tuesday, May 24, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., in the Javits Convention Center’s Crystal Palace.

If the Silent Auction and Reception is not sold out prior to BEA, tickets will be sold during the preview and at the entrance to the reception on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets purchased on site will cost $79 for ABC Group members and $99 for all others.

Profits from the auction will support the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression’s efforts to fight censorship of children’s books through education, advocacy, and participation in legal cases around the country.