‘When Children’s Books Offend’ by Jennifer Gennari ’06
I love revision. I invite my editor brain to many cups of tea, as I read aloud, scribble on paper, cut and paste and delete. From those first drafts to the end, my word choices are studied by many smart and meticulous eyes—from my agent to my editor to the copyeditor, in those final moments before it goes to print.
Still, we grow and change. Author Mitali Perkins once shared that when one of her earliest books was reprinted, she took the opportunity to remove a stereotype. I’ve already done this, too: for the paperback edition of Muffled, I rewrote four sentences to edit out the words “normal” and “crazy,” because I had inadvertently offended.
I have a few words, too, that I would remove from my debut, My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer. The middle-grade novel was my creative thesis, and in 2012, it was published by Houghton Mifflin. It’s the story of June, whose family experiences anti-LGBT prejudice. I based the story in Vermont, where I’m from, augmenting my memory with research on the civil union law, the legal precursor to marriage equality.
In 2000, some Vermonters pushed back against the new civil union law (“Take back Vermont”), while others demanded that Vermont should keep “civil” our discourse and accept each other.
The book was mostly well-received, except for one scene outside the library.
A reviewer said it was “one-sided,” and that the adults opposed to the civil-union law were unrealistic, “offering inappropriate, unwelcome advice to June.” The imagined dialogue included hurtful things being said at that time: her parents could get AIDS and that queer people shouldn’t be allowed to have children.
Would I revise my book, given the chance? I would certainly remove the racist “cowabunga” hollered as they jump into the lake. But in the library, June is seeking the truth. She reads letters to the editor, including a reference to pedophiles. She doesn’t know what the word means, but she understands the hate. And then the adults outside the library passing out flyers insult her family.
The level of anti-LGBTQ+ attacks today make this scene look almost quaint. In the name of free speech, open discrimination is prevalent. In Florida, prejudice is being enshrined into law. And books, including mine, are being banned in Texas, Pennsylvania, and other states. The new wave of book-banning is organized, forcing teachers to remove books from their classrooms and endangering the lives of LGBTQ+ youth. Under the banner of “parents’ rights,” they are denying all children the chance to read the books they want and need. As many have noted, a banned book is not an honor. It means the children who need to read these books won’t find them.
Every children’s book author I know respects our young audience. We write to tell the truth and to offer hope. And that is what I believe My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer does, which is why I wouldn’t change that scene. June experiences something terrible, but she survives the bullying and later finds the courage to take pride in her family. She inspires me to stand up fiercely for all the books under attack.
To learn how you can stop book banning, visit PEN America’s website.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jennifer Gennari is the author of Muffled, a Junior Library Guild selection and Georgia Children’s Book Award finalist, and My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer, a Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year selection and an American Library Association Rainbow List title. A WCYA ’06 graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives on the water in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at www.jengennari.com.