Raj Haldar Talks with Roger

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In This Book Is Banned, Raj Haldar and illustrator Julia Patton demonstrate just what goes wrong when we allow book censors to get their way. The book is a comedy, but its message is no joke.

Roger Sutton: What got you on this particular hobbyhorse for This Book Is Banned?

Raj Haldar: It was a confluence of creative factors as well as a desire to have a mission for some social good. Obviously as an author, and as a citizen, the rise in book bans in the last five years has been incredibly alarming to me. I’m forty-one, and I’ve been aware of book banning for a long time, but it wasn’t until this current inflection point that it felt like a concerted national effort to push a very specific social agenda. In Florida and other states, it’s something that feels much more like pure fascism. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do for my next picture book, I thought back to some of my favorite books growing up. One that came to mind was the Sesame Street classic The Monster at the End of This Book. I loved that book as a kid.

RS: I’m so old, I reviewed that book.

RH: Really? Honestly, I probably couldn’t have articulated it as a kid, but I kept going back to it because of the fourth-wall breaking, using the picture book form in a unique way. So exciting. I had been thinking about doing something like that. I became a parent twice over while I was working on this book, and that’s led me to some newer books that are metafictive in the same way, such as Herve Tullet’s Press Here.

RS: I love that book.

RH: I didn’t know it until we had a toddler running around the house, and someone gave it to us. I was blown away by it. It was one of those books where I thought, Oh my gosh. So elegantly simple but totally brilliant.

RS: I wonder how it took someone so long to think of that.

RH: Yeah, exactly. With those two ideas swirling around in my head, I had an aha moment when I was thinking about books being challenged and banned for our youngest readers. I started thinking, Kids are reading picture books, the picture books are being banned; they need a book that helps them grapple with the reality that their First Amendment rights are being curtailed. I wanted to help them understand what it means if book banning and challenges continue and how bleak a world it will create. When I combined those two separate notions, I thought, Oh, wow, a meta fourth-wall-breaking zany picture book that communicates to kids through the reveal at the end! That it has a mission of social good felt so exciting to me.

RS: And the idea is so simple at heart: If one person doesn’t like something, out it needs to go. You take that idea and gradually everything gets taken away.

RH: The fundamental thing that I like about making picture books — I’m not sure if you know, but I kind of fell backward into writing children’s books. I was a musician for many years. I worked on my first picture book, P Is for Pterodactyl, on a whim, and it kind of took on a life of its own. I realized that what I like about making picture books is taking complex ideas and distilling them very simply and, hopefully, elegantly for kids. This Book Is Banned is exactly that, starting with this basic idea that one person’s negative reaction to something shouldn’t result in its disappearing for everybody. Somebody else might enjoy it. And then building on that in a way that keeps kids engaged until the end. Spoiler alert: after banning giraffes and roller-skating robots and birthday parties and the Big Bad Wolf, the last page of the book is blank because there’s nothing left to read. I think that kids will come back to the book because it’s a whole lot of fun, but also it gives them an opportunity to engage in discussion with grownups about what book banning means in their lives.

RS: I went back to look at the Amazon reviews of P Is for Pterodactyl — I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through those, but that “O is for Ouija” is such a perfect example of what you’re talking about. Even people who were saying “Oh, I love this book. It’s so clever. It’s so funny,” but...“we can’t have that Ouija board,” so out the door that book goes.

RH: I try not to read reviews on the internet, but frankly, for P Is for Pterodactyl, there were so many and surprisingly so. How much more of an innocuous topic could you have for a kids’ book than silent letters? A large minority of those Amazon reviews are about “O is for Ouija.”

RS: That seemed to be the thrust of the critical ones. Most people loved it. A lot of five-star reviews. But the people who hated it, that’s why they hated it.

RH: It’s something that occurred to me as we were going through the editorial process. I remember talking to my editor about it. Though creatively I felt that “O is for Ouija” so beautifully encapsulated the dual-tier humor that the parents would enjoy, I didn’t know if it was a bridge too far for my publisher. I remember having a conversation with them, and I was delighted that my editor thought it was hilarious. In hindsight, I was a little upset that I even questioned myself about “O is for Ouija.” That’s why we must fight books being challenged and not start questioning ourselves. I got my share of hate mail from folks.

RS: I think a lot of children’s authors have that fear now as they write. They don’t want to offend anybody. They don’t want the hammer to come down on them. So they change something, make it — I think — blander than whatever it was they chose in the first place.

RH: I understand that this is a lot of people’s livelihoods. But ultimately it feels like if children’s book authors are not free to tell stories from diverse points of view about race, gender, American history, LGBTQ identities, then this concerted nationwide campaign is winning the culture war.

RS: How old are your kids?

RH: My kids are three years old and six months old.

RS: So you haven’t yet had to deal with this yourself, where the child wants to read something and the parent is like, “Um, I’m not sure about that one.”

RH: No, I have not. My concern is — when you look at the list of the most banned picture books, these are not violent ideas. And Tango Makes Three is a real-life story about two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo that adopt a baby penguin to raise as their own. These are the kinds of stories that have become lightning rods for book bans and challenges. Will there be a time where my daughters will want to read something that I don’t think they’re ready for? Yes, but that feels normal. What doesn’t feel normal is not allowing access to stories that reflect very normal points of view and have no capacity to harm others. I saw a meme the other day that put everything into a nutshell: “The ‘guns don’t kill people’ sure seem to think a book can make you gay.”

RS: How was your own childhood reading regulated by the forces around you: parents, teachers, et cetera?

RH: My parents are both immigrants from India. My mother was a high school chemistry teacher in India. When they came here in 1974, she became an early childhood educator in the Head Start program and really found her calling in that. She’s a natural early childhood educator. Reading was encouraged in our home growing up. I loved going through my parents’ bookshelves, even as a young kid. I remember being fascinated and titillated by what was on their shelves. There are books that I read maybe way too early. I remember reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ when I was ten years old, probably too young to be reading it, and titillated by it but not knowing why. I’m sure my parents saw me reading it, and they didn’t stop me. On the flip side, I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies. They were permissive about reading; I got into Abbie Hoffman and that era in late middle school, early high school. I remember going to the used bookstore in our town, and there was a shelf of books you could only access with a parent or if you were eighteen. I wanted to look at The Anarchist Cookbook, just to see, trying to understand the counterculture era. My dad allowed me to buy that book so I could take a look at it. My parents put a premium on our reading and being curious and learning to make decisions about the world around us. Part of that is having access to diverse of points of view, for better or for worse.

RS: I think that the point you make about your parents valuing books more highly and differently than other media is interesting, because when you think about the things people get upset about in books for young children, primarily sexual content, a lot racier stuff is on television, in the movies, on the playground. So why is it that books are being singled out? I think it’s kind of the flip side of what you said about your parents valuing literature. People do put literature on a high pedestal, so therefore they see it as more powerful. To the people who are suspicious of whatever the topic might be, the fact that it’s in a book makes it scarier.

RH: I think books are inherently more powerful than film and TV, in terms of what they represent to us as humans. I think children’s books particularly — if you’re trying to shape a generation to adhere to whatever your particular mores are, there’s no better place to start that line of attack. This insidious conservative agenda puts children’s books in its crosshairs. That’s a huge impetus for me to have something on the shelves, not only for kids, but also for the librarians and the educators who are, at this point, putting their jobs on the line. In Arkansas, there’s a bill that could have librarians incur jail time for having banned books on the shelves. Given all of that, it felt like an imperative.

RS: That’s what’s so scary, that someone complaining about Ouija boards on Amazon — fine, go ahead, complain, don’t buy the book. Even parental pressure groups coming into libraries, saying get rid of this book — again, horrible. But not as horrible as when they get the force of the state behind them, as in Arkansas and Florida. I don’t see how these things will survive court challenges, but the way the courts are today, who knows?

RH: The Supreme Court, over the last eight years, has eroded any real checks and balances. You think these things would never hold up in court, but I wouldn’t be surprised by anything. The way I can push back as a citizen is to leverage whatever small platform I have and create something that helps empower librarians to have conversations that need to be had with kids.

RS: And with humor. I think that’s a big plus of this book.

RH: Starting with P Is for Pterodactyl, I remember a journalist writing about it called it “subversively educational.” I had never articulated that to myself.

RS: You dangerous radical, you.

RH: I want readers to have so much fun with the book that they almost don’t even perceive that there’s something else going on. I think if I had taken another tack and tried to provide historical context and be more direct about the message — what it means if our First Amendment rights are eliminated — I think the takeaway would have been less effective with kids. I think there’s something very kinetic and experiential about how This Book Is Banned has turned out; you’re reading it and having fun, and then suddenly, the payload, the thing to contend with about book bans is delivered pretty smoothly.

RS: Julia Patton's pictures do a lot of the lifting.

RH: A big, big part of what's really made the project come to life.

RS: Those rainbow sneakers. I thought that was hilarious.

RH: Julia is brilliant. She brought so much personality to the proceedings. The picket signs on the endpapers that the animals create — she came up with so many of those incredible slogans. Not only a brilliant illustrator, but a brilliant human.

RS: I think that your fourth-wall breaking really comes to force at the end, because ultimately, kids who have sort of been interrogated themselves as they’ve gone through the book are going to have to ask themselves, What does this mean? What can I take away from this book when it comes to the treatment of ideas and books and thoughts in the real world? You don’t do that job for them. They have to do it.

RH: I don’t. It was important that the book delivered this expression of what a world with increasing book bans looks like without feeding the reader an overt moral. On the endpaper, however, I felt it was important to say: “We don’t want our books to disappear (like the ending of this one did!). Just keep reading and sharing books — and remember, even if a book isn’t for you, it could still be perfect for someone else.” Ultimately, I felt like there needed to be a call to action. I hope This Book Is Banned is an entry point for kids to start thinking not only about what these book bans mean but also to embrace the books that are being challenged. These are the exact books kids need to embrace more than ever.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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