In celebration of Banned Books Week, co-authors of the much-challenged children’s book I Am Jazz, Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel, are calling on people to get out and read—especially the books “that some closed-minded person out there wanted desperately to keep out of your hands.”
Both Herthel and Jennings are no strangers to being targeted by closed-minded people. In 2015, their children’s book I am Jazz,which recounted Jenning’s own experiences as a transgender youth looking to find herself within her family and community, came under attack in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, after the conservative group Liberty Counsel threatened to sue the district if the book remained in schools. In response to the threat, book readings were cancelled and it appeared that district administrators were going to succumb to the minority’s opinion that the book would “miseducate children with what essentially amount to propaganda and mistruths.”
CBLDF teamed up with the National Coalition Against Censorship and other free speech organizations on a letter that reminded administrators that Liberty Counsel’s threat represented a “fundamental misunderstanding of how the First Amendment applies to public schools” and to demonstrate the value the book brought to the community. “I’d been concerned about receiving hate mail and death threats — as Jazz’s family sometimes still does to this day — but at first there was virtually nothing. Then came the incident in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin; that’s when I knew that our message was being heard,” Herthal says.
Along with the efforts of free speech advocates, the Mount Horeb community, too, would not stand for the censorship taking place in their community. An event led by Mount Horeb High School’s Straight and Gay Alliance saw the book get its public reading. Another event led by parent Amy Lyle further demonstrated the level of support the book would receive from the Wisconsin city. “I showed up at that library in the bitter cold, completely unnerved and not knowing what to expect,” recalls Herthal adding:
[Even] though the organising parents had set up only about 40 chairs, when all was said and done there were 600 packed into that little room. And when I finished reading our book aloud, the entire room applauded, and I knew at that moment that censorship is bound to fail.
All of these efforts eventually culminated in 50 separate nation-wide public readings that involved more than 3,500 people.
Although Jennings’ and Herthel’s own bout with controversy in Wisconsin ended on a positive note, books across the United States continue to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries — specifically books that deal with diverse issues or are by authors of diverse backgrounds. Herthel and others reminds us that these stories are not only important, but necessary to help the next generation to grow into open-minded members of the global community. As Judith Platt, the director of free expression advocacy at the Association of American Publishers notes:
Young people especially need books that shed light on a diversity of experience, background, culture, gender, and religion. Books that feature people of color, people with disabilities and people seeking answers to questions about gender identity create opportunities for learning and openness. This is the only way we can ever hope to stop being ‘them and us’ and become ‘we’.
As the co-author of a book that deals with transgender issues, Herthel can’t agree more. “What we need now is more information, more voices, and more speech. Otherwise, perception becomes reality, and the diversity that has long been one of America’s greatest strengths will end up tearing this country apart.”
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!