Maia Kobabe on the debate over banned books: “The best interest of young people is to be seen in literature”

Maya Kobabe’s graphic memoir, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” was originally published in 2019 but has recently been at the center of a national conversation about banned books.

Their first book was named the top banned book of 2021 by the American Library Association. The association said the book was, in quotes, “banned, challenged, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, and because it was deemed to contain sexually explicit imagery.”

The book chronicles their experience of discovering their gender and sexuality. Kobabe recently spoke at the Unbound Book Festival in April about graphic memoirs and banned books. E spoke with Abigail Ruhman of KBIA.

“I also think the fact that the title has both the words ‘gender’ and ‘queer’ in it means that if a parent is just searching by keyword for books that maybe have topics they isn’t comfortable, it’s really going to come easily to the top of that wanted list.”

Maia Kobabe

Abigail Ruhman: Why do you think people latched onto your book for this debate? And how has that affected you personally?

Maia Kobabe: I think my book was just at the right time to get caught up in this whirlwind of prohibitions and challenges. Because my book won a Stonewall Honor Award and an Alex Award from the American Library Association, that means lots of librarians have purchased copies of the books, so it’s in lots of libraries.

So when people were looking for books that they’d seen in a challenge and in other, you know, communities, they were like, ‘Oh, is this book also in my community?’, and they found him because the librarians had supported him.

I also think that the fact that the title contains both the words “gender” and “queer” means that if a parent is just searching by keyword for books that, perhaps, have topics they don’t is not comfortable, it will very easily arrive at the top of this search list.

I also think the fact that my book is a graphic novel makes it more vulnerable to challenges because first of all you can read it faster. And then second, you can also not read it at all, and just open it and see one or two images that you might not agree with. And then they can spread very easily on social media, in our sort of digital viral age.

In many ways, I don’t think the challenges against my book are really about me or my story. I really think it’s a wave of viral bans that seeks to specifically control information about our identities and our trans identities and limit young people’s access to that information, and my book is just caught in this wave.

Ruman: Is there anything you wish you could communicate to the people pushing for this book ban?

“These most marginalized readers are even more marginalized, and their access is the access that’s been most limited, and I just don’t know if the people banning the books care – I wish let them do it.”

Maia Kobabe

Kobabe: When you try to ban or challenge a book about a marginalized experience, and I’m talking about a queer book, or a trans book, or a book by a POC author, you’re telling any young person who relates to that story, that basically you don’t want to know their story, that you’re not interested in knowing their story, that they don’t interest you, and that they’re not welcome in your community.

And, so, the part of all of this that hurts me the most is thinking about young readers, especially the most marginalized readers who may not have the financial means to buy books, if they don’t are not freely available from libraries, or who might not feel comfortable bringing home such an obviously strange book if they have more conservative parents.

These most marginalized readers are even more marginalized, and their access is the access that’s been most limited, and I just don’t know if the people banning books care – I wish they do it.

Many of them seem to claim that the best interests of young people are their goal, but the best interests of young people are to be seen in literature, to be seen in stories, to be invited, to learn to know people different from themselves.

And I think limiting books is, it’s just cutting off children from the world, all readers, readers of all ages, and we should be inviting readers into the world instead.

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