In the spirit of Banned Books Week, StorySnoops is hosting a series of interviews with our friends in the literary world. BBW is the American Library Association’s annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. It highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States. We hope you enjoy reading about these different points of view! We really enjoyed putting this series together!
Our guest today is Meg Cabot, New York Times bestselling author of over twenty-five series and books for teens, tweens and adults. Just a few of her many titles are The Princess Diaries, How to be Popular, Airhead, Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls, and her latest release for adults, Insatiable.
Welcome Meg! Thanks for joining us here today.
Hi! Thanks for having me!
Censorship and banned books are, of course, the topic of the week. Have you ever been directly affected by censorship?
Well, as someone who grew up in a pretty conservative small town in Indiana (although it had a large college in it), of course there were incidents. There was a mother (actually the mother of a friend of mine) who tried to get Judy Blume’s Forever banned in our school. Of course I was the one who brought it to class. My mom didn’t see what the big deal was. If you didn’t like Forever, just don’t read it. Why try to keep everyone else from enjoying it? So my mom was the big No Book Banning! mom when I was a kid.
Now I am on the board of directors of the Authors Guild, the nation’s leading advocate for writers’ interests in free expression (sometimes working directly with the National Coalition Against Censorship). Judy Blume is the current vice-president of the Authors Guild! I know, small world. She’s so fun. (We’ve never talked about Forever, but Judy did email my mom once! Mom was thrilled.
Is there any one title or series of yours that people have taken issue with more than any other?
My books have been challenged numerous times, especially The Princess Diaries series. It always astonishes people to hear this, considering not one of those books contains a single four letter word, description of a character doing drugs or committing a criminal or violent act, or even having sex.
But because the heroine does, however, occasionally mention the word condom—as in, “In the unlikely case I were ever to have sex, I would use one”—pretty much from the day the Disney movie based on the first book came out, I started getting angry letters from parents who found themselves having to explain to their child what a condom is (although personally, I feel this is a conversation parents SHOULD have with their child, more than once).
I think it’s totally appropriate when I hear someone say “Your book Such and Such has been challenged in Such and Such Elementary School!” when the book is a YA. YA books are not intended for elementary school readers (although it depends on the reader, of course). I started writing a whole series, Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls series, for elementary school readers, just because so many little girls were upset that their moms and big sisters wouldn’t let them read my books for older girls!
It’s when my books for YA readers get challenged in middle and high school libraries, where they belong, that I get a bit nervous.
Have you ever felt pressure to change what you’ve written? What would you say to those who might ask you to change anything about your writing style?
Absolutely. This is a DAILY struggle, and the pressure comes from everywhere (which is why so many authors don’t open their email, because they are constantly being asked—not just by their editors, but by readers—to change their stories). That’s when, as an artist, you are left with a choice: change your story, making it more palatable to more people (so your message will reach further), or keep it as it is, reach less people, but know you stayed true to your own vision. It’s a huge problem, and one every artist, I’m sure, has faced at one time or another.
So, in answer to your question, the most difficult creative challenge for me personally in writing for a younger audience (or any audience, really) is trying to find ways to convey the messages I’m trying to get out to there to the largest number of people possible without getting shut down by The Man. (I am not sure who He is, but I know He is out there).
But it’s also secretly the part I love most about my job.
And in the meantime, I will continue to work to support other authors in their battle against censorship.
What’s your biggest fear about censorship with regard to young people today?
My biggest fear is that due to a combination of factors—the overprotectiveness of a few; the greed of some; and fear of litigation by many–today’s young people might be kept—through no fault of their own—from ever seeing a lot of really, really good books. Instead, the majority of them will grow into people who will fear (or fail to understand) anything that might in any way prove to be even the slightest bit edgy, intellectually challenging, or “controversial.”
The reason I say this is because once I got an email from a parent who volunteered in her child’s school library. She wanted to let me know that she’d found the entire Princess Diaries series in the garbage under the librarian’s desk. The librarian chose to trash it rather than deal with the hassle of a challenge brought by a parent. I am not saying this happens often. I worship librarians. My aunt is a librarian. I know librarians who would stab you—literally, with a #2 pencil—before they would let you put a book in the trash.
But unfortunately library budgets everywhere are shrinking. Librarians and media resource specialists are often the first to go when cuts are made. The few who remain are under enormous pressure. The last thing they need (or have time for) are book challenges, which can be time consuming (as well as costly, and can draw unwanted press). So who can blame the ones who buckle under the pressure from the higher ups simply to not to order books that might be considered controversial?
This—like throwing books that have been challenged in the trash—is a form of “passive” or “silent censorship.” If the young people never see so-called controversial books at all, neither will their parents. In this way, the books will never be read, nor will their content ever be challenged.
Some websites (not this one!) that “warn” about potentially “controversial” material in books are now encouraging schools, teachers, and librarians to use their services when ordering their books to stock their shelves. In this way, they can help keep these “harmful” books out of their classrooms, libraries, and even students’ homes.
These are websites that often don’t bother listing any “good stuff” at all about many of my favorite books, just the so-called “bad stuff.” The alleged “experts” who “rate” these books for age-appropriateness are oftentimes not “experts” in the field of children’s literature at all, with no traceable credentials whatsoever, whose reviews are riddled with factual errors. These websites claim this isn’t censorship, but simply “good parenting,” sanity, or even common sense.
This is probably what that librarian called it, when she put my books in the trash can.
So that’s what I’m most afraid of: An entire generation that has never been allowed to decide for themselves what’s “good stuff” and what’s “bad stuff” by a group of so-called concerned parents, educators, and “experts.”
Why let children (and teens) think at all? Let’s just do their thinking for them by keeping books off the shelves entirely. Books are so dangerous! Just like thinking.
Enough serious stuff—we’re sure this almost never happens to you, but what is your favorite remedy for writer’s block?
Well, this does happen to me, and my favorite remedy is, of course, M&Ms. But this doesn’t actually work. What DOES work for me is a vigorous bike ride or swim or some form of exercise (even housework, ugh), then watching a movie and sleeping on it. Usually when I wake up, the problem has somehow untangled itself while I’ve slept, and I know how to fix it. Or not. Repeat as necessary, sometimes for weeks.
Does your husband find your sassy sense of humor as charming as we do?
Well, thanks, but I’m not sure sassy is the word he’d use.
And because we are Snoops and we’ve heard you do all of your editing in bed: we have to know—sweats or silky jammies?
Oh! I wish I had silky jammies! Now that you’re mentioning it, I’ve just realized . . . I don’t have a single pair! I don’t know why. Unfortunately the answer is sweats (or really, yoga pants, how unglamorous). But I’m going to go Victoria’s Secret RIGHT NOW to rectify that!
Bye, and thanks. StorySnoops rocks!
Thank you so much, Meg! Check out Meg’s site for her latest releases, and the latest on her blog.