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Dorothy's List: A Secret Locker Library Contains Challenged Titles In 'Ban This Book'

Three students sit at a table with a poster of drawn book spines hanging on the wall in the background.
Meg Malone
From left: Noelle Westbom, Ben Wetherell and Georgia Tanner gathered at Kellogg-Hubbard Library, in Montpelier, to discuss two of Alan Gratz's books: "Refugee" and "Ban This Book." Behind them is the group's activity related to the latter novel.

In Ban This Book some of 9-year-old Amy Anne Ollinger’s favorite books have started to disappear off her school library's shelves, and she discovers that adults are challenging the books and the school board is banning them from the library.

Dorothy’s List readers at Montpelier’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library had a lot to say about banned and challenged books — especially when they discovered some of their favorite titles have been questioned.

Girl sticks a piece of paper to a poster on a wall.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR
Grace Hall adds a book title to the group's version of a locker library, like the one Amy Anne runs in "Ban This Book."

"I really, really, really love The Hunger Games but I really understand why that was challenged," said 12-year-old Noelle Westbom. "It’s basically like kids killing each other, and that’s the whole plot of the series, and then rebelling against kids killing each — yeah. It’s a little much."

"Harry Potter is by far my favorite series, ever since I was in about fourth grade. And I just never got why they banned it," said 14-year-old Maya Elliott. "When I heard that they banned it, I was like, ‘Ok, yeah, there’s witchcraft and wizardry but what does it have to do with anything in our world?' ... It’s taught so many people so many lessons, and it’s sparked this whole new generation of readers. And I don’t really get why it was banned."  

Ban This Book is one of two books by Alan Gratz nominated for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award this year (the other is Refugee — listen to that Dorothy's List episode here). In the book, Amy Anne makes it her mission to track down copies of the banned books and start lending them out herself from what comes to be known as the B.B.L.L., or the Banned Books Locker Library.

A poster on the wall with a number of decorated book spines with titles of often challenged or banned books.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR
Some of the books that students that the Kellogg-Hubbard Library elected to put in their version of a Banned Books Locker Library, like main character Amy Anne does in "Ban This Book."

At the gathering of Dorothy's List readers in Montpelier, Maya wanted to know about the author's thoughts on what happens at Amy Anne's school in the novel.

Maya Elliott: “How do you feel about banning books?"

Alan Gratz: “Hey Maya. Well, I am dead against banning books, which might not surprise you if you’ve read Ban This Book. Like Amy Anne learns in the book, books are there to be enjoyed by everyone. And it doesn’t matter whether you like a book or don’t like a book – it’s not about taste. All books should be there and available for everybody.

"And the other thing we need, is we need libraries. We need places where books are free to be accessed by everybody."

And keeping books off library shelves, Gratz said, is a slippery slope.

Alan Gratz: “If you start saying, ‘Well I don’t want this book, because I disagree with this thing in it,’ well then you have to let the next person keep a book off the shelf because they disagree with what’s in that. And, in the end, if you let everybody take a book off the shelf because of something they don’t like, guess how many books you have left on the shelf? Zero."

Author Alan Gratz seated before a microphone with headphones on and hands clasped.
Credit Courtesy
Author Alan Gratz at Blue Ridge Public Radio, in western North Carolina. Gratz answered questions from "Dorothy's List" readers at Kellogg-Hubbard Library, in Montpelier, about his novel "Ban This Book" - one of two books that Gratz has nominated for this year's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award.

In the book, Amy Anne gets called into the principal’s office because she has a sign hanging on her locker listing all the books that have been banned from her school library.

The principal wants her to take the sign down. But what the principal doesn’t know is that sign is how Amy Anne is letting her classmates know what books she's lending out from her locker.

One nine-year-old student was curious about how people have reacted to Ban This Book in the real world.

Lennon Westbom: "Has it [Ban This Book] ever been banned? Because I could see why it could be banned."

Alan Gratz: "I just got a tweet this year from somebody who said that he thinks that my book may have been removed from a Battle of the Books competition in North Carolina. So, I live in North Carolina and our state, like many others, has a Battle of the Books competition where kids get a list every year of 12 to 24 books, and all through the course of the year they and their team read them, and then they meet at the end of the year and they answer questions about it and they win points and they compete to see who knows the books the best. 

"So I got a tweet this year from a person who said, ‘Hey, I think … your book Ban This Book has been taken off the Battle of the Books list in this one little community. So, I haven’t been able to figure out if that’s true or not. … So, I’m trying to figure that out, and if it has been removed, and if it’s been banned or taken off because of the concepts in it, because the administration or parents or whomever don’t want kids to be thinking about that, then I will definitely be talking with them and see if I can change their mind – maybe at least get them to read the book.

"This is one of the things that is so funny about most book challenges and bannings in the United States – most of the people who challenge books have never read them. … So Ban This Book may have been challenged so far. I’m investigating."

Two students sit at a table with craft supplies.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR
Bethany Hemenway-Brush, foreground, and Maya Elliott work on creating book spines for titles they'd put in their hypothetical Banned Book Locker Library.

One 12-year-old was curious why Gratz pursued the subject of banned books for this novel.

Bethany Hemenway-Brush: “Why did you choose to write a book about banned books?"

Gratz said a lot of people think he wrote this book in response to one of his other books being banned, but that didn't happen — at least as far as he knows.

Alan Gratz: "So, the American Library Association keeps track of all the books that are banned in the United States. And last year, around 300 to 350 books were banned or challenged in the United States. But, the American Library Association also recognizes that the only ones that they can record are the ones people tell them about. And they estimate that something like 95 percent of the books that are banned or removed from the shelf don’t ever get reported.

"So, if you take that number and you do the math, that’s thousands of books that might be disappearing off the shelf every year that nobody knows anything about. So when I say that none of my books have been banned that I know of, that’s because there are so many books that are banned or challenged, that are removed — one of mine could have been among those. I have no idea.

"So, it wasn’t that kind of thing that inspired me to go and write this book. But book challenges and book bannings are still a thing. They’ve been happening since the dawn of books. They’ve been happening for a long, long time. But they still happen in the United States, and they happen in every state, and they happen in every community. Maybe not every single year, but I wanted to arm young readers with the knowledge of what book banning is, and how to respond to it, should it ever happen in their community."

"I wanted to arm young readers with the knowledge of what book banning is, and how to respond to it, should it ever happen in their community." — Author Alan Gratz

Many real book titles are mentioned in Ban This Book (books that you may have actually read before!) but the references to all those different titles in Gratz's story sparked this curiousity from an 11-year-old reader:

Georgia Tanner: "I was wondering if it was difficult to get the copyright for all the books that were mentioned in Ban This Book."

Alan Gratz: "This is a really interesting question because, you’re right, books and characters are copyrighted. It’s the characters, though, that are the most important thing … Now, for Ban This Book, I’m only using the titles of books, and not the characters. You can’t copyright a title. … So, I’m free to use those titles and to talk about those books and have my characters talk about what they’ve read. What I can’t do is write a story about Captain Underpants or about Junie B. Jones. ...

“The other part of this is that, if you’ve read the book, you know that Dav Pilkey, who wrote the Captain Underpants books, he makes an appearance in here. He visits Amy Anne’s school to talk about his books. And the librarian books him because his books are among the most banned and challenged every year. So I wrote this scene with Dav Pilkey in the book … so I did get permission for Dav, to make sure I could use the actual author as a character in my book, but I didn’t have to get permission to use his books. And it’s kinda funny."

Two girls stand around a table of books.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR
Grace Hall, left, and Georgia Tanner gather around a table of some books that have historically been challenged or banned.

Gratz said he learned the hard way about how strictly publishing companies interpret copyright law.

Alan Gratz: "Funny story, I wrote a book a number of years ago called Fantasy Baseball. And the premise is, that there’s a kid from the real world who falls into a fantasy world that’s populated by characters from famous kids’ books. So Dorothy from Wizard of Oz is there and Toad from Wind in the Willows and a bunch of other characters, and they’re all playing in a big baseball tournament – just because it was a funny idea.

"So, I wrote this book and I put all these characters in it, including modern-day characters. Like, I made an appearance from Harry Potter and I made an appearance from The Wimpy Kid and I had Charles Wallace in there from Wrinkle in Time and a bunch of different characters, Mary Poppins. But I didn’t use their names. I only described them and kind of hinted at who they were, because I knew that these characters were copyrighted by somebody else. And I can’t write a Harry Potter story and publish it, that’s not allowed. J.K. Rowling is the only person who can do that.

"So, I thought I was fine. My editor thought that we were fine, we went through the whole editorial process and then at the eleventh hour … when I thought I was done with the book, the lawyers at my publisher read it. And they were like, 'Oh you gotta take, like, 30 of these characters out.' I was like, ‘No. No, wait. No, no wait, I can’t take 30 characters out.’ … But I ended up having to take a whole bunch of characters out of that."

So in addition to writing, navigating the rules of copyright law and advocating for your book to be available for all readers is part of the author experience — at least for Alan Gratz.

A thin grey line.

Special thanks to Nicole Westbom, Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s children’s programming and circulation librarian. Ban This Book is one of two books by Alan Gratz nominated for this year's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award — the other is Refugee (you can listen to that episode of Dorothy's List here). And, find all the Dorothy's List episodes here.

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