We Need to Talk About the Mental Health Effects of Book Bans on Authors

Book bans often mean reliving past trauma for marginalized writers

Photo by San José Public Library on Flickr

It seems like every day there’s a new slate of bad news for the queer community in the United States. From anti-trans legislation in Texas to the Florida governor signing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to books being pulled off shelves—nationwide—for no reason other than who their writers are: queer authors, authors of color, and queer authors of color. It’s an unending slew of depressing headlines. 

I feel helpless. When I hear the governor of Florida claim that discussion of sexual identity in school is “indoctrination,” I am filled with endless rage and sorrow. Telling kids about people like themselves is nowhere near as close to “indoctrination” as removing all other viewpoints and identities, or teaching them only one way to be good, and right, and acceptable. That’s the childhood I had, and its effects still linger. 

As a teenager, I was so deep in the closet I thought I was outside it.

Having lived through actual indoctrination, and knowing first hand what it’s like not having access to books that could have helped me see myself, and the larger world, in a better light, I am passionate about making sure future generations get to see their experiences; see those unlike them; and choose to live their lives to the fullest of their own identities. This is partly why I started writing queer stories myself—books helped me see my own identity more clearly. They helped me come out to myself as bisexual, and I want my writing to give that gift to others, especially teens who are trying to figure life out. As demoralizing as it is for me—a queer aspiring kidlit author—to read these headlines, they have a different impact on me than they do on the authors whose books are currently, and routinely, in danger of being pulled off shelves. 

I spoke with two kidlit authors, Mark Oshiro and Kyle Lukoff, about what it’s like to have a book challenged and/or banned. Both of these authors are award-winning and beloved, and I’ve seen them speak out on social media against book bans, as well as the distressing effects of having their books challenged. 

During our conversation, Oshiro referenced an interview Amanpour & Company did with Jason Reynolds, another author whose books have frequently been challenged and banned. Reynolds said having his books questioned in this manner, “ … offends me, and quite honestly, it hurts my feelings.” Oshiro added that seeing their books on lists challenging and banning them, “sucks a lot.” They said it reminds them of their own childhood, when sex education was so frowned on in their school district that there were literal portions of pages cut out of textbooks, which teachers could not acknowledge. “It’s triggering, it’s upsetting,” Oshiro said. “I worry about the kids who are in these emotionally precarious positions looking at the adults around them who … want to treat them like they don’t exist.”

I am writing this article … because I need to do something, and I don’t have a brain that thrives in spreadsheets and confrontation.

As a teenager, I was so deep in the closet I thought I was outside it, and I also grew up in a community that frowned upon divergence in any direction, but especially in terms of sexuality and gender identity. If we talked about queerness, it was in a derogatory manner. I very much internalized this homophobia, and it took me (is taking me) a lot of work to undo those lessons. Perhaps if I’d had access to books like the kidlit being published today, I would have understood myself sooner; perhaps I would have become a safe space for others even earlier on. 

Oshiro pointed out that, based on their experience, book censorship has a negative effect on kids and teens, just like it does on authors. “It’s … saying to the children who either [have] the same identity or …[are] going through experiences in these books that are being banned that ‘I don’t wanna see you,’” they said. “‘I don’t think you exist, you don’t deserve to be talked about.’ As a closeted teenager, all that told me was you can’t ever talk about this and if you try to everyone is going to ignore you.”

Lukoff has a hard time quantifying the mental health toll of seeing his books challenged, as there are moments he’s almost “fine” but there’s always the potential for greater harm later on. “It manifests as this kind of frenetic but unproductive energy where I have this desire to go somewhere and do something,” he said. “There’s also the feeling of if I was a better person I would be doing the real work.” (By “real work,” Lukoff explained he meant the bureaucratic work of tracking challenges and publicizing them.)

His words really resonated with me as I chatted with Lukoff. I am writing this article, and I’ve written others before, and I’m sure I’ll write them again in the future, because I need to do something, and I don’t have a brain that thrives in spreadsheets and confrontation, but I do have a brain that can write. 

One aspect of book challenges that seems to be widely misunderstood is the idea that a banned book immediately translates into financial and future career success.

Lukoff said that his own anxiety spikes when he looks at the disconnect between the invitations he has—to speak at schools, events, and more—and the awards he has won. “People are either bigots or afraid of provoking the bigots in their community so they’re just deciding to get someone else,” he said. “I know what an author who is a National Book Award finalist and Newbery honoree should be getting, and I know what I’m getting.”

Many kidlit authors do a lot of work in school and library visits, and not just as a way to connect with readers. It’s also an income stream that’s incredibly important. So for a multi-award-winning author like Lukoff to know he’s not being asked to as many speaking engagements as others, it’s a pretty strong indication that something is wrong.

Relatedly, Oshiro said one aspect of book challenges that seems to be widely misunderstood is the idea that a banned book immediately translates into financial and future career success for the author. “It’s a narrow view, self-centered—centering the author and not thinking of their potential readers who are gonna miss out,” they said, “but it also ignores how many books are banned that aren’t … bought in droves. It ignores quiet censorship.”

Writing queer stories for children and teens is not about fame and fortune; it’s about providing hope.

Speaking of quiet censorship, Oshiro said it’s so insidious that it even affects them as they work on their new projects: “I’m starting to think, is this gonna be banned, too?” they said. “Do I have to start considering these things?”

These renewed challenges have also come at a time when I’ve just started exploring queerness in fiction myself—I keep joking that I was never able to write a satisfying romance until I started writing sapphic stories, and then it’s like a switch flipped in my brain and suddenly happy endings made sense again.  

Last year I wrote my first true romance, a friends-to-lovers young adult novel about a main character who realizes she’s bisexual because she fell in love with her female best friend. I don’t really have words for the joy I felt telling that story. It felt right, I felt complete, and I was so hopeful that it would help teens feel seen and loved.

By now I’ve worked on three different f/f YA romances, and while they still act as a salve against a hurting part of my soul, there’s the fear in the back of my mind that says: What if these books, the best I’ve written, never get picked up because they’re unapologetically queer? So, I really loved what Oshiro said right after confessing their fear: “My next YA is a response in the complete opposite direction,” they said. “Let me give you a book to ban.”

In the face of a fight to create equity for all, the fear response of those in power is to silence anyone who is different.

And honestly, I think that is the energy that we need to bring to this fight. The energy that says, you may hate me and others like me, but I refuse to give in, I refuse to hate myself, and I will be a freaking beacon of hope and love for all those who come after me. If silence is the end goal of censorship, we will refuse to be quiet. Because writing queer stories for children and teens is not about fame and fortune; it’s about providing hope; it’s about showing them that they are good, wonderful, lovable, natural just the way they are. As my advisor in grad school recently reminded me, queer kidlit can be lifesaving. What is on the line is nothing less than the livelihood of queer teens. And you know what? They matter. They matter so much. They deserve to have the adolescence of their dreams. And that’s what I’m fighting for. 

Of course, knowing that we’re fighting for a purpose doesn’t change the fact that the fight can be scarring and traumatizing. Both Lukoff and Oshiro said the best ways they’ve found to mitigate these mental health effects involve community. Oshiro said they make sure to remain “in community” with friends, especially other authors going through similar challenges.

“Identifying the people that I can talk to has been crucial,” Lukoff said.

Oshiro also listed therapy and pulling away from social media as self-care steps. They ended by saying, “The other thing that’s been really helpful is contacting my publishers.” Oshiro’s publishers have been helpful about ramping up promotion of their books, and, specifically, the school and library marketing teams are working to advocate for their books.

Both Oshiro and Lukoff said that activism and speaking up are powerful tools allies (be they readers or other authors) have. Oshiro mentioned #FReadom Fighters, an organization that is working to track and fight book challenges, even quiet censorship from schools and libraries who aren’t publicizing their lists. 

In addition, reading and recommending the books that are challenged can be an important tool. These challenges are not new, but they do seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity lately. I don’t want to minimize what’s happening by implying it has an easy answer, but I do think a lot of this is a fear-based reaction. I have seen a parallel between the rise in efforts to diversify the publishing industry and the rise in right-wing efforts to shut new voices down. White, cis, straight, able-bodied, Christian voices have, for centuries, dominated not just American politics but also American literature; in the face of a fight to create equity for all, the fear response of those in power is to silence anyone who is different.

As kidlit writers, we recognize that young people are the future of any country; that’s why it’s so important to write conscientious stories for them that offer reflections of their own realities as well as glimpses into different ones. Of course, the people banning books also know how important it is to reach children, and that’s why they are embarking on their campaign of indoctrination, which includes challenging, banning, and even burning books that tell stories they want to erase. 

Ultimately book bans are linked to the rest of the headlines—from “Don’t Say Gay” bills to Texas trying to criminalize parenting trans teens—and they all coalesce into one main agenda: extermination of the different.

“It’s hard for me to separate the bannings from the bills making healthcare illegal—and now I have to care about sports which I just find insulting,” Lukoff said. “I see these as just one prong of a much larger fight with the end goal of … genocide of me and mine, and that is hard to walk around feeling okay knowing that there are people who would un-alive you.”

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