Republican-led book bans have proliferated in schools across the country in recent years – the byproduct of a series of laws passed in red states that have restricted how teachers can talk about race, gender and sexual orientation in the classroom and framed by right-wing activists as a protection of “parents’ rights.”
More often than not, these conversations have been dominated by the loudest voices in the room. Such it was on the case of parent Kara Bell, who spoke against Columbus author Ashley Hope Perez’s novel Out of Darkness at a September 2021 school board meeting in Austin, Texas, who took a passage from the book out of context in a rant that quickly went viral.
“There’s no comparison between the kind of megaphone that’s being handed to people who are engaging in these antics and the attention being given to hard-working teachers and librarians, or kids that are standing up for their right to read, or school boards that uphold the value of books like Out of Darkness and Gender Queer,” .
“Explicit Content for Teens,” a play written by Grace Ellis and performed in May by students at Gahanna Lincoln High School, delved into these complexities, with Ellis crafting something of a blueprint for how to have needed dialogue on the issue of censorship.
“It’s easy to be quiet when someone is shouting, because you don’t really have a choice,” said Ellis, who will appear in conversation with journalist Dan Gearino on Wednesday, Oct. 4, as part of Banned Books Week. “Ultimately, I think the people who are doing the shouting also need to be doing some listening – and I mean genuine listening, where you’re absorbing things someone is saying and not just thinking of a response to it. The whole point of ‘Explicit Content for Teens’ is we have to have humility in what we know but also what we don’t know. And we need to listen to other perspectives.”
Ellis said she first experienced a brush with book banning in 2021 when a Republican Texas lawmaker included her graphic novel Moonstruck he wanted investigated, hoping to uncover books pertaining to race or sexuality that could “make students feel discomfort.”
“And that was a real wake-up call for me, because once you see your name on a government list, it’s hard to feel totally secure in what you’re doing,” Ellis said. “So, there was definitely surprise. … And then there was fear. What’s going to happen to this book? Is it going to get banned in Texas? … More than anything else, I was worried the book wasn’t going to get into the hands of readers who needed it.”
The small flame sparked in that moment gradually built to an inferno in “Explicit Content for Teens,” said Ellis, who opted to lean into the conversation rather than shy from it. Indeed, the writer said she has major concerns with the self-censorship that has arisen from these bans – the authors who have altered plots, tamed down actions or mainstreamed characters in order to avoid drawing undue attention to the work.
“I know from talking to other authors that authors are afraid of being censored, and their reaction to that fear is just to change what they were going to write. They don’t want to court controversy, so they go out of their way to write something that is bland and that they think will appeal to the most censorious group of people,” Ellis said. “But I think that’s such a losing battle. You need to have the courage of your conviction and write what you were going to write. And I’m happy to double down. … I try really hard to stand by this belief that, no, I have something that is additive to the culture. And once the piece is written, people can have whatever reaction they want to it. But I will have written it, and it will be out in the world.”
Most recently, Ellis completed work on Diana and the Hero’s Journey, a comic book illustrated by Penelope Rivera Gaylord and out today (Tuesday, Oct. 3) . Centered on a young female heroine who is told a series of mythologies by different members of her community, the work finds Ellis working in a range of narrative styles, including epic poetry and one passage she accurately described as “a sea shanty,” with the art taking on radically different forms throughout to match the shifts in language.
Conceived during the pandemic, the comic also highlights the human connection present in the act of storytelling, which began to take on greater importance for the author in a time when those bonds were more immediately frayed.
“That’s something I need to bring up with my therapist, I think, but I’m sure that it did [have an impact],” Ellis said, and laughed. “I’m interested in the stories that we tell, and how those stories reflect who we are both culturally and individually. If two different people were to tell the same story, they would tell it slightly differently. And what does that say about each of them and their experiences and who they are as people?”
And if these experiences draw the ire of the book-banning crowd, well, so be it.
“It’s important that there are books that capture the variety of people who truly exist in this world,” said Ellis, who integrated an implied gay relationship into her comic book series Lumberjanes. “And I think that’s another fundamental truth about censorship: it just doesn’t work. You can censor as many books as you want, but at the end of the day, these ideas still exist. And in the case of Lumberjanes, these people are still out there. Gay people are going to exist whether you censor books about them or not.”