“Stories Will Help You Understand Yourself”: An Interview About Censorship with Kate Messner
Renowned and award-winning middle grade author Kate Messner’s latest book, The Seventh Wish , hit shelves this month. But it wasn’t without controversy — the week of her release, she was disinvited from a school talk, had her books sent back from the school, and she heard from a librarian at another school that she would not be putting that book in her collection.
To say she was surprised would be an understatement.
The Seventh Wish follows the story of twelve-year-old Charlie. During one of the coldest winters, she begins to ice fish with her neighbor Drew and his grandmother. Catching fish means cashing in a little bit — she can sell those fish and earn more money toward purchasing a really fancy Irish Dancing dress. She’s gotten a little money for one, but certainly not enough for the fancy, sparkly dress of her dreams.
On one of the fishing adventures, Charlie reels in a fish that she swears talks to her. It offers her a wish in exchange for the fish being released back into the water. Charlie doesn’t believe it could be real, but she makes a wish anyway. And it’s from here Charlie begins to understand magic, wishes, and that life doesn’t always go the way you think it might.
Messner’s book isn’t just about magical fish, though. Along the way, we learn that Charlie’s older sister Abby, who is away at her freshman year of college, is struggling with something tough. It isn’t until an emergency that forces their parents to abandon some plans that readers — and Charlie — learn that Abby has become addicted to opiates. It’s through the magic fish, as well as the smarts of Drew’s grandmother, that Charlie begins to understand the challenges that come along with being part of a family where someone is sickened by addiction.
And that’s the crux of the story: readers are shown what it’s like to be 12-years-old, confused, and wanting nothing more than your family to be back together. We see Charlie run into a classmate at her sister’s rehabilitation center and learn that Drew’s grandfather struggled with alcoholism in his life. But in addition to this sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of a girl coming to understand her sister’s illness and the struggles that come along with it, this is a story about Charlie’s quest to be a great Irish Dancer, to make friends and earn a spot on the more advanced dancing team, to do well in school, and to understand why she can’t be the primary focus of her parents. It’s a classic middle grade read, with the highs and lows that come with being 12 and wanting the world, but also realizing that there is much to learn in the world, as well as many people out there looking out for you and supporting you through the means they can.
Did I mention there’s a magical fish?
The Seventh Wish is a spin on “The Fisherman’s Wife,” a reference that Messner makes directly in the story. Charlie is savvy enough to understand classic fables and the juxtaposition of her intelligence with the real life part of being in a family that is working through the struggles of addiction is perfectly executed in a way that’s never salacious, never dark, and never beyond the age appropriateness.
While we’ve talked at length at Book Riot about challenges to YA books, there’s something even scarier about challenges to books for middle grade readers. And much of the part that’s scarier is precisely what Messner tackles in her book — there’s the not-knowing and not-entirely-understanding element that’s inherent to 8 to 12-year-olds. This age group seeks more guidance and reassurance from adults than teenagers tend to, and yet, they themselves do not live in a bubble. Tough things happen in their lives and they are in just as much need to talk about them or think about them as older readers.
I took the opportunity to sit down with Messner and talk about her book, about censorship, and about what it says when adults won’t trust children enough to let them be their own self-censors.
Kelly Jensen: This is your first challenge to a book — what went through your mind the morning you were disinvited from speaking at a school about THE SEVENTH WISH? As an author? As a former educator?
Kate Messner: This is a situation that’s been evolving all week. When I got the email and phone call on Tuesday afternoon, abruptly cancelling Wednesday morning’s visit, I was shocked. The school had received information about the book – including the fact that the main character’s older sister is struggling with opioid addiction — way back in January, and they’d received an advance copy of the book as well, but they hadn’t taken that time to read the book and prepare for the visit. As a result, the principal and librarian decided that they couldn’t go ahead with the presentation, given the sensitive nature of the subject. They also returned all of the books they’d ordered for the school library. I blogged about the situation that night because I felt terrible that I’d promised to speak to all those kids and was suddenly not allowed to visit or give my presentation. I didn’t know at that point if the school was going to give students access to the book at all. That’s when the Community Library in South Burlington and Phoenix Books teamed up with an extraordinary effort to reschedule the presentation and provide free, donated books to the kids who attend. I’m excited that we’re having that presentation on June 28th at 4pm, and the outpouring of support from the community, not just in Vermont, but beyond, has been amazing.
Two days after the cancellation, I received an email apology from the school principal, apologizing and explaining that while the school had all the information, they just didn’t prepare for the visit well enough and felt it had to be cancelled. While this is unfortunate, it’s in stark contrast to another school-visit disinvitation recently. When Phil Bildner was disinvited from a school visit in Texas recently, he faced a wall of silence when he asked for answers. This weekend, the school principal in my situation emailed again to tell me that the library is indeed going to have THE SEVENTH WISH on the shelves for students, so I’m happy that this is not turning out to be a case of censorship in Vermont.
What do your school visits typically look like? What do you talk about, what sorts of questions do you get, and what do you want kids to take away?
I do a huge variety of school visits for all ages – from winter-animal puppet presentations with OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW for K-1 kids to RANGER IN TIME research talks, to this week’s presentation for THE SEVENTH WISH. On these book tour visits, I’m showing kids the writing process behind the book, from the initial pages scribbled in my writer’s notebook when I woke up to find Lake Champlain dotted with frost flowers one frigid morning, to the research I did on everything from ice fishing and Irish dancing to addiction and recovery, to the marked-up manuscript pages with notes from my editor. We also talk about fairy tales and the fact that they’re old stories that belong to all of us, freely available to reimagine. We brainstorm some new fairy tale retellings together and wrap up with Q&A. Only that one visit was cancelled, and I’ve had a blast with kids at all the others.
What do you think kids learn when their schools decide to disinvite an author visit they were excited to have?
I’d imagine it’s confusing. If it were me, I’d feel let down. That said, the kids in South Burlington were only told that the visit had to be cancelled at the last minute. They weren’t told why. So unless they’ve seen the media coverage, they probably just assumed I called in sick or had a family emergency.
You learned less than 24 hours after the cancellation of your event that the books ordered for the kids at the event were sent back, making them inaccessible to those same children. What prompted the school to take away access to the book for all readers, without any question?
I wondered this, too, at the time. I don’t know why the school did that, but as I mentioned above, they have decided that they will indeed carry THE SEVENTH WISH in the school library. When they returned to the store to pick it up, they purchased a large selection of my other titles for the school as well. I think this was a real act of good faith, and I’m pleased that the school made the decision it did about THE SEVENTH WISH.
A librarian emailed you shortly after you shared this experiencing, noting that the students at her school are huge fans of yours, but unfortunately, she’d be unable to put your book in her library. She noted, “I just need the 10 and 11-year-olds biggest worry to be about friendships, summer camps, and maybe their first pimple or two.” This sort of censorship, the kind where librarians and educators choose not to include a book in their collections because it makes them uncomfortable, is a quiet yet insidious form of revoking access to material that young readers need. As a former librarian, I know choices have to be made about what is and isn’t purchased for a collection — but what does it say when a librarian, educator, or parent, despite knowing the popularity of your work with readers and the positive reviews THE SEVENTH WISH has garnered, puts their own needs above those children they serve?
This librarian and I went back and forth online a bit this week. We passionately disagree with one another, and she felt I was vilifying her by talking about her email in my blog post. I didn’t think that was productive for either of us, so I actually called her on the phone and proposed that we have a longer conversation about this. I learned that she’d like very much to talk about ways she might be able to include books like THE SEVENTH WISH for her older elementary readers without risking her job or being attacked by an angry parent if a very young student brought it home. Librarians who face book challenges really are under fire, and I think we all need to understand their situations so we can figure out ways to support them and to support kids’ access to books. So I’m glad that conversation is happening. We’ve been going back and forth via email and will share a blog post soon, asking other librarians for thoughts as well. I’m hoping we can come up with some good ideas together.
Quiet censorship — the kind practiced by this librarian — is insidious in nature, hurting because it denies access to materials that readers sometimes truly need in their lives. In this instance, you were told that it was going to be happening, but most cases of quiet censorship go unspoken because librarians or educators don’t want to admit they’re putting their own comfort above the needs of readers. What do you have to say to teachers, librarians, and parents who think their children are too young to read a book with themes like the ones you explore in your books?
I think it’s more than a librarian’s own comfort. I think in many cases, librarians believe they’re protecting kids from growing up too fast by restricting access to books. I don’t agree with this, but I do believe that parents have a right to guide their own children’s reading choices. The librarian I’m talking with doesn’t want to restrict access for kids who need those books, but she honestly doesn’t know how to provide that access without facing the wrath of parents in her community and risking her job. I’m thinking that the larger community might be able to help out with that because I do believe it’s hurtful to restrict kids’ access to books. When we judge middle grade books as “inappropriate” for a school library because they deal with tough subjects, we’re ignoring kids whose lives are reflected in those books. We’re telling kids that their situations can’t even be talked about because they’re “inappropriate,” and I really do find that harmful.
You’ve done your research, but for some context, can you share some of the startling data and information you’ve discovered about drug addiction and the challenges it has on families?
The statistics are always startling, but the stories are more so. I’m on book tour for THE SEVENTH WISH right now, and today, I had an event in Augusta, Maine. When the first woman in my signing line stepped up, I said, “Hi! It’s so nice to meet you.” She shook my hand and said, “My neighbor’s son died of an overdose yesterday morning. Thank you for writing this book.” The next person in line knew someone raising a niece and nephew because their parents are addicts. It’s everywhere. And as much as we’d love to protect the kids – as much as we’d like to believe that if we don’t say the word, it will go away – this epidemic doesn’t work that way. I’ve learned this week that opioid addiction is the Voldemort of social issues. No one wants to say the word. But I also believe the only way to beat it is to name it and talk about it, to remove the stigma, and let families know they’re not alone.
What sort of support have you seen from the reading world and how can readers support you, your work, and the needs and interests of the children for whom you write?
This isn’t just an issue about THE SEVENTH WISH. Phil Bildner is facing this issue with his Texas school visit disinvitation and is still waiting for answers. Alex Gino’s GEORGE is kept out of some school libraries because it’s about a transgender fourth grader, even though it’s won a long list of awards and earned a pile of starred reviews as a book for upper elementary readers. Laurel Snyder’s delightful PENNY DREADFUL gets quietly left off some library shelves because a character has two moms. Corey Ann Haydu’s RULES FOR STEALING STARS faces the same challenges in some libraries because it’s about the child of an alcoholic. It happens a lot. And there are things we can do to help.
–Speak up. When a book is challenged, social media posts raise awareness, and a public conversation makes censorship more difficult.
–Make it a special point to review books that are likely to be at the center of these conversations. I know that the many positive reviews of THE SEVENTH WISH have already helped some librarians defend the choice to put it in their elementary libraries. Review on your blog, on social media, and on online bookstore sites. Sometimes, when a book is being challenged, that conversation swallows up the actual story. I’ve been worried all this week that people at my events would see THE SEVENTH WISH and think, “Oh! It’s that heroin book…” when really, it’s about so much more than that – ice fishing and Irish dancing, friendship, family, and acceptance of things we can’t change.
–Recommend challenged books for state book award lists and support them. GEORGE, for example, is on Vermont’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher list this year, which really encourages libraries to carry it. I think that’s great.
–Buy the book. Give it as a gift. Donate it to a library. That might help most of all.
You’re not new in the middle grade book world, and you’re not new to tackling tough topics in an accessible way for those readers. What sort of stories have you heard from readers who have been moved by your books?
I’ve gotten dozens of emails this week alone, relating to THE SEVENTH WISH. Some are from adult readers who said, “This book would have helped me so much as a child.” Some are from kids, telling me they understand addiction better, and that they’ll think about this book if they’re ever offered drugs. But most are about the people we’ve lost. So many of them. Brothers and sisters, cousins and college roommates, neighbors and husbands and mothers and children. The people who have already lost someone almost all say the same thing. “This book is important. Keep talking.”
Why is it you choose to write tough stories?
This is actually my first book to be challenged in this way. I don’t set out to write tough stories, but I do set out to write stories that are True. And to me, True with a capital T means that the stories are an honest reflection of kids’ lives and hearts. In our world today, that includes kids whose families have been shattered by addiction. This is their Truth, and it’s a story I felt like I needed to tell.
If there’s one message you want to send to gatekeepers — anyone who gets books into the hands of children — what is it?
Trust the kids. Young readers self select beautifully when we let them do that. Most kids are quick to put down a book that’s too much for them, and they’re ready to think about more complex ideas than we give them credit for sometimes. Our job really isn’t to protect children from books; it’s to open their worlds and arm them with information and stories. Because stories have power. They really can make a difference.
If there’s one message you want to send to the kids who you write for — the ones who will get to see you and those who’ve been denied that — what would it be?
Stories are powerful. The books I read when I was ten and eleven years old are the books that taught me who I wanted to be. So read widely. Read books about characters whose lives are just like yours and books about characters whose lives are hard to imagine. Stories will help you understand yourself and help you to imagine what it might be like to be somebody else. That’s empathy, and if you build that muscle, we’re going to end up with a better, braver, kinder world because of it.
Kate Messner is an award-winning author whose books for kids have been New York Times Notable, Junior Library Guild, IndieBound, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. was the winner of the 2010 E.B. White Read Aloud Award for Older Readers. Kate also spent fifteen years teaching middle school and earned National Board Certification in 2006. She lives on Lake Champlain with her family and loves spending time outside, whether it’s kayaking in the summer or skating on the frozen lake when the temperatures drop.