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Maia Kobabe on the debate around banned books: ‘The best interest of young people is to be seen in literature’

Maia Kobabe photo by Tristan Crane.jpg
Tristan Crane
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Maya Kobabe's graphic memoir, "Gender Queer: A Memoir," was originally published in 2019, but has recently been the center of a national conversation about banned books.

Eir debut book was named the number one banned book of 2021 by the American Library Association. The association said the book was, quote, "banned, challenged and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images."

The book recounts eir experience discovering eir gender and sexuality. Kobabe recently spoke at the Unbound Book Festival in April about graphic memoirs and banned books. E spoke with KBIA's Abigail Ruhman.

"I also think the fact that the title has the words both 'gender' and 'queer' in it means that if a parent is just keyword searching for books that, maybe, have topics they are uncomfortable with, it's going to come up really easily at the top of that search list."
Maia Kobabe

Abigail Ruhman: Why do you think people have latched on to your book for this debate? And how has that impacted you personally?

Maia Kobabe: I think that my book was kind of just placed in the right moment to get caught up in this whirlwind of bans and challenges. Because my book won a Stonewall Honor Award and an Alex Award from the American Library Association, it meant that many librarians purchased copies of the books, so it's in a lot of libraries.

So, when people were looking for books that they had seen on- challenge and other, you know, communities, they would be like, 'Oh, is this book in my community as well,' and they would find it because the librarians had supported it.

I also think the fact that the title has the words both 'gender' and 'queer' in it means that if a parent is just keyword searching for books that, maybe, have topics they are uncomfortable with, it's going to come up really easily at the top of that search list.

I also think the fact that my book is a graphic novel makes it more vulnerable to challenges because you first of all, can read it more quickly. And then second of all, you can also not read it at all, and just flip it open and see one or two images that maybe you disagree with. And then they can get spread on social media very easily, in our sort of digital viral age.

In many ways, I don't think the challenges against my book are really about me or about my story. I really think that they are about a wave of viral bans that is seeking to control information about our identities and trans identities specifically and limit the access of young people to this information, and my book is just getting caught up in this wave.

Ruhman: Is there anything that you wish that you could communicate to people who are pushing for that book ban?

"Those most marginalized readers are being further marginalized, and their access is the access that has been limited the most, and I just don't know that the people who are banning books, care about that — I wish they did."
Maia Kobabe

Kobabe: When you try to ban or challenge a book about a marginalized experience, and I'm talking about a queer book, or trans book or a book by a POC author, you are telling any young person who relates to that story, that basically you don't want to know their story, that you're not interested in knowing their story, that you're not interested in them, and that they are not welcome in your community.

And, so the part of this that hurts me the most is thinking about the young readers, especially the more marginalized readers who might not have the financial means to buy books, if they're not available for free in libraries, or who might not feel comfortable bringing such an obviously queer book home if they have more conservative parents.

Those most marginalized readers are being further marginalized, and their access is the access that has been limited the most, and I just don't know that the people who are banning books, care about that — I wish they did.

Many of them seem to be claiming the best interests of young people is their goal, but the best interest of young people is to be seen in literature, to be seen in stories, to be invited in, to learn about people who are different from themselves.

And I think that limiting books is, is- it's just cutting children off from the world, all readers- readers of all ages, and we should instead be inviting readers into the world.

Abigail Ruhman is a reporter and afternoon newscast anchor for KBIA. They are working on a special series, and have produced for KBIA's Missouri on Mic and Missouri Health Talks in the past.
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