The Kids’ Right to Read Project Interview Author Ellen Hopkins.
Kids’ Right to Read Project: What was your motivation for writing the Banned Books Week Manifesto?
Ellen Hopkins: The idea for the Manifesto came from talking to my publisher around Banned Books Week. My book Burned had been and continues to be censored in Pocatello, Idaho. Although many Mormon readers have written to tell me they liked the book, Pocatello, which is a majority Mormon community, has made it so Burned is not available anywhere, including stores and libraries – everywhere. My book, whose main character was inspired by a friend of my daughter, tells the story of a girl who is abused and is questioning the world and her belief as anyone would. I tend to be outspoken and so the Banned Books Week Manifesto came out of this. Censorship is a hot button issue and I wanted the poem to address it.
KRRP: You mentioned that you are outspoken. How has that shaped your writing and your approach to “sensitive” topics?
EH: I don’t back-pedal and I don’t sugar-coat things for my readers. Crank and Glass were both based on true stories- fictionalized of course to give space to my daughter and those that the stories are based upon. I don’t feel as an author I need to tip toe around addiction, sex or anything else. In my books my characters experience things as they are. Kristina for instance feels meth is like riding a roller coaster the first few times she does it. The point is obviously kids should just say no, but they should do so because they understand the consequences of saying yes on their lives. My books allow youth an honest look at important issues affecting them.
KRRP: Why are the “controversial” parts of your books important?
EH: My books speak to real life. My latest book Tricks is about teen prostitution. To write it requires having sex in the book, and not pretty sex. It has to include sex. In Identical which is about sexual abuse by a parent and I take my readers right into the bedroom. Why not shut the door? Well, a lot of books do that and we need to really look at what is going on. What do perpetrators really look like? We expect them to be a certain way – and we need to explore our ideas of who sexual predators are to access the way to protect ourselves and our children. As adults we want to believe things like this, or drug use, are not happening anymore, or happening less and less, but that’s not the case and we need to acknowledge that in order to help the victims. We can’t make life prettier for youth, but we can arm them. In high schools today there are youth who cut, there are those who commit or think about suicide. We have to give our kids the tools.
KRRP: How has being outspoken led you to respond to censorship attempts? How have you responded in Pocatello?
EH: I haven’t been into Pocatello, but I would love to go. I’m not sure how I would address the community there, but I would love to go into the schools and speak to students, many of whom seem hungry for the kind of knowledge my books impart. I did the biggest book signing of my life in Boise because people drove all the way from Pocatello, and other points distant, to not only buy my nooks, but to hear what I had to say. I carry a strong anti-drug message when I speak, and it’s important young people especially hear a “real” story about addiction and how it affects not only the addict but also the people who love him/her, rather than “just say no.”
KRRP: What would you like youth to know about books that have been challenged or banned?
EH: I want them to know that it’s a minority trying to censor books. I want them to think about who challenges books, where banners come from and why they take things off the shelf. Who are the gatekeepers? Librarians should not try to redirect kids and censor in subtle ways and parents can try to censor, but in high school, I think kids will read what they want. It’s a better idea for a parent to read a book with their child and use it as a jumping-off place to open lines of communication.
KRRP: Have you ever felt pressure to censor yourself as a writer?
EH: I have a really good idea of who my readers are and always write with a sensitivity to my audience. I use the F word when necessary, but there are words I won’t use, mainly because I don’t like them. I don’t write about body parts when I write about sex. It’s not about the physiological, it’s more important for teens to read about the emotional aspects. I do think there are times when self-censorship is important, however. While I fully believe in the First Amendment, there are times when “free speech” leads to the kind of fear we’re seeing in America today. And that fear is driven by distortion, not to mention out-and-out lies; I think the pundits responsible should consider the hysteria they’re creating, all in the name of money.
KRRP: Do you have any advice for other authors?
EH: Authors have to write for their characters, for who they are, that’s the strength of books. Don’t worry about censors. Just write the story you need to tell and the rewards will come. I have maintained a file of letters from readers who tell me my books have helped them turn away from drugs, suicide and other monumental choices. If you are challenged, send the censors letters like these. It should stop the challenge.
KRRP: How do you plan to spend Banned Books Week this year?
EH: I’ll be speaking at high school and holding book signings to promote the right to read.