This interview originally appeared in Censorship News Issue 127.
David Levithan, an award-winning author and editor of dozens of books, will be honored along with former NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin, at the NCAC Celebration of Free Speech and Its Defenders on Nov. 6 in New York. Levithan is best known for his path-breaking and frequently challenged novels about gay youth, including Boy Meets Boy (2003) and Two Boys Kissing (2013). He is also the editorial director of Scholastic Books where he started the PUSH imprint, which publishes new voices and new authors in teen literature.
NCAC spoke with Levithan about his writing and how he responds to efforts to censor his work because of its LGBT themes.
In your career as an author, have you ever encountered censorship?
Certainly. Book challenges. A picketing line. The pre-emptive censorship of librarians and teachers who don’t order the book because they know what it’s about from the title. All because my books have gay characters.
According to School Library Journal, you wrote Boy Meets Boy without descriptions of sexual conduct. Why did you choose that strategy? Were you responding to censorship pressure?
In that particular case, it fit exactly with what I was trying to do, which was to write a romantic comedy with two boys at the center. I didn’t have to pull back from anything — that was the beauty of the endeavor. Had I set out to write a realistic depiction of gay teen life, I wouldn’t have constructed it that way (as later books show).
How has censorship shaped your approach to writing?
It’s probably made me more defiant, I’d guess. Certainly it affected the titling of Boy Meets Boy and Two Boys Kissing — I wanted them to be “out” books, even if that meant they’d be prejudged by forces that were inclined to be hostile toward such titles. But when it comes to the actual writing . . . when I’m in the world of the book, I’m in the world of the book, and any voices that would try to infiltrate my head to say, “You can’t do that” — well, they’re shut out.
Two recent NCAC cases involved efforts to censor books with LGBT-themes. In both, religious groups claimed the books are “LGBT propaganda.” As an author who has written LGBT-themed books, how would you respond to these claims?
Well, of course, it’s propaganda in the war to have all people recognized as equal. I know the fact that we are making progress in this war leads to a lot of fear and confusion, especially when religion is involved. But if a book can be a weapon of empathy, so be it. If it is propaganda to teach love and respect, so be it. If people think that by erasing an LGBT book from a public shelf that it will somehow make LGBT people in their communities fall silent or go away — well, they are sadly, sadly mistaken.
How have your readers responded to your work?
I’ve had many extraordinary messages from many extraordinary readers, teen and adult, who’ve said my books have helped them navigate life, and in some cases get through questions they were having about whether to remain alive. And, goodness knows, I’m not alone in this — most authors of queer YA who’ve been doing this awhile could tell similar stories. Our books have a huge positive impact.
What’s your favorite “banned” book?
That’s pretty much like asking what my favorite book is, so I’ll go with MT Anderson’s FEED.
NCAC is thrilled to honor you as a defender of free expression at our November gala. Have you ever thought of yourself as a champion of First Amendment rights?
An advocate, for sure. It’s an honor to join the roll call of previous winners. But, really, we’re all in this together. It’s not a single-champion kind of fight. For details on NCAC’s Celebration of Free Speech and Its Defenders on November 6, visit ncac.org/benefit