Brent Hartinger’s novel, Geography Club was recently challenged in West Bend Public Library in Wisconsin. Geography Club deals with serious issues facing youth today, most significantly self-acceptance. Towards this end in Geography Club, Russel Middlebrook, our narrator, establishes a secret gay club with some of his classmates at Goodkind High School. This is just the beginning, however, of a great story with engaging and complex characters who learn how to define and accept themselves over time on the basis of their whole selves, and not just their sexuality.

Kids Right to Read Project: What was your motivation for writing Geography Club?

Brent Hartinger: You know, it’s partly because the story is semi-autobiographical – I was a gay teen – and I figured if I told this story, it might make things a little bit easier for the gay teens who come after me.

But honestly, it was mostly because I’m a storyteller, and it just seemed like a really good story. I like to say there is no greater underdog in the world than a gay or lesbian teenager. Depending on where they live, the whole world might be against: their families, their religion, their teachers, even their friends sometimes! And then there was the fact that, especially at the time I first wrote the first draft of the story, in 1990, there were very, very few stories like this.

KRRP: The challenge against your book was based on its sexual themes.  What role do those excerpts play in the narrative as a whole?

BH: It’s small, but it’s important. It’s a cliché to say that writing is all about authenticity, but it’s true. Writers reflect real people in the real world. I’ve always said it’s really hard – maybe even impossible – to write teen novels and not have at least some of them deal with sexuality, which is surely one of the two or three most important issues that teenagers deal with.

That said, the sexuality in my book is pretty mild, especially compared to other teen novels. In most cases, I think that’s just an excuse to attack it because it involves – shhhh! mustn’t be spoke out loud! – gay people.

KRRP: What was your reaction when you heard that your book was removed from the shelves of a public library because it was deemed pornographic? Were you surprised by the controversy surrounding your book and the issues it raises for youth?

BH: Nothing surprises me anymore, because I’ve pretty much heard it all. Pornography? Sure, why not? I mean, if you think any mention of gay people is the same as talking about sex, well, I guess you might see it as pornographic.

But I think it’s worth nothing that anyone who thinks my book is pornographic is experiencing a pretty different reality than most of the rest of us.

KRRP: Russel Middlebrook and his friends are complex characters. What was your vision for your readers in making them both likable and not at times (for instance, when Gunnar pushes Kevin into dating girls despite his awareness of his friend’s sexuality)?

BH: Well, again, it’s all about being authentic, about being truthful. Over the three books in the series, all the main characters have their moments where they do heroic things, and where they do jerky things. And that, of course, is because most people have their moments when they heroic things and they do jerky things. What makes a person truly heroic in the end, of course, is whether they learn from their mistakes, whether they make an effort not to repeat them.

In every teen book I’ve ever written, there’s a moment where the main character has to decide between doing the selfish thing, the thing will make him or her feel good at the time, or the selfless thing, the thing that involves an awareness of other people and will make things better for everyone in the long run. These moments are key for me, especially when I’m writing a teen novel, because they mark the difference between immaturity and maturity, being a child and being an adult.

For the KRRP’s Interview with Maria Hanrahan, Founder of West Bend Parents for Free Speech, click here.

For the KRRP’s Interview with West Bend resident Mary Reilly-Kliss, click here.