Maureen Johnson’s novel, The Bermudez Triangle was recently challenged in Leesburg Public Library in Florida. It was also previously challenged in Bartlesville, OK. Click here, to view KRRP’s letter to the Bartlesville Board of Education and, here, to view KRRP’s letter to the Leesburg Library Advisory Board.
The Bermudez Triangle is a story about what happens when your two best friends fall in love with each other. That’s the dilemma Nina faces when she discovers that girlfriends Mel and Avery are lesbians in this gripping novel.
The Kids’ Right to Read Project: The Bermudez Triangle is widely acclaimed and well regarded by readers everywhere. How does it feel for this same book to be the center of a censorship controversy?
MJ: It appears to be extremely easy to get caught up in a censorship controversy. All you need is one individual with a personal agenda and some time on his or her hands. As to why they keep going after Bermudez—I can only guess that it’s because the book shows a homosexual relationship as a normal, positive thing.
KRRP: Did you anticipate any controversy over or challenges to The Bermudez Triangle or any of your other novels as you were writing them?
MJ: Not really. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you plan for, and you never really know what’s going to hit someone’s buttons.
KRRP: Challenges against The Bermudez Triangle have focused on ‘homosexual themes.’ Some commentators have identified this as an increasing trend. Would you like to comment on this?
MJ: This “we aren’t banners, we just think those are adult themes and therefore the books must be labeled/moved to the adult section/require permission to take out” nonsense . . . why, exactly? What is particularly adult about being gay? There are gay kids, gay teens. They have to go on awkward first dates, like all the wrong people, obsess over their crushes, have their hearts broken, fall in love with friends, get permission from their parents to go out, try to borrow the car . . . There are loads of YA books about those things featuring heterosexual characters, and no one bats an eye. Why is it so adult if gay kids are doing it?
It’s not. It’s the same thing. Gay kids need to see their lives reflected in stories. And straight kids want to read these stories as well! Gay characters can’t be relegated to some dark corner of the shelf that you need a map to find and an ID to check out. To do so is basically saying to the gay kids, “There’s something dirty about you.” Anyone who would say that is the true filthmonger. Period.
KRRP: What is important about the ‘controversial’ parts of your books? What role do those excerpts play in the narrative as a whole?
MJ: I don’t see this book as controversial. Neither do most of the kids or parents who have read it. Three people have labeled it as controversial. Three. (At least that I know of. I’m sure it’s on some other list somewhere. But we aren’t talking about huge numbers of people.) And from what I can tell, none of those three read it in its entirety, or very well. What’s been so astonishing is how quickly the conversation can get away from you—and you get labeled by people who haven’t read the book and know nothing of what it’s about.
I watched the report on the local Orlando news about the challenge to Bermudez, and the Fox News report about the case. In both cases, the news outlets took it at face value that the books were “racy” and “XXX rated.” The reporters clearly hadn’t read them. The story just barreled forward, right to “Don’t parents have the right to remove RACY things from the presence of INNOCENT CHILDREN?”
Meanwhile, I’m still scratching my head and asking, “What racy scenes? What XXX scenes?” From what I could tell, they went through the book with a highlighter, tagging every word or phrase that even sounded remotely sexual, even if it was, “We do not have sex.” They’re obsessed . . . in a really unhealthy way. They treat sex like a disease. Again, it seems best not to bring this kind of distorted view into the classification system.
So again, the only “controversial” issue that remains is the fact that the book tells the story of two girls in a romantic relationship. And there is nothing wrong with that.
KRRP: Your book, The Bermudez Triangle, has been challenged both for its inclusion in a school’s curriculum (Bartlesville) and, just recently, for its presence in the Young Adult section of a public library (Leesburg). How did you response to these challenges differ? How was it similar?
MJ: In the case of Bartlesville, the librarian wrote to me and asked for my help because the book was being removed in violation of public policy. One person objected to having a copy of it in the school library (it wasn’t on any reading requirement lists, it was just on the shelf).
From what I was told, the school was agreeing to remove it just to keep things peaceful and get this parent off their back. The librarian stood her ground. She’d been working in that school district for over 30 years and said she’d never seen anything quite like what was going on. So she asked me if I could do anything. I started talking about it and drew a lot of attention to what was going on. The local news got involved. They got hundreds of letters from people in support of the book. They were truly caught with their pants down. In the end, the book was re-shelved and now requires a permission slip to take out—and the librarian was forced out of her job for bringing attention to their actions. It wasn’t the best outcome.
In the case of Leesburg, their request to have the book moved was rejected by the library and the city counsel. I just read this article about them, which says that they’ve gone back to the library and found more books they think are inappropriate, and are trying to get a labeling system put in place. They seem extremely puzzled by the fact that no one else seems interested in this idea. It’s a fantastic article that fills me with optimism. The librarians held their ground, and the city counsel members voted unanimously to keep the books right where they were. It’s so great when the system works.
KRRP: What do you hope librarians, teachers and school administrators take away from the controversy over The Bermudez Triangle?
MJ: I feel for the administrators and the librarians and teachers who have to deal with book banners and challengers. Book banners and challengers feel that they know what’s best for everyone (or, everyone else’s children). They’re so pleased with themselves and their standards, that they feel that they should be the community norm. I can’t even imagine having that much deluded chutzpah. I can’t imagine being that bored, either. Can you imagine going around your neighborhood with a piece of paper that says, “I went into the LIBRARY and found a BOOK with a DIRTY WORD in it, and now I want it LOCKED IN THE BASEMENT and GUARDED by a WOLVERINE so that THE PRECIOUS CHILDREN do not see the WORD. Please sign my petition.”
I guess the only thing I would say is this . . . if you’re facing one of these challenges and you feel like you’re dealing with it all alone, many authors are reachable now. Many have large online presences. There are so many ways we can work together.
KRRP: What sort of responses have you received about the book from youth who have read it?
MJ: Generally very positive. There have been some kids who told me that they really needed a book like this, and that it really helped them. That’s amazing to hear, and I’m so glad for that.
When I tell kids that the book has been challenged and show the news segment with the moms reading the “racy” passages—the ones who’ve read it just laugh. They know the controversy claims are absurd.
KRRP: What would you like youth to know about books that have been challenged or banned?
MJ: The kids I talk to the most tend to be very heavy readers, and the moment they hear that a book has been challenged, they often respond with, “Well, I’m going to go and get it now and read it!” Which is fantastic. They’ve got the situation covered. Really, the challenges have been a great way of promoting the books.
I’m sure they exist, but . . . I’ve never met a kid who supported a book banning. There are obvious reasons for this, like the fact that kids usually want things that are seen to be mature. But I think the main reason is that book banning and challenging are really bad and embarrassing parental behaviors. It’s done under the guise of protecting the child. In reality, the opposite is true. Responsible parents monitor things in the privacy of their own homes. Book banning and challenging parents often make a big show of themselves, sometimes dragging their (probably mortified) kids into the picture as an excuse for their own bad behavior.
KRRP: What advice would you give to fellow authors facing censorship controversies?
MJ: Well, I’ve found resources like this site to be hugely helpful. Talking to librarians and fellow authors who have been through this before—that’s useful too.
And again, since so many of us are online, there have to be loads of ways to help each other out—putting the attention on the book and the importance of librarians, and taking it away from the banners.