March 23

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Please Don’t Talk About Your Book by Barbara Dee

“Barbara? Can I please speak to you a minute? In private?”

Teacher X was beckoning me to the back of the auditorium. It was the end of the break after my second author talk. I had already spoken to 120 sixth graders. Three sessions (and 180 more kids) to go.

A few months before, I’d been invited by the PTA to speak at this middle school for the third year in a row.  Five author presentations in one day had seemed like a daunting challenge at first. By this time, though, I’d learned to pace myself, ask for a mic, bring a bottle of water and throat lozenges. Reading aloud a brief excerpt from TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 2016) and an even briefer one from the Advance Review Copy of  STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S March 2017) was fun–and I really loved interacting with kids in the Q/A sessions that followed.

Now, as I followed Teacher X, I wondered why she needed to speak to me just minutes before my next talk. So I asked what was up.
“It’s about STAR-CROSSED,” she admitted. “We’re concerned that some of the kids are too young for the content.”

The content? I was dumbstruck. STAR-CROSSED is a middle grade novel about an eighth grade production of Romeo & Juliet in which the girl playing Romeo realizes she has a crush on the girl playing Juliet. Even as it tracks the plot of Shakespeare’s play, it’s a gentle, wholesome comedy– wholesome enough for Scholastic to have licensed it for book clubs and fairs. Reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus have praised its age-appropriateness and  “sweetness.” Amanda MacGregor blogged on SLJ: “The positive, accepting, supportive tone of the story makes this book a must-have for every middle school library.” And I’m proud to say that  STAR-CROSSED has earned raves from some rockstar kidlit authors–Gail Carson Levine, Donna Gephart, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Ami Polonsky.

Not completely sure I understood what I was hearing, I asked Teacher X if she meant that only the next kids were “too young”–even though, like the classes earlier, they were sixth graders. I showed her the publisher’s age recommendation: 9-13. I also pointed out the endorsements from Gail Carson Levine, et al. That was when she admitted  the real reason she wanted me to stop talking about the book: “a fear of parental backlash.”

“This is a politically polarized community,” she explained. Teachers have been advised to be “careful,” so that they don’t inflame tensions which may have been exacerbated by the recent election.

Then Teacher Y joined us. “We thought it was great when you spoke about inclusion and tolerance and the need for diversity in kidlit,” she told me. “We just want you to keep it general.”

“You mean not talk about my book?” I asked.

Teacher Y looked away uncomfortably. “Right. You can talk about the book. Just not–”

“About the book?”

“We think STAR-CROSSED sounds great,” Teacher X insisted. “We support everything it’s about, and we plan to read it ourselves.”

Even so, I shouldn’t talk about it. And oh, by the way, they had called the principal to sit in on my talks.

I was stunned. The next kids were already streaming into the auditorium, and I had to make a quick decision. Would I:

  1. A) Talk about STAR-CROSSED, despite the objections of the teachers?
  2. B) Walk out?
  3. C) Proceed, not talking about the book and not reading an excerpt, despite having a big poster of the cover art on the desk beside me?
  4. D) Proceed, briefly and matter-of-factly mentioning what STAR-CROSSED was about, but not reading an excerpt and quickly pivoting?

For the third session I chose C,  in deference to the teachers. As a former teacher myself, my first impulse was to empathize with them. They were afraid–of the reaction both by the school administration and by the community, given the current political climate. They hadn’t read the book yet, so they couldn’t vouch for its content. Also, as an author with a precious paying gig, I wanted to be a professional. The show must go on, I told myself. I can deal with this.

But my heart hurt. Not allowing myself to talk about STAR-CROSSED felt wrong, an insult to a book that had been my most joyful writing experience. I could feel myself trembling with anger and humiliation when a kid asked me which of my books was my favorite, and I answered, merely, “Star-Crossed.” He waited for me to elaborate, but I didn’t, because I couldn’t. It was an awkward, awful moment.

And having to change my talk mid-appearance had rattled me: I could hear that my voice was shaky and that I’d gone flat. For my remaining two talks I knew I had to try something else, so I chose D–briefly acknowledging the subject of the book but not reading the funny excerpt, avoiding all details, and quickly changing the subject.

But I still felt sick about the whole situation.

Afterwards, I got into my car and burst into tears–for my book, and for the kids I felt I’d failed. As a straight, adult woman, a mom and a professional, I’d allowed myself to be bullied into silence. So how could I encourage twelve year olds to stand up for themselves, to insist on being recognized and valued, when I couldn’t do the same?

Even worse was when I heard the next day that one of the teachers had actually apologized to her class after my talk. “We know you’re upset,” she’d told them. “But don’t worry–we told the author to stop talking about that book.”

That a teacher (especially one who professed support for tolerance and inclusion) spoke these words to her students is horrifying.  I keep thinking about certain kids in the audience whose eyes were wide and bright as I described the main character of STAR-CROSSED. A few of these kids came up to the podium afterwards to tell me they planned to read it, even to ask for it as a birthday present. How confused and ashamed they must have felt to hear their teacher apologize.

I can’t stop thinking about one girl in particular. She was sitting in the back row of the auditorium, and when she raised her hand to speak, she mumbled, looking at her feet. I asked her to repeat her question; she did, and I still couldn’t hear what she was saying. But there was something about her body language–the way she was avoiding eye contact and squirming–that made me approach her seat, asking her to repeat herself a third time.

Even then, I could hear only two things–“LGBT” and “poetry.”

Oh, I thought. Okay.

This was the kid who needed STAR-CROSSED. Not only did she need to read a sweet, positive middle grade novel about a middle schooler who wonders about her own sexual orientation, and ends up being okay with not knowing all the answers–she also needed to have an adult in the room who called on her. Who made eye contact. Who heard her voice.

So I asked her to speak to me privately.

I was afraid she’d slip out of the auditorium, but she didn’t. Smiling shyly, she told me she “planned to read” STAR-CROSSED when it came out, and then said: “I really love the idea of semi-colons.”

I grinned. It was so charming– the sort of thing only a smart, word-loving sixth grader would say. A kid like the protagonist of STAR-CROSSED.

So I asked her why she liked semi-colons.

“I just like the idea that sentences can be connected without stopping points,” she answered.

Me too. I also wish the world had more semi-colons, more connections, fewer stopping points.

More words; less silence.

 

STAR-CROSSED is Barbara Dee’s seventh middle grade novel. She recently revealed the cover of her next book, HALFWAY NORMAL (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 5, 2017), on Nerdy Book Club  https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/cover-reveal-for-halfway-normal-by-barbara-dee/ . A former English teacher and lawyer, Barbara is one of the founders and directors of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. This year, she is looking forward to participating in Nerd Camps in Michigan, New Jersey and Long Island, NY. Visit her at www.BarbaraDeeBooks.com. Follow her @Barbaradee2.