Celebrating the Freedom to Read: September 24 - September 30, 2017

Author Kate Messner on a Story’s Ability to Broach Real life Issues

Wed, 09/28/2016 - 10:59 -- Maggie Jacoby

This post originally appeared on the National Coalition of Censorship's website.

This summer, children's author Kate Messner published The Seventh Wish, a novel about a young girl named Charlie who befriends a wish granting fish. The book uses these fantastical elements to touch upon the very real issue of addiction. In June, Messner’s invitation to speak at a Vermont school was abruptly cancelled because the school librarian was concerned about the book's subject matter. On the occasion of Banned Books Week, NCAC spoke to Kate about why it's good for kids to have access to a broad range of subjects, some that can be troubling, in their reading.

In the months since its release what kind of feedback has The Seventh Wish received?

Overwhelmingly positive.  The only negative feedback I've had was in the couple of situations around the time of book release. Honestly I think that negative feedback was fear from people who haven't read the book. I think, often, that's what censorship grows out of – fear.

What would you say to parents who consider some of the subject matter of The Seventh Wish inappropriate for their elementary school-aged kids to read?

I haven't actually heard anything negative from parents. What I have heard is: thank you for this book because it's given me the opportunity to speak to my children about addiction. Those discussions are difficult to have without some sort of a way in. When you have a 9 or a 10 year old, you know you should start talking about some of those tough topics before the kid is a teenager and things are more tense. It's weird to sit around the dinner table and say tonight we are going to talk about drugs– it's just awkward for everybody– but if you have a book that you can share together, that's a way in, it's an open door to that conversation. So most of the feedback I've gotten has been of that nature: a thank you. I've also received a lot of emails from kids and adults alike saying: "this is what my life is like, nobody really wrote about it for a kid my age!" So that's been really gratifying.

It's interesting that your talk was cancelled because the librarian believed the students were not prepared for the some of the subject matter in your book. Yet the book would probably help parents and librarians prepare young students to tackle the tough subject of drug addiction.

I certainly think so. The presentation I gave (at the time of book release) didn't focus entirely on addiction, it was a presentation about rewriting stories and fairy tales, about using magic to talk about issues in real life. I spoke about everything from Irish dancing to entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, and I talked about the writing and research process. Again, I think it was just that fear: "What if she talks about addiction and we're not ready?"

You mentioned using your stories to talk about real life issues. What compels you to do so?

We know books are important. I know from talking with kids that books can act as a mirror of their lives. [Through books] a child can feel that even though we’re not talking about [a difficult issue they are going through] in the classroom, that even though my teachers aren't talking about these things, I am still not alone.

How do you go about doing this, do you find an issue you want to discuss in your story- telling or does it come up naturally?

For me, I am drawn to ideas that have not been explored fully. For example, we do have young adult novels that have dealt with addiction, but we haven't had much in the way of Middle Grade that really deals with the opioid epidemic that this country is facing right now. Jenny Holm and Matthew Holm in Sunnyside touch on it, but the addiction theme is much more vague and the main character is kept much more in the dark– as many kids are. But a lot of kids know exactly what is going on in their family, they know exactly what the problem is and how to fix it and that's kind of the situation that Charlie is in in The Seventh Wish. So for me, it felt important to write a book that could shine a light on that and talk about the darker aspects of living in that family. I'm certainly drawn to ground that doesn't feel like it's been tread before.

What's your favorite banned book?

The first one that comes to mind is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. That's such an important book! Then you can go on and on down the list of authors. Sherman Alexie, anyone who is writing truth with a capital 'T'. Keeping them from kids because maybe someone will complain is just not the way to treat important books or authors or students.

And you know, kids most often are great at self-censoring. They'll say "oh I don't think I'm ready for that, you got something else for me?" At the end of the day, it's a story. It's not going to physically harm anybody, make kids try drugs, it's actually quite the opposite, it gets kids thinking: How would I make that decision? What would I do in that situation?

I taught kids for 15 years and had all kinds of books on my classroom shelf. Once in a while a kid would come and say this book has swear words in it. I'd say “ok would you prefer to read something that doesn't? Why not try this?” It doesn't have to be the big issue. It's very easy to put a book back and say “oh this one is not for me.” That's something we teach readers all the time, how to self select not just what they love, but what is and isn't right for me or isn't right for me right now, maybe I'll return to it later to think about that. Readers do a fantastic job choosing books for themselves when they are allowed to and I think we'd do a much better job if we gave students that respect.