Trying to keep a book out of a public library seems profoundly un-American, and yet it seems to be a great American pastime; as we have seen this week, challenges to graphic novels and prose works are all too common.
Americus, by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill, looks at the human side of that equation, telling the story of two 14-year-olds who are huge fans of a fantasy series, The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, and the chain of events that is set in motion when the mother of one boy takes away his library copy and tears it up. It’s not a challenge, per se, as the library promptly gets a replacement copy; it’s really about the futility of trying to control another person’s thought process by restricting their reading. Americus is running as a webcomic (with a very interesting side blog) right now, and it will be published next year as a graphic novel by First Second Books. I e-mailed MK Reed and Jonathan Hill to discuss their story and their feelings about challenging books.
Robot 6: What was the book that carried you away as a child, the way Apathea does for the characters in this story?
MK Reed: There were a few, a lot of Roald Dahl books, but I mainly remember Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. My dad read all those books to me and my brother right after my parents separated, and they were very effective at helping us mentally escape what we were all going through.
Jonathan Hill: For me it was The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I had an uncle that spent a lot of time with my brothers and I when we were growing up, and he would recite the stories from those books to us. We spent a summer with him when we were older and he bought all the books and we made it a family event and would read a chapter or two together before bed every night. I think we only got through The Fellowship of the Ring that summer, but I was pretty hooked and finished the other books shortly afterwards. A lot of it has slipped from me the last couple of years, but I used to be one of those walking Tolkien encyclopedias that could recite lineage, poems, songs and what not from the books.
Robot 6: Have you had any personal experience with having a beloved book challenged or questioned, or had your own work challenged?
MK: Only in high school when I began writing for the school paper and literary magazine, when teachers had to explain why we couldn’t have swears and nudes people drew for their (outside-of-school) art classes.
Jonathan: I spent most of high school growing up in the Middle East, and even though I went to a private American school there were still some rules that the government imposed on the school. One year in history class new textbooks had arrived to be used the following year and our teacher had instructions to give us all Sharpies and we had to go through and black out certain sections and names of the history book that the government didn’t want them teaching. I remember thinking that the whole thing was pretty messed up, but also realizing that this was history in action in a sense — how it’s not necessarily what happened, but what the people in charge want people to think happened, etc. I do also remember thinking it was kind of hilarious in the fact that they were making high school students do it and that we would have to read the stuff to find out what to black out. I remember my friend and I purposely didn’t black out the right stuff just to stick it to the man.
Robot 6: Have you ever read a book that challenged your own beliefs or changed your thinking in some significant way?
MK: I read a lot of literary theory in my major at college, like Foucault and Derrida and Marx, and by the time I finished the program, I was unable to see things without looking at the context and motivations for everything. It left me with a slightly paranoid worldview, but much better able to call people on BS.
Jonathan: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud really, really opened my mind to things that are possible within comics that I had never thought of — even just the simple idea of using comics to explain comics. It was brilliant I had never seen anything like it. At the time I was studying illustration and was pretty unhappy with it, and it was one of the things that inspired me to leave that and to pursue making comics.
Robot 6: What was the inspiration for this story?
MK: I kept reading about challenges to Harry Potter in schools and libraries and finding the whole notion ridiculous. I see a clear link between kids who are intellectually curious and kids who read, and I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t encourage that in their kids.
Robot 6: Your story deals with a fairly extreme example, a rigid, fundamentalist Christian objecting to an innocuous fantasy novel. Her objection is to the supernatural aspect, but most challenges seem to be about sex, nudity, and language. What struck you as interesting about this particular angle?
MK: It seems like the dumbest reason to me to ban something, especially since in government institutions there’s supposed to be the separation of church and state. It’s ridiculous for someone to say that a book that doesn’t reflect their particular brand of faith is in some way religious persecution sheerly by existing, or that having this book available in their town will damage their lives.
Robot 6: Do you think your story reflects the reality that teenagers experience in the U.S. today? And is it more true to life in a place like Oklahoma than other parts of the country?
MK: I hope so, I’m almost thirty though, and I don’t really know any teens that well. But teenagers are always going to feel like they’re being unfairly condescended to, and that parents don’t understand what they’re going through. My friends who’ve grown up in the Midwest tend to be folks who have left there for a reason, and my one friend from Tulsa described it as a deeply religious place afraid of anything new.
Jonathan: After working on this project and doing some reading, I was surprised at how often stuff like this actually occurs and over such seemingly trivial content in books. I remember reading about a preacher wanting to ban or burn Pokemon a couple of years ago. POKEMON?!! I think that it’s easy living in liberal, well-read cities New York and Portland to be a little sheltered and forget that books and ideas are being challenged and banned all the time.
Robot 6: Are you concerned that Americus will itself be challenged somewhere?
MK: That would be kind of awesome and totally meta. Also, usually when someone tries to ban a book, it ends up selling better, since it gets more attention because of the controversy.
Jonathan: I’m not really concerned, but I don’t think it would be surprising if someone out there challenged it. More mild things seem to have been challenged.
Robot 6: Were there story elements you considered and rejected because they would not be appropriate for a teen audience? Or, to put it another way, would this be a different story if you were writing for adults?
MK: No, it’s written for both teens and adults, though I might have used a few more swears if it were just supposed to be for adults.
Robot 6: How do you envision the finished book — when will it be out, how long will it be, and what will be the format? Is there a lot of story left?
MK: The book will be out next fall as a graphic novel from First Second, it’ll be about 200 pages. Right now we’re only up to chapter 3, and it’s only just getting started.
Jonathan: We actually have the book 98-percent complete. I’m working on the last drawing revisions now. I don’t have the pages in front of me, but I think it clocks in at around 196 or so pages. There’s plenty of story left, so stay tuned!