Books

What to Do When Your Kid Is Reading a Book That Makes You Uncomfortable

The author of a memoir banned in schools across America on the value of teens reading challenging work.

The book cover includes a drawing of, on the top, a person wading in fresh water with hair on their legs and a T-shirt on. On the bottom of the cover, a sort of mirror image, with a young person with long hair and no shirt. Then to the right, a photo of Maia Kobabe, in long pants, medium-length hair, and a short sleeve blue button down.
The cover of Gender Queer and the author, Maia Kobabe. Photo by Tristan Crane

One of the books at the center of the newest wave of book censorship in America public schools and libraries is Gender Queer, a memoir by the nonbinary cartoonist Maia Kobabe. My daughter loved Gender Queer in 2019, when it was published, and it made me a little bit nervous. Though the book is primarily about Kobabe’s journey toward self-acceptance and understanding, it also includes brief scenes of sexual activity, and I struggled, as I often do, to balance my general belief that no book should be off-limits with the specific context of my 14-year-old reading something that seemed a little adult. As Gender Queer has been challenged in schools and libraries across the country in recent months, I’ve thought a lot about that response, so I finally decided to call the author up. I talked to Kobabe about what it feels like to have to defend not only your work but your identity, about who book banners are really attacking, and about how a parent should respond when their kid is reading about stuff that makes them uncomfortable. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Slate: Why did you write Gender Queer, and who did you write it for?

Maia Kobabe: The writing of Gender Queer is very interwoven with my own process of coming out. I was trying to come out to my parents and my extended family, and I was having a lot of conversations with people where they would say, “We love you. We support you, but we don’t understand what you’re talking about when you bring up gender, when you talk about non-binary pronouns.”

A family that as you note in the book was generally very accepting.

Yes. I have a very loving and supportive family. So there was no fear for me around coming out. I never worried that it would threaten my safety, my relationships to my family. But I was being met with a lot of confusion. So it got to the point where I was like, “I am not getting my point across in conversations.” We get sidetracked, or we run out of time, or what have you. And I was like, “I have to sit down and write about this.” Really, the main audience I had in mind was my parents. “Can I explain to them what I mean, and where I’m coming from?”

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Did you have a sense at some point in the publishing journey that the book was going to land with teenagers, that teenagers were an audience that you should be thinking about with a book like this?

Not really, honestly. It was always planned to come out from the older-reader imprint of my publisher, aimed for either adults or high teens, like 16-plus. And at no point did my editor or anyone at the publisher suggest that I censor any of the material or tone anything down.

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The book isn’t particularly explicit, as it turns out.

No, it isn’t.

Does that just reflect the kind of art you wanted to make? What do you think caused you to not make it more explicit?

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I mean, I put in everything that I thought was relevant to the story of gender, and there are mentions of masturbation, and period blood, and a very brief encounter with a sex toy. But they’re only lightly touched on because what’s important is how they helped me think about my gender identity and that’s what I was really trying to focus on. So I was like, “I’m going to include these as much as needed to explain how they shifted my of journey of self-discovery in regards to gender.”

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How did you hear that your book was being challenged in school libraries?

The first challenge I heard of was through the American Library Association’s Banned Book Field Report, which I saw in September of 2021. And I read about a small case where it had been challenged in, I believe, a public library in Huntington Beach, California. Very shortly after that field guide was published, I heard about the challenges in Fairfax County, Virginia, followed by Loudoun County, Virginia, and then a little avalanche of further challenges within the following weeks, starting in like late September through October and then early November. They’re in Rhode Island, Florida, Texas, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Washington State, and probably more. At that point, it became hard to keep up with how many challenges were happening.

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How do people know to challenge your book?

The parent who started the challenge in Fairfax had seen a news article about a challenge in Texas. And that is what inspired her to go look in the library to see if my book was there. And it was, partly because my book won two prestigious awards in 2020, a Stonewall Honor Award and an Alex Award. And because of that, many librarians purchased it because they tend to purchase the books that win the awards. I also think my book is uniquely vulnerable to these challenges, because it is a graphic novel. So people can flip it open and very quickly see one or two images that might make them uncomfortable and share those on social media. And they don’t have to actually read the whole book to find the parts they’re not going to like.

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And were these challenges exclusively in high schools?

To my knowledge, the majority of the challenges are happening in high schools and in public library systems.

I live right down the road from Fairfax County and Loudoun County. There are a lot of fights going on with the school boards of both those places right now, not only having to do with trans and queer issues, but having to do with critical race theory, and masks—all this stuff seems to be bubbling in a stew. So what has it been like to see this thing that you made, which is personal to you, become embroiled in this much larger culture war?

In many ways, it almost doesn’t feel like it’s about my book at all. So many of the people who have started challenges against my book say in their opening statements, “I haven’t read the book, but …” My book has the words gender and queer in the title. So if you are keyword searching in a library catalog for books that you maybe are not going to agree with, it will come up at the top of the list. I really think that my book has just been pulled in as a talking point into this culture war conversation, as you said, and in many ways it doesn’t feel personal to me at all. It just feels like my book was positioned in a place to get caught in this whirlwind.

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But the book is a memoir about your identity. It doesn’t feel like a personal attack on things that are important to you?

It does, but more in the sense that … Let me see how to phrase this. One of the things that I’m learning is that a book being challenged or banned does not hurt the book and does not hurt the author. The book is selling better than ever. The book has had so much media attention. I’m talking to you. I was published in the Washington Post. I’ve been on NPR multiple times. In a strange way, this is raising my profile as an author.

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What I’m learning is that a book challenge is like a community attacking itself. The people who are hurt in a challenge are the marginalized readers in the community where the challenge takes place. That is readers who are younger, readers who do not have the financial means to buy books if they’re not available for free in the library. That is queer teens who might not feel comfortable bringing a book with such an obvious title into their home, if they have more conservative parents who would only feel safe reading the book secretly in the library without even checking it out. So yes, it upsets me because what I’m seeing is resources being taken away from queer marginalized youth, which does hurt. That does hurt me.

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I think some authors view it as a mark of honor to have something they wrote be challenged. Do you feel that way at all, that there’s value in writing something that some people view as dangerous?

I mean, I do think that if a book is challenged, it probably means that it’s saying something honest and vulnerable and true. And I would also say to take a look at the other main topics that are being hit by challenges right now, which are books on the history of racism in America, books on civil rights, books on abortion and sex ed and sexual health. All of these topics are so important and in many ways, these are the topics that teenagers most need to read about. But I shy away from a phrase like “badge of honor,” because the book challenges don’t say a good thing about our society.

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One thread in Gender Queer is about your own experience reading books as a teenager that helped you understand the world and helped you understand yourself a little bit better. Was there a book that you read as a kid that you realize now was just way beyond you, but was nonetheless totally valuable?

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Are you familiar with the literary magazine the Sun?

Sure.

My parents subscribed to the Sun. I loved the section Readers Write, in which people would write in around a topic. When I look back, I’m like this was one of my major first experiences of memoir. Many of the writers who wrote in were writing from prison and some of them were touching on experiences of failed marriages, or sexual assault or abuse, or just difficult life challenges. I definitely think some of the topics that I read in there were pretty heavy and maybe more meant for adults. But as a teen, I was just fascinated by these stories of life experiences outside of my own. And I feel like it gave me a lot of compassion and empathy for people who had harder lives than the sheltered middle-class liberal-girl white childhood that I’d had.

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All right. So here’s a slightly awkward, as-a-parent-of-teens type question. Please bear with me as I make my way through it.

Go for it.

I’ve always had this philosophy as a parent, based on the books that I read as a child, which did skew very heavily toward the “inappropriate.” The philosophy is, there really there is no such thing as an inappropriate book for a teen. Even when kids read books that are way beyond their comprehension or that include adult material, they’ll be fine. Nevertheless, now I have teenagers, and whenever I look at the stuff that my kids are actually reading or consuming, I still get the heebie-jeebies about, like, My sweet baby’s reading about a strap-on! I think that’s a really common reaction that parents have. So what is a more healthy way for me to think about my kids reading stuff that nonetheless makes me feel weird?

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Yeah. Well, I’m glad that you’re sitting with that question and that you’re engaging with it, because as you said, I think a lot of parents’ gut reaction is, like, “Oh, no. I must protect them.” They’re growing adults and you want them to be prepared for the world and engaged with the world and curious and thoughtful about the world. And in many ways, I think encountering a difficult subject in literature is just about the safest place that you can engage with it. I think it’s less shocking sometimes than film because you aren’t seeing moving images of human actors acting something out. And it’s of course safer and less immediate than experiencing that first-hand in their own lives.

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But I also think that as a parent, if there’s something you’re not sure about, reading the whole thing yourself first is of course a good start. So you want to read my whole book before you decide, “Is my teen ready for this or not?”

That’s funny. In some ways I have the exact opposite response. Maybe I should just keep my nose out of whatever they’re doing.

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Well, I guess there’s room for both, because I also think teenagers deserve privacy. You’re going through a lot of weird stuff as a teen and you’re trying to explore things and figure things out. And some of the things that you think about are going to be pretty gross and embarrassing and yeah, maybe not fit for the eyes of your parents.

I will say parents have a right to have a certain amount of say in what their own children read and experience. But you can’t make that decision for everyone else’s children as well. That’s what’s happening with these book challenges: a parent taking that protective urge outside of their own home and trying to push it everywhere.

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