One Madison-based author’s experience with book-banning and manufactured outrage.
On December 6, 2022, I opened a Daily Mail article and saw my own face staring back at me. The photo was one I’d posted on Instagram years earlier—me at Picnic Point, making a funny, wide-eyed face while I roasted a marshmallow. Someone at the right-wing British tabloid had scrolled through over a hundred photos to find one that made me look ridiculous. The caption, citing my website, said some of my “favorite things are trees, rainbows, and dairy-free ice cream,” in an attempt to downplay my professional accomplishments.
My cheeks heated up. My armpits erupted in sweat. My life was about to change.
The article was a scathing review of a children’s nonfiction book I’d written, A Smart Girl’s Guide: Body Image. The book joyfully celebrates all bodies, including trans and nonbinary ones. But this article called the book “deceptive and dangerous.”
Hate mail streamed into my inbox. Here are a few gems:
“You’re a pedophile groomer. Also known as a human piece of shit. Sickos like you should just be purged from this country.”
“You should be FIRED for this…. You make me sick.”
“GO TO HELL YOU WHORE!!”
“We see you. Filthy groomer k**e.” (I’m not Jewish, but people made plenty of horrifying antisemitic comments.)
“VERGOGNA!!! Da Cattolica posso dire che lei sta lavorando per satana!!!” (Translated from Italian: “SHAME!!! As a Catholic I can say that she is working for Satan!!!”)
Or, my personal favorite, the email that simply said, “Evil!!!”
I watched in shock as the news coverage descended into chaos. Caitlin Jenner blasted the book on Fox News. YouTubers posted rants, making fun of my master’s degree research and love of dairy-free ice cream. One Million Moms, a small, conservative advocacy group whose membership numbers seem closer to 50 than a million, launched a petition to discontinue the book. A pastor announced to his mega-church congregation that the book’s title was “Body Image: A Smart Girl’s Guide to Transitioning.” The Daily Mail published a total of seven articles about the book, one of which included a photo of me and my husband dressed as a ghost bride and groom for Halloween, suggesting that it was an image from our actual wedding. (That costume slapped, at least.) Suddenly, I was a famous author. But not in a congrats-on-achieving-your-childhood-dream kind of way.
Despite all the noise, I was proud that my book made right-wing extremists angry. I also understood the immense privilege I had as a white, cis woman married to a man. The best zingers the trolls could come up with were, “She should be in jail for how she dresses,” and “Another childless millennial cat mom.” (Those would both make great Instagram bios, by the way.) Still, my husband and I started sleeping with a knife next to the bed. (And by “sleeping,” I mean not sleeping, obviously.) I Googled my name dozens of times each day, sure that someone had leaked my address on a right-wing forum. When an NPR producer called my cell phone, I spent the rest of the day researching how stalkers could pay to find unlisted phone numbers. To manage my anxiety, I printed out the hateful comments and emails, painted them different colors, and turned them into a rainbow college. I framed it and hung it over my cats’ litterbox, where it belongs.
Though I was surprised by all the coverage, the story of right-wingers blasting “woke” children’s books was familiar. According to the American Library Association, libraries received demands to censor 2,571 books in 2022, a 38% increase from the year before. Most of the books were about LGBTQ+ people and people of color.
And though national coverage focuses on states like Florida and Texas, book challenges are happening right here in Wisconsin. In November 2022, the Elmbrook School District in the Milwaukee suburbs removed seven books from circulation that included sexual content or featured LGBTQ+ characters. In February 2023, a Sheboygan high school library removed three LGBTQ+ memoirs from its shelves. And this year, Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate introduced a book-ban bill that would regulate students’ access to books deemed “harmful” or “offensive.”
I believe that all kids deserve access to LGBTQ+ books. The silver lining of this story is that my book has gotten into the hands of more kids because of the news frenzy. (There’s nothing like banning a book to get kids excited to read it! Though, unfortunately, book banning tends to lift sales for only the most well-known titles.) Supportive parents bought copies to add to their Little Free Libraries. My favorite podcast hosts raved about it. And tucked in between the hate mail, I received plenty of supportive messages. My favorite comes from someone who describes themselves as a transmasc 16-year-old: “If I had you and your writing when I was little…well, it might have been nice. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re not alone.”
I’m still writing. On the first day of Pride Month this year, my sister, Teghan Hammond, and I received an offer of publication for the queer young adult novel we wrote together. It’s about an openly trans high school drama nerd whose school board bans her senior showcase because it features trans and nonbinary characters. Lucy, Uncensored will be published by Knopf in late 2024 and will certainly be banned in some schools. I can’t wait for readers to get their hands on it.
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