There can be no question that democratic freedoms are currently being attacked and restricted in the United States, and somehow, children and the information they have access to have been the ongoing targets of attack.
As AP News reported in 2023: “More than 1,200 challenges were compiled in 2022, nearly double the then-record total from 2021 and by far the most since the American Library Association began keeping data 20 years ago.” Conservative groups across the country have become well-organized machines harassing individual public and school librarians with threats of legal and violent action. The message from these groups, often supported by government leaders, is that children should not have access to books — books meant for young readers — that engage with topics of race, gender or sexual identity.
At Fisher Center at Bard College, the inaugural Eleanor Roosevelt Banned Book Awards was held Saturday night, Feb. 17, honoring a group of middle-grade and young adult authors with the first Awards for Bravery in Literature. These recipients, authors of some of the most challenged books in the country by counties, local governments and school boards, were acknowledged for their literary accomplishments and for championing stories full of independent thought, compassion and important social messages.
The award ceremony was hosted by Anna Eleanor Fierst, Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter and chair of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill. Fierst was joined on the stage by speakers Emily Drabinski, the president of the American Library Association; George McCalman, author of “Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and Unseen”; Matt Nosanchuck, the deputy assistant secretary for operations and outreach in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education; Lee Rowland, policy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU); and Cameron Samuels, a student at Brandeis University and the executive director of SEAT, a youth civic organization. Last year, at age 18, Samuels testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee addressing book bans.
The recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Awards for Bravery in Literature were the following, in alphabetical order:
— Laurie Halse Anderson for “Shout: The True Story of a Survivor Who Refused to be Silenced” from Viking Books. Anderson is the author of the 1999 young adult novel “Speak,” adapted into a Sundance Festival film in 2004 starring Kristen Stewart. “Speak” tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped at a party the summer before her first year of high school and finds herself ostracized by her fellow students as she finds the strength to name her assailant. Twenty years later, Anderson wrote “Shout,” a companion memoir about her own adolescence. “Speak” was a National Book Award finalist, but in 2020, was also named the fourth most banned and challenged book in the United States.
— Mike Curato for “Flamer” from Macmillan. A semi-autobiographical graphic novel written and illustrated by Curato, set in 1995, it details a summer at a sleepaway Boy Scouts camp where a 14-year-old Filipino boy navigates changes in his male friend group — which include bullying and homophobic slurs — leaving him isolated, hating himself and contemplating suicide. PEN America reported that “Flamer” was banned in schools in at least six states during the 2021-22 school year, and in Utah’s Alpine School District, was filed as “pornographic.”
— Alex Gino for “Melissa” (previously published as “George”) from Scholastic. “Melissa” has appeared on the American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books list every year since its publication. The children’s novel follows a 10-year-old transgender girl named Melissa, known as “George” to her family, whose one wish is to play the role of the talking spider Charlotte in her fourth-grade class’s production of “Charlotte’s Web.” The novel was at the center of the 2018-19 Oregon Battle of the Books controversy, a school reading challenge that two school districts refused to participate in because of the inclusion of “Melissa” on the reading list.
— George M. Johnson for “All Boys Aren’t Blue” from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A coming-of-age memoir, Johnson details their ’90s youth in Plainfield, New Jersey, with a focus on coming to terms with their Black and queer identity while also addressing Black, queer male readers today as they search for role models and representation in their own lives. In 2021, a Flagler County school board member and a retired teacher filed a criminal complaint against the Florida school’s superintendent for carrying the book.
— Maia Kobabe for “Gender Queer” from Simon and Schuster. The graphic novel written and illustrated by Kobabe has been in the eye of the book-banning storm since its publication, publicly challenged by conservative politicians like South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, among others, citing the novel to be “obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors.” In a town hall in 2023, Youngkin was called out on his views on the book and trans youth by a transmasculine Arlington high school student named Niko. “Look at me,” Niko said to Youngkin. “I am a transgender man. Do you really think that the girls in my high school would feel comfortable sharing a restroom with me?”
Simon and Schuster
— Jelani Memory for “A Kids Book About Racism” from Penguin Random House. The young reader’s book for ages 3-6 was initially written for Memory’s own children — his four white step-children and two Black biological children — before he submitted the book for publication. The introduction tells children, “This is a book about racism. For reals! And yes, it really is for kids. It’s a good book to read with a grownup. Because you’ll have lots to talk about afterward.”
The ceremony’s Lifetime Achievement Award was presented by NYCLU’s Lee Rowland to the incomparable author of beloved young adult books, Judy Blume, who joined the audience digitally from her home in Key West, Florida.
Since the publication of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in 1970, the name Judy Blume has been synonymous with the inner heart of girlhood. The author of classics like “Blubber,” “Tiger Eyes,” and “Forever...,” Blume has not only captured the complexity of puberty as childhood innocence slips away and the shadow of adulthood looms, but taken the emotions and plights of young girls seriously. Tackling stories centering on faith, death, virginity and love, Blume’s novels continue to be a lifeline to readers grappling with understanding a world that often deliberately hides uncomfortable truths, even when it comes to a girl’s own body and mind.
“As someone who argued with [former White House communications director] Pat Buchanan over masturbation, I’m sorry to say I’ve heard a lot [when it comes to challenging books],” Blume said at the ceremony. “It is different today. It is scarier because it is coming from the government more and more, and from state legislatures. It is very political now. We just have to keep going. We just have to keep working together.”
Her advice to her fellow authors, as well as to young aspiring novelists, was clear: “You’ve got to knock the critic off one shoulder, and you’ve got to knock the censor off the other shoulder. When you’re locked up in your little room writing, you cannot think of what will happen. You just have to go for it.”
In a new American biography, Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, a multi-award-winning author and director of the graduate studies history department at Indiana University Bloomington, uncovers the hidden story of the wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president of the United States, serving under President Martin Van Buren.
“The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn” from Ferris and Ferris explores the lost account of Chinn — a woman with no official portrait, no legal record of her marriage and no surviving letters or diary to expose her own thoughts or feelings. What we do know: Chinn was a Black woman born into slavery in Scott County, Kentucky; trained as a household domestic worker from a young age; and taken as Johnson’s common-law wife as a teenager when Johnson was 15 years her senior. Chinn was never legally freed from slavery, but she would also come to wield significant authority over the management of Johnson’s property, overseeing the slave labor she was born into, now from a position of power.
On Sunday, Feb. 25, at 2 p.m., staff from Martin Van Buren Park will lead a talk on Chakrabarti Myers’ book at the Kinderhook Library in person and over Zoom.
“Sex across the color line began [in America] the moment various ethnic groups came into contact with one another on this side of the Atlantic. Those interactions were varied and complex, ranging from one night of mutual pleasure to intricate business transactions, from violent assaults to more compliant relationships,” Chakrabarti Myers said at a talk held recently at the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky. “What my work seeks to do is illuminate how some Black women were able to use sexual alliances with white men to acquire a modicum of power in the Old South while simultaneously revealing the limits of that power. How much autonomy did Black women in these unions really have? What were the societal limits of their privilege? Did Black women have any choice when it came to participating in these relationships?”
In a conversation held through the University of North Carolina Press with Randal Maurice Jelks, author of “Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America,” Chakrabarti Myers discussed the purposeful erasure of Chinn’s life following her and Johnson’s death by the vice president’s surviving brothers. The brothers conspired with a probate judge in Scott County to declare that Johnson had no living will, had never wed and had no children or grandchildren — despite his mixed-race descendants being present at the hearing.
Johnson was hardly an outlier at the time for having an intimate, long-standing interracial relationship, so why was the legacy of Chinn perceived as so threatening in the eyes of the family? As Chakrabarti Myers said to Jelks: when we look to historical examples like President Thomas Jefferson or Kentucky U.S. Senate Representative Henry Clay, “The men who were having ‘outside relationships’ and children with enslaved women didn’t publicly flaunt it. Most of them were married to white women. Jefferson did not begin his relationship with Sally Hemings until after his wife had passed away — and even so, he did not flaunt her as his wife. She did not entertain guests as the mistress of Monticello. It was gossip, but he never said, ‘Yes, this is my family.’ But Julia was Richard’s only wife. Adaline and Imogene [Johnson’s mixed-race daughters] were his only children. They lived together, he educated his daughters, and his wife was standing by his side when he was visited by former presidents.”
Chinn was head of the household, the mistress of the parlor, the overseer of the labor force, and the manager of Johnson’s Choctaw Academy, an American Indian boarding school located on Johnson’s Blue Spring Farm. “She carried the keys to the farm,” Chakrabarti Myers said, both metaphorically and literally. In her new life, one a woman of her birth was never meant to ascend to, riding through town in a carriage, Chinn wore the status and position of a vice president’s wife with great public spectacle. As we have more presently witnessed in the media treatment of Meghan Markle, a Black woman usurping marital power supposedly “meant” for a white woman is a dangerous love story to live.
The Guild at Hotchkiss Library presented the Ivalas String Quartet in collaboration with Music Mountain Sunday, Feb. 18.
It was immediately apparent that the members of the quartet have a perfect understanding of each other as performers. Comprised of Reuben Kebede and Tiani Butts playing violin, Pedro Sánchez playing cello and Marcus Stevenson playing viola, the quartet would make constant movements, eye contact and audible breathing to guide and communicate with each other. This made their complex program sound effortless, even though their selections certainly sounded difficult to navigate.
The four made use of a wide variety of techniques unique to string instruments such as harmonics, a bright and high-pitched whistling sound explained to the audience by Butts before the second piece and pizzicato, where performers deftly pluck the strings of their instruments rather than glide over them with a bow. Helping this virtuosity were the surprisingly good acoustics of the Hotchkiss Library, with the sound bouncing along and off of the wide lobby and plethora of books.
The first selection was one of Haydn’s final string quartets, String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77 No. 2. Consisting of four movements, this piece quickly engaged listeners with the familiarity of a prolific composer.
Much of this quartet sectioned the performers in pairs, playing small duets together. Ivalas brought great expression to the composition, leaning heavily into well executed ritardandos and accelerandos.
A highlight of this piece was its third movement, the andante. Containing a much slower tempo than the rest of the piece, it allowed the performers to truly explore its beautiful melodies and let them linger in the room.
The second piece was introduced by Butts as a composition by a friend of the Ivalas Quartet, Carlos Simon. The piece, titled “Warmth from Other Suns,” has three movements and was composed in 2020. It was based off of a book of the same name by Isabel Wilkerson, which details the story of three African Americans migrating north from the American South.
The first movement, “Rays of Light,” had beautiful use of the harmonics technique, as well as long sliding notes that captured the image of light peeking through the cracks. The second movement, aptly named “Flight,” depicted a dangerous and thrilling chase with its extremely quick tempo and flurry of notes across every instrument.
The performers slowly traded volume across themselves through this movement, shifting the sound from the left to right side of the room meticulously and precisely. The final movement, “Settle,” slowed the pace significantly and marked the end of the journey, yet still contained a few clashing harmonies that left the future hopeful but uncertain.
The final piece performed was String Quartet No. 2 by Eleanor Alberga, a Jamaican composer currently residing in the UK. This piece was also composed recently, in 1994. It was defined by its constant shifting in tone and feeling, intense and charged one moment before calming and exploring slow, wide harmony.
One section of this piece showcased all four members of the quartet plucking their strings in pizzicato for an extended period. Ultimately, this piece’s constant changing captured just how talented the Ivalas Quartet is, and was an excellent capstone to the afternoon program.