Exclusive interview: 2023 ALMA winner Laurie Halse Anderson speaks out about censorship

By Zorian Edwards, Multimedia and Features Editor

Laurie Halse Anderson

On March 11, The Panther Press was given the opportunity to conduct an interview with the award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson’s works include ‘Speak,’ ‘Twisted’, ‘Shout’, and ‘Catalyst.’ Anderson’s novel ‘Speak’ is one of many books pulled from the PENNCREST libraries for review and returned to the libraries since revisions to PENNCREST policy 109.2, the policy concerning library materials that was passed in January.

“I have many feelings; the most important one is, I’m so frustrated. This book has been out since 1999. It has been used in-curriculum in the United States in grades 8 through 12–also taught in colleges since 2001 when it became available in paperback,” Anderson said. “People have written their doctoral thesis on whether using ‘Speak’ helps students reject rape mythology. You don’t have to read all 300 pages of the dissertation, the answer is yes. ‘Speak’ is used, like all great literature is used, as a way to open conversations. Sexual assault is prevalent in every school in America.”

Book banning, challenging, or books being reviewed is not just a PENNCREST issue. School boards throughout the nation, such as Central Bucks School District, a district with a similarly worded policy 109.2, are drowning in controversy. In fact, from July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles. 

“In the last year I’ve had my books challenged in 17 states,” Anderson said. “That’s after I spent my entire professional career trying to write books about the truth for kids. I remember what it was like to be a young teen and be really confused.”

She has received multiple awards for her work, including, most recently,  The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which was announced March 7 at a press conference in Sweden. This award is an international children’s literary award established by the Swedish government in 2002. It is given annually to a person or organization that increases interest in children’s literature and promotes children’s rights to culture on a global level. With a prize of 5,000 Swedish kroner ($475,000 US) making it the largest award of its kind. The award was created to honor the world-renowned author Astrid Lindgren. It will be presented on May 2 at a ceremony in Stockholm.

“I’m so honored because I have a deep respect for Astrid Lindgren and some of the other authors that have also had this honor over the years. The big deal is now I have to go to Sweden. I’m taking my daughters, and my husband. I have to go buy some clothes that aren’t hoodies and sweatshirts,” Anderson said. “After two years of putting up with all this censorship nonsense, I have to say that this is amazing. I am sincerely grateful for this. It’s really wearing me down how many people feel that they and only they are the only ones who get to choose for an entire district worth of children what books they should read.”

About the interview

Laurie Halse Anderson’s relationship with Saegertown High School stretches back several years. She has attended YSU English Festival and personally met several Saegertown students. When I reached out to her for an interview, Anderson responded. From there we arranged a time to do the interview. The interview lasted 25 minutes and took three hours with breaks for me to transcribe and gather information to clarify the conversation. 

My perspective on conducting this interview

Zorian Edwards

Although this is not my first time interviewing a well-known person, this was certainly one of the interviews I will carry with me throughout my life. Some of my previous encounters with well-known people include Doug McKalip and Rianna Czech. I genuinely can’t believe I was given this amazing opportunity, and I am still processing the conversation and its impact on me. 

 This was by far the most inspiring, captivating, and comfortable interview I’ve ever done. Anderson was passionate about what she was saying and wasn’t afraid to clarify the information she gave. Unlike most interviews I’ve done, this felt conversational. There were no breaks of awkward silence. She is one of my biggest inspirations when it comes to writing, and I cannot thank her enough for agreeing to this interview.

Additional Highlights of the Interview 

“A lot of adults did not have when they were teens, adults that knew how to talk about things like sexual violence, the history of race in America or about LGBTQIA+ characters. So, culture moves forward…Now we have a generation of young Americans and the world is changing. They want to be safe in the world. They want to understand themselves. They want to understand people who are different from them and books are what we’re supposed to be giving them.”

“The job of parents is to choose what they feel is right for their child, absolutely, no problem there. I raised a bunch of kids, I totally get that. It’s super scary to be the parents of a teenager because it happens so fast. Parents struggle sometimes to keep up with how fast their child is developing intellectually, emotionally, and physically. However, a part of raising a kid means not shielding them from the realities of life but working with them to understand those realities.”

“I have never come across in the more than 20 years of visiting schools across the country, where parents were not allowed to choose for their kids. Parents always have the right to choose for their own children but they do not have the right to choose for other people’s children or to choose for the entire district at large. There are a lot of parents who want their children to have access to those books…There are a whole lot of families in this country who are brave enough to know that their kids, in order to be prepared for the world, must be exposed to the truth. That’s the only way we make kids safe.”

“The rape scene in ‘Speak’ is remembered three-quarters of the way through the book. When I was writing the book I was very mindful of the fact that ninth graders or eighth graders were going to read this. So I deliberately made it very non-graphic. The larger theme of the book is not about sex. It’s about finding the courage to speak up when something bad happens. This is an issue that so many teens  and tweens struggle with in this country because sadly we’re still not great in this country at figuring out how to raise our teenagers in healthy, loving, and compassionate ways.”

“The only reason why I stayed alive was because of those books I found in the library. It was my sanctuary. I say sanctuary with a deep understanding of the word because my father was also a minister. In those books I found solace.”

“Don’t they realize what happens when kids get hurt? Don’t they realize what happens when kids don’t have access to information? Don’t they realize what happens when no one is there to explain to them why or make them understand what happened? When people don’t get that kind of help after trauma or something they emotionally get stuck. Often when you’re a teenager, you turn to alternative ways to numb the pain.” 

“You and I both know there are all kinds of harm that teenagers have to go through. Bullying is right there at the top of the list and…you know broken kids trying to push their hurt onto other kids to break them. That struggle to figure out, can I say something? And if I can, how do I say it? And who do I say it to? A teen who learns how to have those conversations or to speak up when things are bad is a teen who has a much better chance of becoming a healthy and happy adult.”

Laurie’s Thoughts on Student Journalism:

“When I was 15 years old I was a student journalist in northwestern New York State. This is what you do when you get older, you start paying back. There were adults who had other things to do but still took the time out of their day when I showed up at their doorstep or when I was annoying them in the halls. They listened. I also really want you to know that your voice and the voices of the other students in your school are the most important voices in this conversation.”

“If you or your peers could find it in yourselves to write, call, or make a TikTok or something to communicate your frustration with this situation. Your voices are critically important.”

“I have so much respect and admiration for you, for asking for this and doing this work. You give me hope my friend.”

(The Panther Press staff would like to thank Laurie Halse Anderson for sharing her thoughts on the impact of policy 109.2 and the value of representation in school libraries. To read more about her ALMA nomination, please visit the ALMA laureate page.).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s