Shannon Hale, a friendly, home-grown Utah mother of four who writes children’s books, describes herself as “sort of a hermit” and belongs to no political party, doesn’t see herself as much of an activist.
But she doesn’t see herself as an enabler for pedophiles either.
After her book “Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn” was published in the spring of 2021, Shannon heard from her publisher that some people were accusing her of being a groomer — someone who prepares kids for pedophiles.
The book is about a kitten and a unicorn who teach each other about acceptance and being who you are.
“A groomer is a horrible thing. I did not anticipate being accused of prepping children for pedophilia,” understates Shannon, who is quick to make the point that, “a message in children’s books to be who you are is a very old concept. I’m not doing anything new here.”
It wasn’t the first time she’s been accused of grooming and other hidden agendas. Criticisms have popped up from time to time over the years — on social media, in book reviews, in complaints to her publishers.
The labeling and name-calling she can take. It comes with the territory when you’ve published more than 40 books over the past 19 years, including several New York Times bestsellers. When your audience numbers in the millions, there are bound to be extremists seeing evil where none was intended.
What’s harder — much harder — for her to swallow is the growing crusade to ban books from schools because some people consider them insensitive and/or offensive.
Not any of her books. Not yet. But others just as benign.
Every year, the number of books being banned by schools is growing. In 2021-22, a record 1,648 books were outlawed somewhere in the country, dozens of them right here in Utah. The subject matter of the vast majority of these banned books, some 93% of them, had to do with gender identity, minorities or sex, and sometimes a combination of all three.
This school year, with new laws such as Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, even more bans are anticipated.
Well, it all hit a nerve with Shannon.
Last month she sat down at her computer and wrote a letter condemning “the efforts to suppress, demonize, and ban books from our state’s schools and libraries. These attempts overwhelmingly target books by and about LGBTQ people and by and about Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.”
Then she recruited 38 of her fellow published Utah authors, including such luminaries as Brandon Sanderson, Ally Condie, Yamile Saied Méndez, Jessica Day George and Sara Zarr, to sign next to her name.
The letter has since been disseminated by this not insignificant band of influencers on social media. It received considerable attention in late September during Banned Books Week, the curiously named but earnest event sponsored annually by the American Library Association that crusades against book banning and censorship.
Shannon’s hope is to shed more light on the good books can do as opposed to the damage foreseen by a small minority.
“I’ve seen firsthand the power books can have,” she says. “They can be life-saving, and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration.”
She cites alarming statistics about suicide rates among young adults, particularly LGBTQ kids, and says, “It’s always hard to know when a person commits suicide why they do it, but we have a lot of data that LGBTQ kids don’t feel supported in their community. That’s not a problem I can solve, but I know when kids read and see themselves represented as being human, as being something of worth, of value, that they’re worthy of a story too, it can help them hang in there. So that’s what I’m fighting for.”
Further marginalizing those in the minority by banning such subject matter and excluding them from representation in the written word only exacerbates the problem.
“I’m a mom of four and I absolutely believe we should trust parents to know what’s right for their kids. If your kid is not ready to talk about sex, that’s your right, if your religion says homosexuality is wrong, you have the right to teach that to your children. But you don’t have the right to insist your point of view on everybody else’s children, and that’s what censorship is,” Shannon says.
“A parent can opt their children out of books at school, that’s never been an issue. What they’re trying to do is remove those books for everyone’s children.
“I’m not the one writing books that are getting banned and maybe that actually will make a difference coming from me because it’s not self-interested. I’m not speaking out about banning my books. I’m saying I’ve seen the good books do and please hear other parents saying we don’t want this.
“Of all things to ban, not books. If we start censoring books for stuff someone doesn’t agree with, there’s no more books.”