Today, I have the pleasure of introducing Alan Gratz and his latest middle-grade novel, Ban This Book. Gratz is the bestselling author of a number of novels for young readers, including Samurai Shortstop, The Brooklyn Nine, Prisoner B-3087, Code of Honor, Projekt 1065, The League of Seven series, and his latest two novels Refugee, the story of three different refugee families struggling for freedom and safety in three different eras and different parts of the world, and Ban This Book, which he’ll be discussing here. A Knoxville, Tennessee native, Alan is now a full-time writer living in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.
Before we start the interview, here’s a little bit about Ban This Book, a timely and important novel I know will be close to the hearts of everyone who reads this blog.
It all started the day Amy Anne Ollinger tried to check out her favorite book in the whole world, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. That’s when Mrs. Jones, the librarian, told her the bad news: her favorite book was banned! All because a classmate’s mom thought the book wasn’t appropriate for kids to read.
Amy Anne decides to fight back by starting a secret banned book library out of her locker. But soon things get out of hand, and Amy Anne finds herself on the front line of an unexpected battle over book banning, censorship, and who has the right to decide what she and her fellow students can read. In the end, her only recourse might be to try to beat the book banners at their own game. Because after all, once you ban one book, you can ban them all …
First let me say how much I adored this book. Aside from it being a love letter to children’s book aficionados, it deals with such a topical subject these days: the First Amendment. Was there a particular incident that inspired you to write this book?
Thanks! There wasn’t one particular event that prompted this book, no. I’ve never had a book I’ve written banned or challenged–at least, not that I know of. And I’m not being cute here–the ALA thinks that 85-95% of books challenged or banned each year go unreported. 85-95%! That’s a huge number! In 2016, there were something like 325 reported challenges and bans. That means that THOUSANDS more books just disappear from shelves every year, and no one hears about them because no one makes a stink about them. So it’s entirely possible that one of my books has been banned, and I don’t know it!
We here at The Mixed-Up Files obviously have an affinity for E.L. Konigsburg’s book. Was there a particular reason you chose From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as the book to kickstart Amy Anne’s crusade? Had you ever considered a different book?
I love From the Mixed-Up Files, so that was one of the reasons I chose it. But I also wanted a book about a kid who had a crazy home life and decided to run away. I already knew that’s the kind of life I wanted Amy Anne to lead, so I was looking for a book with a main character she empathizes with. I could have used one of her other favorite books, I suppose: Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Indian Captive, and more. But From the Mixed-Up Files had the running away and is so much fun in other ways, it was perfect. All that remained was confirming that it had been challenged–which it was, in 1994, in Minnesota, for being “anti-family” and encouraging kids to “lie, cheat, and steal”!
I love the boldness of the title as if it’s challenging the real-life Mrs. Spencers of the world who want to ban books. Was that the title from the start or did it change?
Yes, Ban This Book was always my first choice for the title, and there was never any discussion of changing it, thank goodness! I was definitely inspired by Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, a book which, when I worked in a bookstore, we had to keep on a shelf in the back room until someone asked for it because, of course, people took Hoffman’s challenge seriously! We’ll see if anyone dares take my book’s title challenge seriously… 🙂
You began your career as a novelist writing young adult books, but switched over to middle-grade. What do you see as the main difference between the two categories, and why did you make the switch?
Ah, that’s a great question. Yes, the first three books I wrote were YA–Samurai Shortstop, Something Rotten, and Something Wicked. YA was hot at the time (as it still is!) and I was excited to be a part of this renaissance in YA lit. And those books found an audience, for sure. But then I got the idea for The Brooklyn Nine, which was my first proper middle grade novel, and that’s when–BOOM–it hit me like lightning. THIS was what I REALLY wanted to be writing. I LOVE middle school. I know that sounds weird–most people want to forget middle school ever happened. But I loved middle school when I was a kid, and I taught middle school before I was a novelist. I was like, “Why am I writing for high school when my heart is in middle school?” B9 was the book that opened the floodgates for me, and I haven’t gone back! Code of Honor has an 18-year-old protagonist, so TECHNICALLY it’s YA, but even then I wrote it “clean” so it could be shared with middle schoolers, and that’s really where it has found its audience too. Everything since Something Wicked in 2008 has been for middle grade, and I made it my goal to be the King of Middle Grade Books! I’m not quite the king yet–maybe a duke? 🙂 But I’m working on it.
As to the difference between the two, YA, to me, is about a young adult finding his or her place in the larger world. Middle grade is about a kid finding his or her place in the family or school. The smaller world. Sometimes that smaller world spills out into the larger world–see Refugee or Ban This Book. But at its heart, I think middle grade has a smaller scope. I’ve always put it like this: let’s say you write a book about a kid whose parents are getting divorced. If it’s YA, the teenager is thinking, “Did my parents ever love each other? What is love? Is love an illusion? Will I ever find it?” Big questions. If you write that same story with a middle grade protagonist, your kid is asking, “Which parent’s house am I going to keep my toys at? Which school do I go to? Whose house am I going to have my birthday party at?” That to me, in a nutshell, is the difference between YA and MG. And I much prefer to write (and read!) the latter kind of story.
You mention in the acknowledgements that this was a very different kind of book for you to write. After writing in several genres–historical, fantasy, thriller–were there any challenges in switching to contemporary realism, particularly from a girl’s point of view?
I’ve written about girl protagonists before–in The Brooklyn Nine, The League of Seven, and Refugee–but I needed to give a girl the entire book and not share with anyone else! 🙂 This story just always felt like it was a girl’s to tell, for me. Not sure why. Part of it is that my wife was very much like Amy Anne when she was a young girl–escaping the chaos of daily life in books–and that was definitely an inspiration. But were there any challenges? Not really. Contemporary realism is the world I live in, so I was finally able to write what I was seeing and feeling. And as an empathetic person, I try to see and understand the world from many points of view, not just my own, and not just as a writer. So I’m not afraid to write from the point of view of someone who ISN’T a white, middle-class, cisgendered man.
One last question, and I’m sure you get it a lot. You’re extremely prolific–fourteen novels and eight short stories in about eleven years. Where do you get your ideas?
Ha! Well, I get them from all over the place. I’m always listening for ideas on the radio, in podcasts, watching for them in movies and other books, trying to catch them in conversations with other people. Anything and everything is fodder for a story!
And okay, I lied. I have another question: Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
Sure. I just turned in the first draft of a new book which, if everything goes as it should, will be out in Fall of 2018. It’s called Grenade. It’s about the Battle of Okinawa. I got to visit Japan a few years back, and while I was there I met an old Okinawan man who was a boy on Okinawa during World War II. He told me that the day the Americans invaded, the Japanese Army took all the Okinawan middle school boys out of school, lined them up, and gave each of them a grenade. Then they told the boys to go off into the forest and not come back until they had used their grenade to kill an American soldier. That’s the first chapter of the book! (How’s that for a hook?)
A great hook! Looking forward to it. Thanks so much, Alan, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.