Posts Tagged Banned Books

An Interview with Zohra Nabi (plus a book giveaway!)

I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful book covers. 

I remember wandering school book fairs in elementary school with armfuls of the most colorful, vibrant-looking books I could find. Even now as a middle school teacher, I display dozens of books in my classroom every year, and I fully admit that the ones getting the most love are the ones with beautiful covers.

Of course, with all that focus on the outside of the book, the stage is set for some occasional disappointment when I actually get down to the business of reading the story. But then there are also those moments when the promise of the front cover is wonderfully fulfilled as the story unfolds, and that’s the sort of thing we’ll be talking about today.

Zohra Nabi’s debut middle grade, The Kingdom Over the Sea, is just as sprawling and fantastical as it looks thanks to Tom Clohosy Cole’s beautiful cover design.  I’m so glad I was able to ask her some questions about the story and her process, and I think you will be, too! Stick around to the end to learn how you can win a copy of the book for free!


Chris: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me, Zohra! Let’s start with you as a writer. Your biography says you studied law at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, so how did you find your way to the world of storytelling?

Zohra: I’ve always liked writing stories, ever since I was a teenager. I liked writing in the style of my favorite children’s fantasy books, although nothing I produced was ever publishable. Even when I was studying Law – which I did really enjoy – I was writing in stolen moments when I should have been studying. Lockdown came just as I was sitting my final exams, and when I graduated there was suddenly no legal work experience I could do, and nowhere I could travel. But I did have some money saved up from a legal essay prize I had come second in. So, I decided to put the money towards a creative writing course, and try to write a book.


Chris: What an interesting way to come into publishing! Let’s talk abut your process —  I love learning how authors develop their characters. Your main character, Yara, is such a passionate and adventurous person. How did you work behind the scenes to create her for this story?

Zohra: Yara is such an interesting one! For me she’s a real mix of my two younger sisters, with her determination, and her strong moral compass. She also definitely has quite a bit of me in her as well – I loved debating and campaigning when I was Yara’s age. I wanted her to be someone who was shaped by how she grew up in the UK, who was equipped to fight injustice in a fantasy world because of what she had experienced here. I wrote her life story in first person to find her voice, and did little questionnaires to work out her favorite foods and biggest fears.  But even with all that preparation it was difficult to get her on the page. I had to really work with my editors to make Yara’s personality come through in the text, and to make sure that she continued to be a believable girl from our world even after she travels into Zehaira.


Chris: There are references in the book to Yara being a champion of causes, one of them being the banning of books / closure of libraries. Was there anything in your personal experience that made you want to incorporate this into Yara’s backstory?

Zohra: When I was Yara’s age there were a lot of library closures, and people in communities all up and down the UK really turned out to protest – in some cases successfully. Libraries are such an important part of a community; the ability to access information, or even just to print out the documents you need and talk to someone who wants to help you is such a necessary thing, especially when you’ve recently moved to a new country. My dad always talked about how important his local library was to him growing up, and I loved spending time in mine as a child. I knew Yara would be the kind of person who wouldn’t stand for her local library being shut down. When she gets to Zehaira, the library there has been burnt down – the ultimate in book banning and library closures – and I wanted to be honest about the impact it has had. The sorcerers of Zehaira have preserved some of their culture and knowledge, but a lot of it, maybe most of it, has been lost. I think some people are very casual about book bannings today, saying that will just make kids read those books more – but I think if we’re not careful, we’ll lose important texts for good.


Chris: That’s a great point. Language can be like that, too, and there are some themes of language in the book — what prompted you to incorporate it into the story?

Zohra: I think because immigration and movement of people is such a key theme of the story, and language is such an important part of that. Yara’s mama is preserving their link to their culture and country when she speaks her language to Yara, and I imagine Yara was also an interpreter for her mum growing up, the way many second-generation children are today. But I think it’s also been quite lonely for Yara, not knowing anyone else who can communicate with them in the same way. Speaking to other people in her mother’s language when she gets to Zehaira is a way for her to expand her knowledge of her culture through sources other than her mum, and I think that is a source of wonder for her. I also think it’s really important that when Yara does discover the magical power of language, it’s not by using English, which is the language she would have used when she was campaigning back at home, but in the language her mother taught her – because Yara’s mother is the person who made her want to fight back against everything wrong about the world. 


Chris: The streets of Zehaira are so richly described in the book, which is very atmospheric overall. Were you inspired by any real-world places?

Zohra: Thank you! I was hugely inspired by the cities of the golden age of the Islamic world – which were these places of amazing scholarship and learning and wisdom, with beautiful libraries and universities. I think I must have been influenced by all the different cities I visited before, because I tried very hard to imagine I was walking around Zehaira as I was writing, but I was careful not to create anything that was too close to reality. Part of the magic of Zehaira is that it feels familiar but also strange! There’s a book by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities which describes different fictional cities, deconstructing and reconstructing the concept of a city itself, but centering the descriptions around an idea of Venice. I’m not trying to do anything so elaborate, but it gave me the confidence to build my own fictional city based on an idea of a city as a place of both culture and corruption.  


Chris: It totally works! So, what’s next for you as an author? Can you give us any clues about new projects you’re working on?

Zohra: I’m currently working on the sequel for The Kingdom over the Sea! I’m really enjoying working on it with my editors, and puzzling out how Yara’s journey can continue. Book 2 takes us deeper into Yara’s past, examining both her family history and the history of sorcery itself. Yara makes an important discovery – but the Chief Alchemist is hot on her heels, lurking in the shadows…


Chris: Sounds amazing — thanks for the sneak peek! Okay, and now for the lighting round…


Favorite place to write?

At my desk in the attic.

Favorite authors?

Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, Judith Kerr.

Best desert?


Do you have any pets?

No, but I did once have a hamster called Horace

Favorite elementary school memory?

Making up imaginary worlds for pretend games with my friends.

Favorite piece of advice for other writers:

Write to entertain yourself. And drink lots of tea.


Many thanks to Zohra for taking time to chat with the Mixed Up Files. You can find her online on Instagram at @zohra_nabi and Twitter at @Zohra3Nabi, and you can learn more about the book HERE

And last but not least — leave a comment below for a chance to win a free copy of Zohra’s book. We’ll be selecting one commenter at random on Monday, June 19th 2023!

Banned Children’s Book Classics

Some of the most beloved, beautifully written, and highly awarded middle grade novels have ended up as banned children’s book classics, often for surprising reasons.


Newbery honor book Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is about an unusual friendship between Charlotte, a spider, and Wilbur, a runt farm pig who is scheduled for slaughter. Charlotte spells out Wilbur’s redeeming qualities by weaving words into her web, then enlists the help of the farmer’s daughter, Fern, to save him. This beloved story of friendship and the power of language has been a classic for seven decades. Its opening line is one of the most powerful in literature.  ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe? ‘ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

But a parent group in Kansas wanted the book banned from school libraries. Why?  Because it has death as a theme, and because talking animals are “unnatural “and blasphemous. Only humans can talk and write, they said. Imagine the world of children’s literature without talking animals.

When Harriet The Spy by Louis Fitzhugh was published, there had never before been a character quite like Harriet.  She really stirred things up! Harriet wants to be a writer and keeps a notebook on everyone around her, what she knows and exactly what she thinks about them. Then she loses the notebook. Her nemesis finds it, and soon everyone knows everything she said. Her task then is to take responsibility for her words and to find ways to mend friendships. The book’s challengers overlooked that part. Harriet the Spy was banned through most of the South for encouraging children to “talk back, spy on others, lie, and disrespect their parents.” It also modeled “improper behavior for a girl.” School Library Journal said, ”Harriet the Spy bursts with life.” It has sold over five million copies.

In Newbery Award winner Bridge to Terabithia, Jesse becomes best friends with Leslie, the new girl in school. Leslie drowns trying to reach Terabithia, the hideaway they have created, and Jesse struggles to deal with her loss. School Library Journal ranks this novel number ten of the all-time best books for children. But the book also ranks high on the American Library Association’s list of the most commonly challenged books in the United States.

Challengers have objected to death being part of the plot and to offensive language, including Jesse’s frequent use of the world “lord.” They’ve claimed that it promotes “secular humanism, New Age religion, occultism, and Satanism.” A Pennsylvania township removed it from 5th grade classrooms because of profanity, disrespect for adults, and an elaborate fantasy world that “might lead to confusion.”

The all-time favorite target for challenges, bans—even book-burnings—has to be Harry Potter, a series immensely popular and successful among adults and children worldwide. The New York Times  had to create a separate list for children’s books, because the Harry Potter volumes coming out were taking up a third of the spaces on the Times best-seller list.

The series has also landed on the American Library Association’s list of top 10 banned books as recently as 2019. It has been attacked for promoting Satanism and witchcraft, for including actual spells and curses, for violence, and for disrespecting family. (Should Harry have been more respectful and obedient to the abusive Dursleys?).


Shel Silverstein’s  clever A Light in the Attic, was the first children’s book to make the NYT bestseller list. It stayed there for 182 weeks. But it was banned in a Florida school and later some other schools in Wisconsin and Texas because  some  adults thought it encouraged “disobedience, violence, suicide, Satanism and cannibalism.”

One poem that parents objected to was “How Not To Have To Dry The Dishes.” They thought it would give kids the idea of breaking the dishes to get out of assigned chores. Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and his more serious story The Giving Tree faced similar challenges.


In picture books for younger readers, the objections can be even more mystifying. Hop On Pop by Dr. Seuss has been challenged for encouraging violence against fathers! The Texas State

Board of Education banned Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? for promotion of Marxism. When someone pointed out to them that they had confused the Brown Bear author, Bill Martin Jr.,with another Bill Martin, author of Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberalism,  they withdrew the ban and said Brown Bear, Brown Bear was okay for kids.


Should a father fear that a child to whom he reads Hop on Pop will attack him? No known cases. Will readers of the Harry Potter series lose their faith? Probably no more likely than that they will drop out of soccer to train for broomstick sports.  Or abandon their cell phones in favor of a personal messenger owl. Teachers, librarians, and most parents believe that reading stories encourages and expands the most positive natural qualities of children—imagination, curiosity and empathy.


Librarians know their collections well. They are happy to help parents select books for their children that will not conflict with their particular family values and beliefs.

But book-banning groups want to decide which titles other people’s children in their communities will not be allowed to read. The number  of banned  children’s books has increased dramatically just in this last year. The main targets currently are books that focus on—or mention— such topics as slavery, racial  discrimination, gender identity, or climate change. Challengers claim that reading, knowing, and talking about these things will harm, even “traumatize” children. In some places the bans have become law, requiring libraries and librarians to comply by removing the books.

For librarians, a core principle is that free access to books and information is inseparable from freedom of speech. That means for all of us and all our kids, not just a few. Arrest librarians? Better to cherish and defend them.

Banned Books Week isn’t until the first week of October. The list will be especially long this year, though. Let’s  get an early start exercising ours and our kids’. . .




Banned Books Week 2022

Banned Book Week logo featuring an open red book with yellow banner across the middle. Text on banner reads "Banned Books Week."

Banned Book Week logo featuring an open red book with yellow banner across the middle. Text on banner reads "Banned Books Week."


Banned Books Week 2022

Banned Books Week 2022 (September 18-24) hosts its first event today with a conversation on youth activism, led by Banned Books Week Honorary Chair Cameron Samuels. The Kids Are Alright will talk about ways young people can fight censorship.

Promotional slide for banned book week including the title: The Kids Are Alright: Youth Activism on Fighting Censorship, along with photos of each presenter at event

Organizers have planned additional, free speaker events through September 24, including a discussion on Wednesday with YA and MG authors Angie Thomas and Jerry Craft. They will all be available live on Facebook–just join the Banned Books Week Facebook page to view the event.

In addition to these Facebook events, a slew of libraries, bookstores, universities, and other organizations are hosting local events. You can find that calendar here.

To be part of the national conversation, use these hashtags: #BannedBooksWeek, #FReadom, #Freethebooks

((For more on banned books, read this archived MUF post and this one from WNDMG Wednesday))

PEN America has cataloged 2532 book bans across 32 states during the 2021-22 school year, affecting 1,648 unique book titles. (see the index here) The study findings are in line with those released by the ALA. According to PEN America (direct quote, edited for format):

  • “674 banned titles (41 percent) explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+;
  • 659 banned titles (40 percent) feature protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color;
  • 338 banned titles (21 percent) directly address issues of race and racism.”

Source: PEN America study