Commentary: Q&A with ER Frank, author of ‘America’ | Columnists

ER Frank is an author of young adult fiction. Her first book of hers, “America,” was published in 2002 and has been translated into more than five languages. It was chosen as a New York Times notable book and is available in Spotsylvania County high school libraries.

“America” and another of Frank’s novels, “Dime,” have recently been challenged by a Spotsylvania County parent who feels they are not appropriate for the county’s high school libraries. Frank, a licensed therapist who works with teenagers, recently spoke to me about these challenges to her novels by her.

“America” came out 20 years ago. Why do you think it is showing up on banned book lists and being challenged now?

There is a recent rise in politicians trying to influence minds and gain footing via school boards and parent communities. Both the left and the right have been accused of fomenting outrage among parents and school board communities as a way to influence voting. So if you have a plan to install your tribe into power, it seems that starting at the school board level has become a way to do that. And what better way to stoke the fire and gather votes than to read extremely disturbing material to convince parents that they are in some danger from which you can save them?

People are also reading…

How do you feel about people reading passages from books, out of context, at a school board meeting?

I think it’s an ambush. I think it’s manipulative. And I think it’s sadistic. As others have pointed out, an individual reader has agency and control to choose a book, pick up a book and put down a book. A listener at a school board meeting has little time to take in a warning, little time to determine if they want to exit to avoid disturbing content, and a lot of peer pressure to stay put. It’s difficult to have a rational discussion if context is dismissed. Particularly if what is read aloud contains sex and violence. Sex and violence, out of context, are disturbing for many, many people. Whereas that same sex and violence, in context, may have an entirely different meaning and an entirely different impact.

The themes in “America” are mature, and the parent who is challenging “America” believes it is not suitable for high school libraries. How would you respond to that parent?

I would explain that literature provides both windows and mirrors to readers. Windows allow us to see and feel the experiences of others with which we are unfamiliar. Even though we have a glimpse into a life that is filled with or touched by upsetting or confusing events, we are enriched by the curiosity and empathy a well-written window provides us. It helps us to grow in ways that are not only good for our own humanity, but for humanity in general. Of course, anyone can feel free to debate whether or not my books are well-written, but that is a different conversation. Mirrors reflect something of our personal experience back to us. They help us to feel seen and understood. To feel that we matter, that we have value, and that we are not alone. Especially when we have felt deeply damaged and unacceptable.

What do you see as the greatest harm in banning books from schools and students?

What is bewildering to me is that unless these parents who are challenging and wanting to ban books also disallow phones with any social media, I think they are really misinformed about what their kids are exposed to. “America” has deeply disturbing material in it, but it also has a tremendous amount of humanity, love, and redemption, as well as a context for any reader to process this information. There are a number of readers who read “America” who are survivors of sexual abuse, who have been in the foster care system, who have been shuffled around, who have been homeless, and they see themselves reflected in the book and see that there is a path toward healing and survival. They see that they are not alone. They see that the shame that they have felt is not their shame. It is the shame of the perpetrator. It is the shame of the society that allows this to happen and that is tremendously powerful. To disallow your own child from reading “America” is your own decision, but if you remove “America” and books like it from the shelves, you might be removing a lifeline to countless other young people.

In an ideal world, how would you like a school board or school district to address the issue of book banning?

It is always disheartening to me that a tiny minority could get books banned. I hope that if it would ever go to a school board, that the school board would invite other voices to have their say. If you are really that concerned about your young people, then maybe that community needs to gather around social media because there is a lot more risk there. Anxiety, depression, and suicide rates are a direct result of social media and phone ownership. The data is there. There’s no question. I would love to be able to talk to parents wanting to ban books directly, but it would depend upon how willing people are to listen. How entrenched people are in their beliefs or seat of power.

The chair of the Spotsylvania County School Board has publicly said that he believes that any book he finds offensive should be burned. What is your reaction as an artist to burning books?

My answer to that is a story. I think it was around 2005 that “America” was a finalist in the Young Adult category for the Berlin Literary Festival. I was flown to Germany for a week of author visits, literary events, and for the award ceremony. (“America” did not win.) I was met at the airport by a woman who had been my German translator. She took me out to lunch and asked me if I was Jewish. I said that I was from her, and I told her that it was a little disconcerting to be in Germany, a country I wasn’t ever sure I would want to visit. She then told me that her father was a Nazi. She wanted me to know this right away because, she said, it wouldn’t feel right otherwise. Over the course of the week, she showed me all of Berlin. The first place she took me to was The Empty Library Memorial. This memorial is in a public square. It is an underground room filled with empty bookshelves. It memorializes an event on May 10, 1933, during which the Nazis burned 20,000 books that were deemed subversive, decadent, or contrary to German honor. On a plaque on the surface of this memorial there is a quote, written in German. My guide, new friend and translator, explained that it reads: “Where they burn books, so too in the end will they burn human beings.”

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania.

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