Q&A with banned book author Sarah Ockler 

click to enlarge Sarah Ockler
  • Sarah Ockler

Though their backgrounds and writing genres differ sharply, Sarah Ockler and Kurt Vonnegut share an inextricable bond: they authored the two books that were banned this year by the school board in Republic, Missouri. In July the board voted unanimously to remove Ockler's young-adult novel Twenty Boy Summer and Vonnegut's literary classic Slaughterhouse-Five from the high school in Republic. The board's move was motivated, in part, by Wesley Scroggins, a Missouri State University professor who complained that the books "create false conceptions of American history and government and/or that teach principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth."

Last week, in a partial reversal, the Republic School Board voted to allow Ockler's and Vonnegut's books in its high school, but with the stipulation that they be housed in a secure section of the library and only be checked out by a student's parent or guardian.

Ockler will discuss her book and the issue of censorship at The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (340 N. Senate Ave.) at noon on Tuesday, Sept. 27. The event is one of several planned at the library during Banned Books Week (Sept. 24 - Oct. 1).

Before making her way to Indy, Ockler fielded questions from NUVO about the experience of having her book banned, her newfound connection with Kurt Vonnegut and whether the Republic School Board is likely to find her next novel offensive and un-teen-worthy.

NUVO: What was your initial reaction when you learned that the Republic School Board had banned your novel, Twenty Boy Summer, from its high school library?

Ockler: When I first heard about the initial challenge in 2010, I was shocked. I've always thought of Twenty Boy Summer as a quiet book about two girls coming to terms with the death of a loved one and not, as the challengers have suggested, a story condoning promiscuity and partying. By the time the ban become official in 2011, my shock had turned into disappointment and frustration. The hypocrisy is astounding to me -- in one article, Superintendent Minor stated that the board had "very clearly stayed out of discussion about moral issues. Our discussions from the get-go were age-appropriateness." Yet he went on to say that "questionable language, drunkenness, lying to parents and a lack of remorse by the characters" led to the banning recommendation, and that if Twenty Boy Summer "had ended on a different note, I might have thought differently." To me, that's very much a moral issues discussion, and it's very much a head-in-the-sand mentality when it comes to teens and the difficult choices they face every day.

NUVO: What do you think about the board's recent decision to allow the book in the library, but to only allow students to check it out with parental permission?

Ockler: While I'm grateful the board was willing to reconsider the ban, this compromise is still censorship. It's limiting access to reading material for an entire school because one parent whose children don't even attend the school decided the books weren't appropriate for his family. Not every teen has parents who are willing or able to come check out their library books for them. Further, we're talking about teens who, this time next year, could be serving in the front lines in one of our many wars. But they need mommy or daddy to check out a book about the bombing of Dresden? They need parental permission to read a story about characters who are exploring some of the very real issues teens face, like sex and drinking and friendship betrayals? Ridiculous.

NUVO: How has the ban affected sales of Twenty Boy Summer?

Ockler: People have a misconception that book banning equals instant best-sellerdom, but I promise, it doesn't. The challenge and ultimate ban have definitely increased publicity for the book, but I'm not sure whether or how this translates into sales. And while there's a perception out there that authors profit from book banning, we generally don't. It's emotionally and financially challenging, and it's not something I ever thought I'd experience. I blogged about this last year after the initial challenge.

NUVO: Having gone through this, do you find yourself more consciously considering whether a passage you're writing will be considered objectionable by certain readers?

Ockler: Absolutely not. I write to tell stories, period. Sometimes aspects of these stories are lighthearted and fun. Other times they're serious and dark, just like real life. Some people will relate to them and enjoy them, others will hate them, and still others won't care enough to form an opinion either way. That's the great thing about books and freedom of choice and opinion -- as a reader, you can decide what you like and don't like. It's that simple. I don't write to please everyone. I don't even write to please a majority of people. If I start writing as if there's a censor on my shoulder, my books will suffer, and my readers -- the ones who like the stories I write -- will know I'm holding back. I'm not going to stop writing about difficult teen issues and emotions just because a few people want to pretend those issues don't exist.

NUVO: Your name and your book have, over the past few months, been inextricably connected with literary legend Kurt Vonnegut and one of his greatest works Slaughterhouse-Five. As a young writer, what has that experience been like?

Ockler: It's been surreal. I think that's the best word for it. I hate that Twenty Boy Summer was banned, but I'm honored to be in such great company. I'm not sure my book would've been Vonnegut's cup of tea -- though it's fun to picture him reading a book on the bus with a big sea-glass heart on the cover. But I like to think he's encouraging me to fight the good fight, to keep writing, despite the challenges, just like he did.

NUVO: What are you working on now, writing-wise? Is it something you anticipate the Republic school board will find offensive?

Ockler: My second book, Fixing Delilah, was published last December, and it deals with teen issues like mother-daughter relationships, changing friendships and family secrets. My third, The Language of Impossible Dreams, comes out in August 2012 and is about a girl struggling with following her dreams or staying behind and helping her family. Both present issues honestly and frankly, and both include romantic elements. So it's hard to say. Sexual choices aren't at the forefront of either of those novels, so I can't imagine a school board finding them objectionable. Then again, I was shocked that they found Twenty Boy Summer challenge-worthy, so I guess it's always possible.

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