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Banned Books: Author Susan Kuklin on telling stories that inform understanding

Candlewick Press

This discussion with Susan Kuklin is part of a series of interviews with — and essays by — authors who are finding their books being challenged and banned in the U.S.

Writer and photographer Susan Kuklin is the author of the award-winning nonfiction book, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. The book is banned from school library shelves in 11 school districts in the U.S.

The book compiles Kuklin's photos of — and interviews with — transgender and nonbinary teens and young adults. The stories these teens tell are raw and heartfelt. They describe their experiences transitioning and reflect on their identities.

Kuklin's work often focuses on human rights issues; she has written about topics ranging from immigration to the AIDS epidemic. Beyond Magenta, published in 2014, has been on the American Library Association's (ALA) list of most books most often challenged a number of times since 2015, cited for "for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit."

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On how everyone is human

When I was talking to various people about whether or not I should be doing the book and what are some of the issues that needed to be addressed. I was uncomfortable, when I didn't know what the sex of the person was. It just felt strange to me and I thought, why should it feel strange to me? Would I be speaking differently to a man than to a woman? It just didn't sit right. And I thought, are we hard wired to believe this? And so I went on a quest to find out if indeed we were hard wired. And I found that we're not. Because very quickly, once I got to know people, it became totally irrelevant... people are people. And that's the point of all my books that people are people and they do some crazy things, some negative things, some positive things, and that's who we are.

On Beyond Magenta being challenged

It's kind of awful, frankly. When I think about it. I think... here are these kids whose main reason was to... control their own narrative. And they're really good kids. They're nice kids. And my whole for doing this point was to start a conversation to bring humanity to the page, to show some empathy, to just be able to broaden ourselves. And instead the book is being vilified. Vilified because of who these people are.

On what it means to have a book banned vs. challenged

Well, banned and challenged are two different points. When you're challenged, a person, a parent, whoever goes to the school and fills out a form saying this book should not be in your library. That's the challenge. Banned is the actual removal of the book.

On what some people are objecting to in her book

Oddly, people are mostly complaining about things that have little to do with being transgender. So what they do is they'll pick a paragraph from the story, whether it's bad language — because kids curse — or whether it's a story of someone's life. They take it out of context, and then they turn — they complain about that, that the whole book should be banned and everything that's in it because of a paragraph here or a word there.

...people took [one] chapter and that story and turned it around into something very negative and very ugly. Whereas I saw it as an example of how someone can survive. I saw that chapter as someone who started — who was born into a terrible environment with lots of violence and very little education and managed to become a hero and live a successful life and go to college. To pretend that people like this do not exist is ridiculous because we know they do exist, and so their voices being heard could be very helpful.

On the importance of telling stories that inform understanding

Those kids are so important to me. They're just beautiful people. I think the one story that I appreciated a lot was a young trans woman who went to an all boys Catholic school in the Bronx. By her senior year she decided she was going to live her true life...she started a transition right there in school. She bucked an awful lot of bullying and teasing and stood her ground — and today is a beautiful artist and creative person and living a wonderful life. Also in that chapter, which was very important to me, was her mother, who was very much opposed to her becoming female — her transitioning. Her evolution from being frightened, scared, uninformed to an absolutely adoring parent is a beautiful story. The mother asked to be in the book. She said she wanted her point to be taken so that parents would know what they were feeling... getting concerned because of parental love. You love your child. You hear your child. You love your child.

Claire Murashima produced the broadcast version of this story. Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story for the web.

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Pilar Galvan
Pilar Galvan (she/her) is a reporter whose work focuses on the intersections of media and culture. She is passionate about film, music and sports. She recently graduated from Yale University where she double majored in anthropology, specializing in ethnomusicology, and art, concentrating in digital media. She previously worked in digital media at art institutions including MoMA PS1 in Queens, NY, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.
Reena Advani
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.