Sarah Ockler, author of the much-talked-about book Twenty Boy Summer, made a trip to the Ozarks the weekend of Oct. 1-2 in honor of Banned Books Week held by libraries nationwide. Ockler’s book was temporarily removed by the Republic School District for its adult content. While the book has been returned to the district, it can now only be checked out by parents.
Ockler sat down with Monitor staff to answer questions regarding her book, and book bans in general.
RM:Twenty Boy Summer, when did you write this book?
SO:Started it in 2004, and finished it in 2007. It was a long and winding road.
RM: Have you ever had a book banned or removed before this was?
SO: No. I was completely shocked. The book is really about two girls coming to terms with the death of a loved one, so the sexual content in the book is so mild and so brief that it really shocked me. You know I’ve always looked at it as more of a quiet book, and the fact that it could make someone so angry, it was a big surprise. ... The actual sexual content is maybe half a page out of 300.
RM: What are your thoughts in general on books being banned from libraries, school libraries in particular?
SO: It’s such a tough thing with school libraries because they have to meet the needs of minors. And I feel strongly that a parent should have the right to be involved in what their kids are reading, and make decisions about what’s right for their own family. In general I’m against banning any books from the school library, even if it’s something that some people would find offensive. It’s a tough call, but I think there are better options than banning or having something in a locked box for parents to check out. You can’t make that entire decision for an entire district just because it’s not right for one family.
RM: Did you ever consider this book making any waves at all?
SO: You know there is some sexual content so I figured some parents wouldn’t find it appropriate for their kids but I didn’t figure it would make waves in the sense that it has. I figured that if anything a parent might decide that it’s not right for their kids depending on the age and the maturity level. But I’ve had readers as young as 11 and 12 who read it with their mom and I get an e-mail from their mom saying, “We’ve been able to have a really great discussion.” These issues exist, I’m just writing about them.
RM: Will this affect the way you write in the future?
SO: It doesn’t, because I write to tell stories and I write for teenagers, and I don’t want to write with someone sitting on my shoulder, because then I’m not being authentic and teen readers will see right through that, and I might as well not write.
RM: How many books have you written?
SO: I’m on my fourth. Two already published, the next one comes out next summer and the fourth is in progress.
RM: I assume this has helped your sales?
SO: Everyone asks me that, and the truth is I won’t even have sales numbers for the banned period until March 2012, interestingly enough. So I don’t know, but it’s definitely increased publicity because I’ve gotten lots of e-mails and lots of comments from people who have said I just heard about you through the controversy. I’ve had old men in England write me saying I’m old enough to be the girl’s grandfather but I just want you to know that we support you. So I know that it’s increased the visibility and the library lists are long for it. So I’m sure it has an effect on sales, but it’s not what people would think. It’s a tradeoff. The tradeoff is we’re giving up freedom and letting this happen and that’s never a good thing. And it’s emotionally exhausting. I didn’t expect to take it so personally, but I do. I love writing for teens, it’s my greatest honor. When someone calls my work filthy, immoral, un-Christian all of those things, it’s hurtful because I take what I do seriously and I would never do anything to hurt teens in that way.
RM: Have you read Slaughterhouse-Five, which was also removed?
SO: Yes. I don’t think it should’ve been pulled. I was re-reading it again and was trying to find what exactly was the issue and it was again, things taken out of context. There is definitely violence in that book, but it is presented in such a distanced way, a disorienting way, and I think that’s what war is. And I think it’s important to look at what’s going on in the world. How can we say that the book is more violent than that. I can turn on CNN and see something a million times more violent than what my imagination can conjure up out of the book. We’re talking about kids who this time next year who could be on the front lines in one of America’s many wars, but they need mommy to check the books out of the library, I mean that’s ... yeah.
RM: So you visited the Kurt Vonnegut Library?
SO: Yes. It was really cool. It was kind of a surreal experience honestly because he was such an amazing writer and such an inspiration and to be able to cause a reaction in someone on the same level that Kurt Vonnegut can cause a reaction in someone it is kind of an honor. I feel like I’m in good company.