October 2023 Interview with Raj Haldar, author of This Book is Banned
1. This Book is Banned is a wonderful way for adults to explain book banning and censorship to kids. In what ways did you work to make the story relatable and accessible to all kids?
From the outset, I wanted to create a book that was funny but still managed to deliver a powerful message about the dangers of book bans and censorship. It was incredibly tricky to take a humorous approach when dealing with themes as serious as freedom of speech and free expression. But my instinct was that a more didactic approach might not resonate nearly as much with children. I mean, kids want to have fun! Ultimately, I knew that if I could strike this balance just right, the book’s message could really connect with young readers.
2. How did you decide you wanted to write a picture book about book banning and why did you choose to use a more meta, fourth-wall-breaking format?
I had been thinking about how I might make a more “meta” picture book even before I considered taking on book bans. As a fan of picture books, I have always loved it when an author manages to reimagine what a book can be and do. I l was thinking about books like Press Here by Herve Tullet and The Book with No Words by B.J. Novak. The a-ha moment came when I started thinking through what a kids book about book bans might look like, and how I might take a humorous approach. My mind immediately went to the fourth-wall breaking fun of my childhood favorite Sesame Street classic, The Monster at the End of this Book, but in this case, using that kind of construct to deliver a message for social good.
3. Your previous picture books, P is for Pterodactyl and No Reading Allowed, are known for humorously teaching kids about silent letters and homonyms. In what ways is the educational component in This Book is Banned similar and how is it different?
I spent most of my career as a musician and recording artist. So as a relative outsider to the world of children’s literature, my first two picture books were very much a learning experience. I only thought about making books that I would have liked as a kid myself – ones filled with humor, but also brimming with fascinating factoids about language and the world around us. To my surprise, that “subversively educational” approach proved to be a really helpful tool for young readers who felt empowered to have fun with all the confounding exceptions to rules in the English language. Similarly, I hope the hilarious romp in This Book is Banned ultimately highlights to kids (and grown-ups) how truly absurd book bans are.
4. The text and illustrations work together to create an engaging, interactive read for kids. How did you collaborate with the illustrator, Julia Patton, to achieve this?
As I worked through the manuscript for This Book is Banned, it quickly became clear that the illustrations should be just as zany and fourth wall-breaking as the text. I’m a pretty visual thinker, so I tend to conceptualize the language and imagery together. At some point, I remember sending my editor, Kelly Barrales-Saylor, a simple sketch of a unicorn with black tape covering up its horn. Kelly immediately thought of UK-based illustrator, Julia Patton who she had worked with on another project. Julia’s own work has a mixed media, tactile feel to it, and so I thought she was a perfect fit for the project. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Because, as I found out, Julia is as hilarious as she is a gifted illustrator. She brought so much clever humor to the proceedings as we worked through drafts of the illustrations. This Book is Banned truly came to life in my collaboration with Julia.
5. You’re a father, as well as a musician and author. How did your experiences as a father inform your writing of This Book is Banned?
This Book is Banned is the first picture book I’ve made while having my own kids running around the apartment. When I leaf through the book now, I realize that I almost subconsciously imbued it with a lot of the “stuff” that fills my daughters' world — unicorns, avocados, birthday cakes, big bad wolves, and the like. While I’ve made that kind of connection with the children with past books, this time it just came very effortlessly thanks to our new little housemates.
6. Have you ever experienced backlash against your books, and if so, how did you respond?
When I set out to make P is for Pterodactyl, an innocuous book about silent letters, I couldn’t have imagined that I might find myself in the crosshairs of the folks who want to ban books for kids. As it turns out, our decision to include a page that read “O is for Ouija” became a lightning rod for people who believe that readers should not have access to a diversity of perspectives. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve received hate mail as well as hundreds of negative reviews for a lovingly educational book for word nerds of all ages.
7. What do you hope kids—and adults—take away from This Book is Banned?
I purposely avoided taking a political stance with This Book is Banned. It would have been easy to point fingers and engage with the polemics of the grown-up world. But the truth about book bans is really that they’re ludicrous and ridiculous, full stop. And I hope that our lampoon of a book makes it obvious to any kid or adult reading it.
8. What advice would you give to a kid who has been affected by book banning?
First off, I don’t think our kids should be put in the position to fight for our basic freedoms like access to reading material. That said, with more and more children finding themselves facing book bans, I think they should consider a range of responses. Book challenges are largely happening at the local level, so attending school board meetings and having their voices heard can make a real impact. Given our current moment, however, it feels like picking up a book and reading is in and of itself an act of defiance. So, here's what I'd tell kids: seek out books that offer points of view that might differ from their own. Read dangerously. That's what's most important.