Author Susan Kuklin: These teens wanted to let other kids know 'they are not alone'
This essay by 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.
In 2014, when my book Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out was published, little had been written or said publicly about transgender and nonbinary teens.
Beyond Magenta centers around six young adults, members of the trans/nonbinary community, who describe their struggles and their triumphs, their feelings and experiences when dealing with their personal identities. They speak of themselves and their community simply, introspectively — and with gravity, warmth and humor.
I was surprised when the book appeared on the American Library Association (ALA) list of challenged books in 2015: I had been interviewing and photographing young adults for years, covering contemporary topics such as teen pregnancy, suicide, AIDS, prejudice, human rights, teens on death row, and immigration but — as far as I know — none of those books had been banned from library bookshelves or classrooms. My reasoning, evidently naïve, was that because these accounts were written from the point of view of people directly experiencing said issues (based on my extensive interviews with them), readers would respect the participants' right to self-expression and that they would appreciate the informative value of their candor.
All six participants in Beyond Magenta chose to speak to me for three primary reasons: They wanted to define themselves publicly in their own terms; they wanted to educate others; and they wanted to let other young people in similar situations know that they are not alone. My own reasoning for covering them was all of the above — along with the belief that once a person gets to meet and learn about someone from a group they might not otherwise know, they will be more open to them.
Who are these young people? Jessie, a trans man, is so comfortable in his skin he makes everyone else share the joy of his transition. Christina, a trans woman, attended a parochial boys' high school in the Bronx. Mariah was born into a disadvantaged, violent family and grew up in institutions. Cameron, who lives with a supportive family, deftly explains that "gender is more fluid and more complex than society assumes." Nat describes themself as intersex, both male and female, neither male nor female. And lastly there's Luke, who writes poetry to tell his story.
When the book first came out it received many positive, starred reviews, including including in publications for librarians and educators like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Young people and quite a few parents wrote thanking me for publishing it. And some things happened that I had not experienced with my previous books: During school and library visits, one or two teens would often hang back from their next class to talk privately. The discussion was always the same: I need to read your book, but my parents won't let me. It was heartbreaking. Six people sent emails that they were on the verge of suicide. One high school student in a rural, conservative town wrote that they were so lonely and desperate they had been planning their death for that very day. But passing a bookstore on the way home, they saw the person on the cover of Beyond Magenta who looked exactly like them. Flipping through the pages of the book, they found a first name in it that was their name too. It was a sign — they were not alone. I still get goosebumps thinking of that teen and hope they live a long, happy life. Those six emails alone are worth what followed next.
It was a Saturday night a few years ago and I was lying on the couch reading on my iPad. Suddenly, a vulgar tweet about me popped up. It complained about a paragraph in Beyond Magenta, one that I didn't even remember. Then another tweet. And another. And another. Suddenly there were hundreds of them. "I think I have a virus on the iPad," I told my husband. "Turn it off now," he said, and I did. The following Monday morning my editor called to tell me that our book had gone viral — that it was being challenged.
It felt otherworldly. Creepy. Wrong. Then, with elections approaching, some cynical and cruel politicians jumped on the anti-trans bandwagon to stir up voters. They vilified trans children, their parents, the LGBTQ+ community and their literature.
I became more than a little worried. Although the identities of the participants were well-hidden and protected, I worried about their reactions. They had worked so hard to find and express their true selves, surely they didn't need this. As the author, it was disappointing that my intention of bringing together contributors and readers was reinterpreted — misinterpreted — by paragraphs taken out of context, mostly by people who, it became apparent, had not even read the book. I worried that future publishers might stop publishing so-called controversial books and that writers would be less ready to write them. (That didn't happen.) I was also concerned that librarians and teachers could suffer, even lose their jobs, for doing what they trained to do — teach.
My publisher continues to guide and support me though this odyssey of animosity and suppression. They still publish my books. It helps that friends and colleagues have my back, as does PEN America and its Children's Young Adult Book Committee. The American Library Association, The National Committee Against Censorship, and American Civil Liberties Union stand by writers whose books have been challenged. And many parents and students face hostile school board meetings to protect their right to choose what books they have access to at school. I'm so proud of everyone associated with Beyond Magenta, especially the brave, young people interviewed.
If you are a young person thinking about harming yourself, you can contact a counselor at the Trevor Project at any time via private call text, or chat: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/get-help/
Susan Kuklin is a photographer and author of nonfiction books, many for children and young adults. Find her at her website here.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.