An Interview with Maia Kobabe

Season 7, Bonus Episode

Maia Kobabe's debut memoir, Gender Queer, was the most frequently banned book in 2021 and 2022. We talked with Maia about what it's like to be on the recieving end of so many challenges, and the importance of public libraries.

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Episode Transcript

[Promotion for Friends of Shakespeare and Company Read Ulysses by James Joyce]

Maia Kobabe Gender Queer, when it first came out, was very well-received.

Adwoa Adusei This is Maia Kobabe. Maia is the author and illustrator of Gender Queer, an award-winning graphic memoir. It’s a coming of age story about Maia’s journey to understanding eir sexual and gender identity. It was also the most frequently banned and challenged book in 2021 and 2022. 

Virginia Marshall We talked to Maia and the other two authors that have that loaded accolade of being at the top of the most frequently banned books list over the past couple of years. But, for Maia—it didn’t start out that way. Gender Queer had an overwhelmingly positive reception, at first. 

Maia Kobabe I spoke to many librarians who were really excited to stock it on the shelves, many of whom also had a specific library patron in mind who they thought like, I know exactly who I'm going to give this to. I know exactly who's going to love this book. And I started to get really lovely emails and sort of social media messages from readers that were just really warm, really supportive, really touching. And then there was a real turning point in the Fall of 2021, right around the midterm election.


Maia Kobabe Suddenly, I started to hear about a couple of challenges to my book and various school districts, mostly on the East Coast or in the South. And then it felt like one challenge led to another challenge, led to another challenge. And it was just this absolute domino effect until suddenly had it been challenged in so many districts, I couldn't even keep up. And was being talked about by politicians like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis, and just people I never assumed would know me by name or would be mentioning me on television or talking about my book. And most of these people who are challenging it and saying really negative things seemed to have not read the book or were making statements about it that were just completely false. 

Adwoa Adusei Today on Borrowed, we’re bringing you our interview with Maia. We talked to em about the challenges of having eir work attacked so publicly – and the library workers, the educators, and the book publishers and sellers who have had to defend eir book. I’m Adwoa Adusei. 

Virginia Marshall And I’m Virginia Marshall. You’re listening to Borrowed and Banned: a podcast series about America’s ideological war with its bookshelves.  

Maia Kobabe I think that the current climate of bans and challenges—one of many factors of it that's really worrying is that it might cause artists to self-censor. For writers to, you know, be so fearful about putting out a story, especially a story about marginalized identity, that they don't even put pen to page or don't even submit a story to a publication. And also that, you know, bookstores might be afraid to stock controversial books or libraries might be afraid to stock controversial books over fear of challenges or fear of backlash. But, I am very determined to not let this fear quiet me. In fact, I would say it has only strengthened my determination to tell extremely queer stories, extremely honest stories, to talk about gender and sexuality and all of these topics that are really, really important to me. Partly because I can see it as having an impact. I can see that readers are responding to them.


Maia Kobabe I think one of the things that gives me strength is just I have so much support. I have really I have a really supportive family. I have a ton of really supportive friends. I've also connected to a lot of other authors because of this experience, and I am far from the only author who is facing challenges, even challenges sort of at this level. And we are constantly, you know, calling each other or texting each other and sending messages of support. And I feel very ... I feel very in community, I guess, through this experience.

Adwoa Adusei Being a librarian, like getting folks coming to the desk asking about Gender Queer ... was was there an age group that you specifically wrote Gender Queer for? And has that gotten lost in this book banning this book banning moment? 

Maia Kobabe Honestly, the main audience I had in mind for Gender Queer was my own parents. I wrote the book in huge part to connect to my parents and by my larger family, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins. And I wrote the book mainly because I was trying to come out. I was wanted to come out as non-binary. I had already been out as queer for a while, but I was wanting to ask for non-binary pronouns and I was having a really hard time bringing this up in conversation, or getting my entire point across in conversation. And I finally got to the point where I realized, like, I think I really need to sit down and write about this. And I think that it might take a whole book for me to figure out everything that I'm trying to say. And so what I was thinking of as the audience for this book was my family, my community, my friends, because I was using it as a tool to come out or a way to build that bridge of communication that I felt like that was missing. And I was also hopeful that other Trans and non-binary gender non-conforming people would find it useful and helpful and maybe they would relate to it, or maybe they would also be able to use it to start those type of conversations that are kind of challenging to begin.

Adwoa Adusei Are there any plans to make genderqueer for like younger readers, you know, junior high or the high school age readers? 

Maia Kobabe It's so funny you ask that because when I was on book tour in 2019, one of the main questions that I got over and over at different book store stops was from parents who came up to me and said, you know, I read this book and it was really useful to help me understand my gender non-conforming child. But my child is ten or eight or six, which is too young for Gender Queer. And many parents asked me, would you make an all ages version of this book? But it's a memoir, and frankly, I don't want to abridge my memoir. That feels weird. It's my own lived experience. And also, when I was getting asked that question in 2019, I had literally just finished the book and I was like, I don't really want to read you a book I just completed. But, that kind of feedback is a lot what led into my second book and the book that I'm working on now, which is called Saachi's Stories. It's currently scheduled to be released from Scholastic's Graphix in 2025, and I'm working on it with a co-author, Lucky Srikumar. And it is a fictional book and it is middle grade. It is for younger reader set, but it wrestles the lot of the same questions as Gender Queer. It is about a character who hits puberty and is really uncertain about gender identity, sexuality, and is kind of in that age where everyone in the class is like getting crushes and trying to date. And there's a certain amount of like peer pressure around, you know, like liking the opposite gender. And the main character is very uncertain and confused about all of this.


Adwoa Adusei One of the most striking things in your book is that when you came out, you were met with confusion, but then also the support of your family. And it's so rare to see, you know, loving family in these kinds of coming out stories. I wonder if there's something extra sinister in the fact that this story, that your story, is being banned. You know, that idea that a child can be themselves and doesn't have to encounter violence but actually gets encounter love? You know, does that have any resonance with you? 

Maia Kobabe Yeah, it's interesting because when I was writing Gender Queer, I actually worried that it might be kind of boring because I faced so little external conflict in my life. Pretty much all of the conflict in the book is deeply internal. And I, you know, had read a lot of other coming out stories, most of which the person coming out does face at least a certain amount of pushback or conflict, you know, when they share their identity with their family. But my story is a fairly peaceful one in which, specifically, when I told my parents that I was queer, they were like, yeah, that doesn't surprise us. A very anti-climactic coming out, I guess you could say. And I worried that that would maybe make the book boring and that people wouldn't relate to it. But I sort of consoled myself with the knowledge that, like, we need all kinds of queer stories and even queer stories that don't involve very much struggle are, you know, valid and important. And I do wonder sometimes whether one of the reasons why my book in particular is being targeted is the fact that it shows this kind of very gentle, easy coming out story, and it shows that coming out can be quite celebratory and fairly calm and not involve strife or fear or disownment or any of these kind of negative reactions. 


Virginia Marshall One of the other things that you've talked about a lot was how important the public library was for you growing up. You know, we work at a public library and you've written a lot about, you know, searching for queer characters and finding them on library shelves. So, I just wanted to know from you, what was that like to discover those books? 

Maia Kobabe Yeah, as I talk about my book, I am dyslexic, so I learned to read pretty late. It wasn't until sixth grade that I was really, like, fully literate and reading chapter books on my own. And at that point, I felt so behind all of my peers. I felt like everyone else had been reading for years and had all these favorite books and knew all these series. And I felt like I had to read at this ferocious pace to just like, catch up with everyone else. So I went from a kid who could barely read to a kid who was reading 200 books a year in a very short span of time. And there's no way I could have bought 200 books a year on my sort of like, pre-teen allowance. And luckily, my parents are also big readers. So they took me to the library basically once a week where I would check out between probably five and 15 books and read almost all of them by the time we went back to the library the next week. And this was like my food. It was like my food and drink. The library and the books from the library. And I found so many stories that still—I still think about and I think really shaped who I am as a person. I think things that you read as a pre-teen can go really, really deep into who you are. And I'm really fortunate that I grew up in the Bay Area where there were a lot of queer books in the teen section, and the librarians were really thinking about that as one of the, you know, types of identities they wanted to represent. And they made, you know, these wonderful little bookmarks on topics that they thought teens might want to know about but might be too shy to ask. So there was a bookmark full of recommendations of queer titles. And I picked up one of the queer recommendation of bookmarks. And I remember thinking like, I'm going to read every single book on this entire list. And I probably did most of them. 

Virginia Marshall I guess kind of as a follow up to that question, you know, we're we're seeing a lot of LGBTQ+ books being taken off of shelves now. And how does that feel, I guess, for you, especially coming from a childhood where you were really drawn to them?

Maia Kobabe That—it's really hard. It's really hard. And I think more even than feeling individually targeted as one author whose book is being challenged, what upsets me more is knowing that sort of queer books as a whole category are being challenged and targeted. Because I found so many books just by browsing, they weren't titles that I had previously known about or authors that I had previously heard of. I just, you know, saw a title or saw a cover art that caught my eye and pulled things that I wouldn't have come across otherwise. And I also am aware that while I was safe to check out very queer books and bring them home, there are some teens who can't bring books like that back to their home. They wouldn't feel safe doing so. And so the only place they could feel comfortable finding queer books and reading queer books is just at the library without even checking them out. And so, knowing that some of those books are being removed, especially in more conservative areas of this country, is really painful because I know that that's cutting off a lifeline for queer teens there, especially queer teens who don't have, say, an out queer family member or mentor in their immediate family or school to reach out to. 

Adwoa Adusei You mentioned this a little bit earlier, but you wrote a beautiful comic that's on your Instagram recently supporting librarians. So, thank you. Can you talk more about the stories that you've heard from librarians who are either recommending your book or in some cases having to defend it?

Maia Kobabe Yeah, I’ve heard from so many librarians and librarians are such heros. I am very aware that librarians, even more than authors, are on the front lines of these challenges. I have now had the opportunity to go to the American Library Association Conference, and it felt like every single librarian who came up to me had a personal story, and it was either of the book being challenged in their district and the challenge being overturned, and they had the sort of story of victory, or of the challenge standing and the book having to be removed. But I also did hear stories of people saying, you know, a challenge happened in our district and then the demand grew so high that we bought ten more copies. 


Maia Kobabe The main thing I think people can do is show up if there is a challenge really local to where you live. And so often there's only one challenger. But that challenger is very loud, very aggressive, throwing around really emotional language. And that is scary. And it can really affect people to hear someone kind of like shouting negative things about a book. But if you have twice as many people or three times as many people showing up and like calmly but also passionately, you know, speaking out in support of the book or just against censorship and in support of freedom of information and freedom of access ... you need almost like more positive voices to drown out a negative voice. 

I put together a Google doc of resources, everything from quotes in support of Gender Queer, positive reviews, to links to where you can report censorship because so many people were emailing me, asking for me for that information. I was getting just kind of a flood of emails from teachers, parents, readers, librarians saying, you know, this book is being challenged in our district and we don't know what to do or we don't know what to say to defend it. And a lot of people were asking me if I personally could, like, show up or Zoom in to their meeting. But I am one human who has merely 24 hours in the day about, you know, eight or nine of which I need to spend sleeping. And again, like I can speak up as the author, but in some ways I feel like that's less impactful than a person who is a citizen and taxpayer in the specific city and county and district where the challenge is happening. So I tried to compile as many of these resources as possible, and I have them on my website so that people could access them and hopefully sort of use it as a toolkit to face the challenge in their district. 

I hope everyone listening to this, but particularly authors and teachers and librarians and I guess also all readers: keep up your hope. Keep up your strength. We're in a very strange time and this issue feels very, very pressing. But not long ago, I read an article in The Washington Post that analyzed 1,000 of the approximately 2,500 book challenges that they could find data on from the 2022 school year. And what they discovered was that 60 percent had been submitted by just 11 people. And I think when I read that, it made me realize how much these sort of anti-book voices are just an extremely loud minority. And I think that most people in this country support the freedom of speech. It's the First Amendment. It's one of the foundational pieces of our country and do not support censorship, do not support book bans, do not want to, you know, cut library funding. And we just need to make sure that those of us who care about those things and consider libraries a public good to stand up for those and support them. 

I would also tell readers, never feel guilty if you can't afford to buy books, because checking books out from the library is also like a huge support to authors because libraries buy copies of the books. In my home county library, a librarian told me that for every four holds a book gets sort of before it's out, almost like preorder holds, they will purchase an additional copy. Use your local library. It's such a resource. There are so many books, and I know I still to this day could never afford to purchase every book that I want to read, nor would I have space to store them in my tiny house. So, I highly recommend people, read books in the library and know that you are supporting both libraries and authors by doing so.

Virginia Marshall It's really great to hear that from an author. We know that, like, we want people to use libraries, but the authors do too! So that's great. 

Maia Kobabe We do! We do.

[Theme music]

Virginia Marshall Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant.   

Adwoa Adusei This episode was produced by Virginia Marshall. Our Borrowed team includes Ali Post, Fritzi Bodenheimer, Robin Lester Kenton and Damaris Olivo. Ashley Gill and Jennifer Proffit run our social media. Lauren Rochford helps with the emails. John Snowden designed our logo.  

Virginia Marshall The Books Unbanned team at BPL includes Summer Boismier, Jackson Gomes, Nick Higgins, Leigh Hurwitz, Karen Keys, and Amy Mikel.  

Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant.