Last week was Banned Books Week, a time when the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and several other groups highlight books that have been banned and challenged. We like to pride ourselves on freedom of information in the USA, but although Banned Books Week has been happening every last week of September since 1982, it certainly hasn’t stopped censorship from existing. Many books, websites, and stories are still challenged and banned here today.
Free speech, however, means that we CAN openly talk about this censorship in public. And that’s what Banned Books Week does. One really interesting piece of that work is the American Library Association’s annual top ten challenged books list. This shows us some of the patterns of things that upset people enough to want to ban books.
This year, the theme was “Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark. Turn the Light On!” Cast of Wonders, a YA fantasy and science fiction story podcast, asked me to be the guest editor for their Banned Books Week showcase, and I was delighted to accept.
Now that all the episodes are online, I wanted to share them with you all in one place, and to talk a little about my choices and process as guest editor.
This episode is a bundle of three flash stories: “Our Skin Will Now Bear the Testimonies” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo, “Weeds” by Maya Prasad, and “Metal Can Lanterns” by Joyce. Chng. If you click through, you can listen, or just read the text on the website.
Innocent is an author I’ve worked with a few times before, and I love his voice. In this story, he explores a society in which an authoritarian government tries to ban subversive texts, but those texts begin appearing on people’s skin. It’s short and fascinating, and has a hopeful relationship at its heart.
Maya wrote her prequel to a longer story specifically for this Cast of Wonders Banned Books Week Submissions call, and I love the way the two stories (prequel and original) work in dialogue with each other. It’s definitely worth reading “Princess” to see what becomes of Kavya, and how people might resist in different ways.
Joyce submitted “Metal Can Lanterns” as a reprint, but ultimately, while I loved the idea of it, I asked for such an extensive overhaul that the version we published is basically a new story. We paid for it as an original piece instead of as a reprint, but technically another version of the same story with the same title still exists! I love this story for the way the kids work together and give each other (and their community) hope by reviving a festival that their current government doesn’t encourage them to celebrate. I also wanted to end the first episode on this particular story because it is literally about turning lights on.
Normally in my editing work, my job is to choose content and then help the authors polish it, but in this case, I had a little more work to do. Since Cast of Wonders is a podcast, in addition to choosing stories, I also needed to choose narrators and episode hosts. I really wanted to introduce the showcase, so I hosted this first episode, but I didn’t host any of the other episodes because one of my objectives for this project was to include a variety of voices and perspectives.
The three flash pieces in this episode are by authors from three different countries (Nigeria, the US, and Singapore), and the narrators include a Nigerian (Solomon Osadolo), a teen (since Cast of Wonders is a YA podcast, I was especially pleased to include a teen, and especially such a great narrator as Athena Haq!), and someone with Chinese cultural and linguistic familiarity (John Chu).
This second episode is the longest story in the batch, and also the only true reprint (as in, a story that originally appeared elsewhere in this version and not a drastically different one). This is also the only story that didn’t come in through the submissions portal. I knew I wanted it, so I asked Sabrina Vourvoulias directly if I could reprint it here. Sabrina is a great writer who often grapples with issues of race, class, immigration, and censorship. I recommend all of her work! I’ve worked with her on other stories and poems in the past, and I actually had previously reprinted this particular story as part of a Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction anthology, so in that respect, this was one of my easiest choices for this showcase.
What was more complex was figuring out who to get as narrator and host. Since this story has two points of view, I ultimately decided to ask two people to narrate it. And since it’s a story about a Jewish family being persecuted by the inquisition in Mexico back when it was a Spanish colony, and about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between one of that family’s daughters and a native girl who works cleaning the prison. I knew I wanted one narrator to be Latinx and Jewish and another to be Mexicanx, but this is a pretty specific wish, and it could easily have been too hard to fill. Luckily, both Isabel Schechter and Ezzy Languzzi agreed to take on the challenge even though neither of them had previous narration experience. Possibly they both agreed because, like me, they also both already knew and loved Sabrina’s work. They did an amazing job with a powerful and painful story (though it is also hopeful and triumphant in some ways).
For the host, I asked one of the first reader team, Andrew K. Hoe. Andrew has since been promoted to assistant editor at Cast of Wonders, and seeing all of his first reader insights definitely made me understand why! He always had interesting and thoughtful things to say about the stories we were considering. I knew he would also have something insightful to say about this story. I was also glad to give this hosting spot to someone who wasn’t already familiar with the story ahead of time so they’d have a fresh perspective.
This is a story about a queer and disabled person by a queer and disabled author. When the first reader team read it, it resonated with a really high percentage of the team. It’s about feeling like an outsider, being told by people around you what you are (and aren’t) supposed to be, and ultimately deciding to take control of your story. It’s basically perfect for this year’s theme, so it was an honor and pleasure to work with this author on refining it. I offered the hosting opportunity to Cast of Wonders assistant editor, Katherine Inskip, because she had been one of the people who had immediately championed the story upon reading it. She made some lovely comments about it that are well worth listening to.
And here’s where some of the delicate math of editing comes in: I chose to narrate this one myself in part because it’s a great story and I thought my voice would be a reasonable match, but also in part because I knew that if I did, I could afford to stretch the budget to include six stories for this showcase instead of five. One of the aspects of editorial curation is working within a budget. In this case, I had one set budget for all the stories and narrations Cast of Wonders would be able to pay for, and in the end I really wanted this mix of stories that would have been just sliiiiiightly over that budget if no one chose to donate their payment back to the publisher. Yes, sometimes people do this at Escape Artists, but I couldn’t plan for that with any narrator other than myself. This way, everybody wins.
The last episode for the showcase is about a person finding their role in their life and community. It’s a story about stories, and about beginnings. In a lot of ways it’s engaging with the same theme of the previous episode: taking control of your own story rather than letting other people define you. It comes to that from a different perspective, though. The narrator of this one is resentful of her mother for not telling her who she is, which is a change from the previous narrator being angry at the world for imposing an identity on her. This story also dives deep into African American folklore, which is really neat. Can you spot all the different folklore figures?
Sherin Nicole has a sharp and fascinating style, and she actually suggested that we ask Jesenia Pineda to narrate this one, so my work finding a narrator was pretty easy! All I had to do was find a host. I decided to ask Eden Royce because I knew she would have lots of interesting things to say about this story since she tends to touch on that same source material in her own work, and I really wanted to have an African American host perspective for this story.
And that brings us to the end of Banned Books Week. If you want to listen to these stories, you can click on the individual episode links, or you can search for Cast of Wonders in your podcast app of choice and download all four episodes to listen to on your phone. You can also subscribe to the podcast in general if you want more YA speculative fiction to listen to! I won’t be the editor on other episodes, but in general, I really like what Escape Artists does across the board.
Special thanks to Marguerite Kenner and Alasdair Stuart for asking me to guest edit this showcase, Katherine Inskip for being an amazing assistant editor, Alexis Goble for creating the artwork for this series, Jeremy Carter for engineering the audio files and making them sound excellent, and Tonya Bezpalko, Amy Brennan, Alicia Caporaso, Trace Fontil, William Heydt-Minor, Andrew K. Hoe, Shawn Proctor, Rey O, Suzie Rodriguez, Karissa Sluss, Emma Smailes, and Chris Tang for being a great team of first readers! It was a pleasure working with all of you!