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Pittsburgh children's author writes a 'Banned Book'

Illustration from "Banned Book"
Gary Kelley
Creative Editions
A detail of one of Gary Kelley's illustrations from "Banned Book."

To dispense with the obvious, no, Pittsburgh children’s author Jonah Winter did not write his latest picture book, “Banned Book,” in response to a Florida school district’s removal from its shelves of his book about Roberto Clemente earlier this year.

The removal made national news. But the episode ended somewhat happily, with “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” again made available to Duval County School District students, and its sales boosted, for good measure, by all the publicity.

Banned Book cover
Bill O'Driscoll
Creative Editions

But Winter wrote "Banned Book" (Creative Editions) before his Clemente book was targeted. “Banned Book," with vividly sardonic illustrations by Gary Kelley, is instead a clever broadside aimed at anyone who’d expunge written words from the public realm. Rather meta for a picture book, it narrates the story of a banned text while itself sporting scores of blacked-out words alongside notes from censors purporting to explain the redactions.

It begins: “Once upon a time, there was a book about some [redacted] called ‘Banned Book.’”

With books being challenged and removed at an alarming pace in schools and libraries around the country, Winter said, the book is “basically a way of helping children navigate through this world of banned books that they are right in the center of.”

American bans

Winter has made a career out of writing picture books about historical figures and social justice themes. Other of his works have told the stories of figures like Barack Obama, Thurgood Marshall, Josephine Baker and Willie Mays. “Lillian’s Right to Vote” (2015) dramatized the importance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “My Name is James Madison Hemings” (2016) is told from the perspective of one of the children of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.

The removal of the Clemente book came after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation restricting the content of books in schools. It was one of 176 titles reported removed from that one district’s shelves. Winter believes his book was removed because one brief passage noted that Clemente, who was Puerto Rican, was subjected to racism in Pittsburgh starting when he first joined the team, in the 1950s.

Author Jonah Winter
Author Jonah Winter

Winter said other published works of his have been suppressed before. A York County school pulled his book on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, he said. And the principals of two schools in Miami prevented him from reading his book on Hillary Clinton to students.

Those incidents happened some years ago, but today they feel like harbingers of current events. According to a September 2022 report by writers’-advocacy group PEN America, the year ending in June 2022 saw some 2,500 instances of individual books being banned in schools, reflecting 1,648 unique titles. (Pennsylvania, with 457 bans in 11 districts, ranked third in the nation in such bans, behind only Texas and Florida.)

About 40 percent of those titles explore LGBTQ+ themes or have LGBTQ+ protagonists or prominent secondary characters, according to PEN. And 40 percent contained protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.

The most frequently targeted books that year included “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe; “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson; and “The Bluest Eye,” by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

PEN America places responsibility for the bans less on individuals and more on national groups like Moms for Liberty and U.S. Parents Involved in Education, operating as part of coordinated efforts to suppress points of view they consider harmful.

Publishers change standards

But Winter said that more recently, suppression of his work has not been limited to what he calls right-wing bans. He said publishers have canceled contracts for three of his books because of the “fear of social-media pile-ons” he said is widespread in the industry.

Winter said his contract for a picture book on a little-known slave-owner who freed all his enslaved people before the Civil War was canceled in 2016 after a different publisher, Scholastic Books, pulled its picture book “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” following criticism that it promoted an overly positive image of slavery.

Winter said another publisher canceled his contract for a book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg when it learned a second book on Ginsburg, written by a Jewish woman, was coming out. He found another publisher for that one, but in 2022, Winter said, his picture book “The Dictator,” about Adolf Hitler, was canceled after some at Simon & Schuster apparently feared the book would be pro-Hitler, while others simply considered the subject matter unacceptable and worried how it would be received.

Winter contended that most publishers have adopted the belief that it’s mandatory that authors share “lived experience” with their subjects.

In an August 2023 PEN report titled “Booklash,” PEN acknowledged that publishers must continue to strive to diversify the perspectives expressed in literature. But in the introduction to the report, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar criticized what he called the “identity-essentialist approach to literature.”

"Banned Book" illustration
Art by Gary Kelley
Creative Editions
People demand a book's removal in "Banned Book" in this illustration detail.

“This approach is incompatible with the freedom to imagine that is essential to the creation of literature, and it denies readers the opportunity to experience stories through the eyes of writers offering varied and distinctive lenses,” Akhtar wrote.

The identity-essentialist standard is hardly universal. For example, new biographies of no less than Martin Luther King, Jr., and playwright August Wilson both have white authors.

Moreover, book bans in schools and libraries tend to target subject matter rather than authors. Stories of publishers canceling contracts typically revolve around the identities of authors, and don’t prevent those stories from being told by authors with other identities.

But Winter said he considers publisher suppression “the far more dangerous kind of censorship.”

“It doesn’t just ban a book in one little school district, but it denies the book’s right to exist,” he said.

Meanwhile, he has hopes for “Banned Book” that might seem counterintuitive.

“My hope for this book is that it would get banned,” he said. “I mean, that would be the most amazing publicity ever. And it would be, I think, a very funny thing to then write a book about it.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: