A Kansas City YA author worries what kids lose when books — like his own — get banned
In his novels, Kansas City author Adib Khorram shows aspects of his life that were "erased" from his own high school curricula. His main characters are Iranian, or gay, or both; they sing in boy bands and play soccer. Except now his work is being targeted by book-banning campaigns.
Kansas City author Adib Khorram tries not to obsessively monitor where his books have been banned.
"I don't think it's much of a badge of honor," he says. "And I tend to mostly pay attention to stuff that's closer to home, where I can be writing to school boards or reps or whatever."
But last week, a friend casually asked which of his books had been challenged. After all, Khorram's novels for young adults get into the exact subjects that are being targeted by recent book-banning campaigns: sexuality and race.
Khorram already knew that his 2020 YA novel, "Darius The Great Deserves Better," got added to alist of hundreds of titles under investigation by Texas state Rep. Matt Krause.
In October, the Republican lawmaker sent a 16-page spreadsheet to the Texas Education Agency with a "preliminary" request for a detailed inventory of any titles on school premises. Krause noted that his interest in the books related to House Bill 3979, a new Texas law that bans educational materialsthat might provoke "discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex."
Beyond his inclusion on that list, Khorram hadn't heard of any additional challenges to his books.
"I was like, 'Wait, have I been banned other places?' So I was Googling it," Khorram recalls.
What he discovered was a digital triumph: Darius, the protagonist of his first two novels, has a Wikipedia page.
Darius is a biracial American kid whose mom's family lives in Iran. In the first Darius book — "Darius the Great Is Not Okay," released in 2018 — the teen meets his Persian grandparents for the first time and confronts his own depression.
Inthe sequel, an older, more confident Darius navigates teen romance — with his first boyfriend.
For Khorram, seeing this fictional character, based loosely on his own life story, gain Wikipedia status was a thrill.
yesterday I discovered that DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY has a wikipedia entry?!?!?!!?!?— Adib Khorram (@adibkhorram) February 6, 2022
What caught my attention, though, was how casually he confessedthat he didn't know whether these books remain permissible in American schools.
It may be part of life for authors, but Khorram doesn't take book bans — or threatened book sweeps — lightly. He finds this moment deeply disturbing.
"It's really hard to tease out how it affects me as an author from how it kind of affects me as a reader, and especially the reader I used to be," he explains. "Being queer, being Iranian, in post-9/11 America, the kind of books I read, that were in our curricula, that teachers talked about and librarians encouraged — they all erased people like me."
Khorram grew up in Gladstone, Missouri, in the 1990s. His father had come to the U.S. from Iran for college in the 1970s. While in school, he met Khorram's mother, an American student. The two got married and considered moving to Iran to start a family, but, as Khorram told me in 2018: "When the Islamic Revolution happened, they kind of put the kibosh on that and raised me and my sister here."
Khorram remembers feeling like he stood out, despite his white-passing appearance, because what his classmates perceived as a foreign-sounding name. After the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which occurred when Khorram was in high school, that neutral feeling of difference became more politically charged.
"I grew up not knowing that I could even be an author. I didn't see media with Iranians, except as terrorists," Khorram says. "I grew up thinking that being gay meant that I was going to live a sad life and then die of AIDS."
Khorram has published three books in the last four years — two YA novels and an illustrated children's book. "Darius the Great is Not Okay," his breakout debut, won the American Library Association's William C. Morris Award,honoring a book written for young adults by a previously unpublished author.
Khorram writes and publishes at a feverish pace to correct that narrative he grew up with, putting his own truth on the shelf for the next generation. He's part of a sizable cohort of writers who bring their diverse lived experiences to the page for children and young adult readers alike — narratives that are now being targeted for erasure, around Kansas City and elsewhere, by conservative parents.
"I think of all the young Black and brown and queer and disabled kids that are seeing themselves in books for the first time, getting to share, share bits of themselves with their classmates through literature," Khorram says. "Having that all challenged is really distressing."
When people want to ban literature, they often claim that the books make students uncomfortable. But Khorram asks: Who, exactly, are these students being made uncomfortable by diverse perspectives?
"The white is unspoken," Khorram says. "The straight is unspoken. The Christian is unspoken."
The students made more comfortable by this literature are also students — a point that often gets ignored.
For Khorram, another part of this trend that gets even less attention. Public outrage over book bans has tended to focus on affronts to long-established classics by cherished authors — books like "Maus" by Art Spiegelman, a harrowing graphic novel about the traumas of Holocaust survival, not just for the survivors but for their offspring.
A few weeks ago, "Maus" was removed from a Tennessee school district's 8th grade curriculum after board members arguedit contained “objectionable” language and nudity.
Or "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, banned last month by a school district in Wentzville, Missouri. A St. Louis bookstore owner, speaking with the Kirkus Review, described "The Bluest Eye" as a book about "a young girl confronting her Blackness in a world that hates Black people.’" The ACLU of Missouri has recently announced plans to file a lawsuit against the district for its actions.
When books like "Maus" and "The Bluest Eye" get pulled from curricula or library shelves, Khorram points out that devoted readers rally behind them. "Oftentimes people will go out of their way to find out what the fuss is about," he says. In the case of "Maus," sales soared nationally after the Tennessee ban.
But books by new authors, who have not yet cultivated a passionate following, meet a different fate.
"That list that came out of Texas had 850 books on it. Maybe five of those, people are gonna check out. The other 845 are just going to quietly disappear with no one knowing about them," Khorram tells me solemnly.
"And a thousand more books that are similar to those books are just never going to get bought by a library or added to a classroom collection," he continues, "because people are going to be afraid of repercussions and say it's not worth it. Texas has big school districts. So maybe hundreds of thousands of students who will be denied literature because it's 'dangerous' to them.
"At the same time, they're going to be practicing shelter-in-place drills every month or every couple months, because we are fine banning books, but not banning guns."
In Khorram's own challenged book, "Darius the Great Deserves Better," a straight dad has the obligatory awkward sex talk with his son — a gay teen just starting to date someone. And the dad handles it perfectly — arguably, a little too perfectly. The kids on Darius's soccer team surprise him with their unfailingly excellent allyship.
Those were very intentional plot points.
"Sometimes I feel like my job as a writer is to show the world as it is. And sometimes my job is to show the world as it could be," Khorram told me in 2020, back when "Darius the Great Deserves Better" was first published. "I always want to tell young people, 'You deserve better.' They have a right to expect these good things from the people around them. Even though sometimes people around us fail us, that we still deserve the very best."
The underrepresented kids — ones who might hope to see themselves reflected in new literature — aren't the only ones who will lose out because of book bans. The America in these challenged books is the country that all students will inherit — that is, a diverse America with a complicated and, yes, often unfair history, full of people with different vantage points and experiences.
They'll be left to navigate that reality whether their schooling has prepared them for it or not.
Khorram's forthcoming novel, "Kiss and Tell," could very well earn a place in that education. "It's a novel about Hunter Drake, who is the only gay member of a boy band. They're going on their first major arena tour," Khorram explains.
Propped up as a picture-perfect gay teen, Drake's image is compromised when leaked texts from a past relationship go viral. Set to be published in March, "Kiss and Tell" includes fake Buzzfeed quizzes and second-chance romance, but on a deeper level, Khorram says it's about "the way that we consume young people's identities" — and how to keep your wits when it happens to you.
Dare I say, a useful lesson for people of all ages in today’s world. And one I hope will stay on bookshelves once it's published.