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“I just have yet to hear from anyone who was harmed by a book, whereas the harms of not giving kids access to books are so clear to me,” Andrews told Yahoo News about the fervor to restrict access to certain works.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl depicts the lives of two teenage boys who try to make a film about a female friend who is dying of cancer. Two years after it was published, the novel was made into a feature film, won a bevy of awards and became a New York Times bestseller. But in late 2021, it ran afoul of some conservatives who complained about its use of profanity and sexually explicit content.
It has since been banned by at least six school districts across three U.S. states, according to data compiled by the free speech group PEN America, amid a nationwide effort by conservative organizations to challenge the inclusion of certain works. Groups like Moms for Liberty succeeded in banning and challenging a record number of books in 2022.
Andrews argues that the language and sexual situations portrayed in his novel simply represent the reality of the lives of many teen boys.
Yahoo News spoke to Andrews about how Me and Earl and the Dying Girl became a target of those seeking to ban books. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. In an op-ed for Deadline, you expressed surprise that your book has been challenged despite not being about more controversial topics like race or transgender issues. What do you think is the larger goal of those looking to restrict books in America?
There are a few goals that intersect here, and one is really worth taking seriously. That's the goal of parents who just want to keep their kids safe, which I really identify with. I'm a parent. I'm a father. And I think, of course, there's a misunderstanding about what is harmful to kids. But I do think it's worth honoring that parents are worried about their children and to try to meet those parents on that level and have just an open, honest discussion about it. But I think the reality is, I just have yet to hear from anyone who was harmed by a book, whereas the harms of not giving kids access to books are so clear to me. Our country is in this literacy crisis. We read at much lower levels than other countries that call themselves advanced. And I think you see it in the quality of our national conversation.
I think another thing that's happening is, politicians and media figures are just cynically turning this into a culture war when it doesn't have to be one, and they're using it to advance their own careers and get attention. And I don't know that any of them believe what they say. And I think one of the details of that is that my book got caught up in a net that's designed to sweep up books that largely capture the experiences of marginalized groups — including the Black experience in America and the queer experience in America — and try to provide a window into them. And that's for reasons that are kind of too horrible and complex for me to get into.
2. Can you explain what you mean by "literary crisis" a bit more?
I think the pandemic was disastrous for students. And I don't know if that was avoidable. It was this biological reality that this country had to deal with. But then the way that we responded to it, where we could have been kind of united and motivated by the challenge of lifting our kids up and our students up, we instead, or at least parts of this country, declared war on teachers and war on libraries and made their jobs harder when we should have made their jobs easier. And I just don't understand why anyone doing that could see it as a good idea.
I cannot imagine anything worse for the future of this country than politicizing and playing political games with the education of our children.
3. Almost a decade after your book was turned into a movie and became a New York Times bestseller, it earned the distinction as one of the most banned books in America. What has that experience been like?
I guess it mirrors what's happened with our national discourse over the last 10 years. Things that weren't controversial, that didn't seem controversial, that seemed perfectly reasonable, now are caught in the gears of this tedious, endless and ultimately predictable culture war. But to get into it a little bit, when I wrote that book, what I was trying to do was write about something that felt pretty normal. I wanted people to laugh while they were reading the book, but I wanted them to laugh because they recognized something in it that was familiar, that maybe you didn't encounter in books during much of when I was a teenager.
And after writing the book, I was hearing from teenagers and then also parents and their children saying, “I'm actually not that into books. But I liked this one because it just felt different and it felt like how me and my friends talked.” That was the highest validation to me. It felt like I had achieved what I had set out to do. And to me, that's just really important. The more readers, the better.
But now it's political to describe the world as it is, with all of its flaws and all of its injustice and hatred, rather than announce that the world is as you'd like to see it. Truth itself, objectivity itself is political now, and we're all suffering as a result.