As a kid, the library was the first place Kelly Yang felt invited to “dream bigger.”
Yang, now a bestselling and award-winning middle-grade and YA author, spent her childhood moving from city to city, making it difficult to find her footing. But everywhere she went, she could find familiar stories and characters at the library.
“Books became my friends, but most importantly, the library became my home,” Yang says. “It was that source of constant support and stability.”
The American Library Association selected Yang to be its honorary chair of 2023 National Library Week (NLW), this year April 23–29. She has been promoting the NLW theme, “There’s More to the Story”—the idea the libraries are more than just books—amid a record number of book challenges.
Yang herself is no stranger to censorship attempts. Her debut novel, Front Desk, inspired by her family’s experiences managing motels, has been the subject of recent challenges and bans. Drawing on this, her latest title, Finally Seen (Simon & Schuster, February), tells the story of a young immigrant girl from China who must find the courage to speak out when a book is challenged.
American Libraries spoke with Yang during NLW about the importance of feeling represented in literature and the effects of book bans.
What role have libraries played in your life and work?
[My parents] were struggling first-generation immigrants, and life was really hard. That became a major source of instability in my life; the fact that we would constantly have to move. My parents were always getting fired, they would find some new job somewhere managing a motel, we would go to that place, that [owner] would want to sell the motel, and we’d have to move. I didn’t really have the same set of friends growing up. I was always the new girl. But then I realized that if I had a library in my school, then I would always be able to find my way home.
Later on in my life, I had a lot of problems in law school. I had gone through this very unfortunate sexual assault at Harvard Law School, where unfortunately, I had to then continue sharing the campus with the guy who did that to me. That’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through. Just sort of instinctively, I decided I’m just going to go to the library. If I’m there, I can claim it as my place. And he won’t go in there because he’ll see that I’m there every day. It became a refuge for me. It became a place of safety.
Later on, I became a mom [of three kids], and my house was complete chaos, and I had no place to write. So I would, once again, go to the library. Many of my books have been drafted in the library. To me, the library is so essential for our society.
Before publishing your first book Front Desk in 2018, you earned political science and law degrees and worked as a newspaper columnist. What made you decide to start writing books?
I realized when I became a mom that I had not told my kids about my childhood. I saw the way they were growing up, and they did not have to deal with some of the same problems. They could go to the same school for many years at a time, didn’t have to move around so much, didn’t have to really worry about food on the table. But also, I was very proud of my childhood, and I wanted them to understand it. One day, I just sort of sat down, and I decided I’m just going to write the story.
The reason I didn’t tell my kids for so long is because I was not sure whether anyone would think it’s too weird—the fact that my parents and I worked in a motel and did all these things—and that’s because I never saw it represented in a book before.
You’ve said previously that having Front Desk targeted for book bans initially made you want to stop writing. What inspired you to keep going?
It is really hard when your book gets banned. Some people maybe think it’s more romantic than it actually is. It’s gutting. You start thinking, “I write about my life, I write about the immigrant experience, and these are people saying that’s inappropriate. So, they’re basically saying I’m inappropriate.” It’s hard not to respond emotionally to that. I thought maybe I should write for adults, take a break, not write, or do something else.
But what made me keep going was seeing kids’ real reactions. Going into schools, seeing kids on tour, seeing entire families coming out. The book means so much to them because it’s the first time they’ve seen themselves reflected on the page. And I realized I shouldn’t be so terrified of a few loud voices, because there’s millions of people who genuinely appreciate and need these books.
As an author for young adults and children, especially one whose titles have been challenged, what do you make of this recent wave of book challenges and bans and the impact it’ll have on young readers, authors, and across the larger community?
The silent majority of people absolutely want kids to read books. As parents, we know that reading is the most important thing you can give your child for them to grow up to be critical thinkers, have bright futures, and access all kinds of possibilities and opportunities. What we’re seeing is an extremely loud subset of people who are very afraid of a diverse future. That’s what they’re trying to ban—they’re trying to ban people. They’re trying to ban what that future looks like, the people who get to be in it, the lives they get to lead. And I will not let that happen.
We all have to understand what is really at stake here. If they succeed, it means we go back to what I had to go through as a kid, which is wondering if my life is normal, and being so afraid of telling a single person that I lived in a motel that I would rather go my entire childhood without having a birthday party. That that was the price I had to pay, and we can’t go back to that.
You’re active on social media, especially in the lead up to and during NLW, creating videos with library workers. What have librarians taught you during your recent travels?
It’s such a joy to be able to show “There’s More to the Story.” It’s been really fun to get to know all the things that libraries are doing. They are not just checking out books; they’re checking out museum passes, park passes, new games, musical instruments. It’s mind-blowing. When I was a kid, I didn’t have all of that. I can’t even imagine having prom dresses to check out. It’s so impressive to me, because this is really an example of how libraries are so essential. They’re constantly evolving to serve the needs of their communities, because librarians are constantly in touch with their communities. They’re creative. They’re meeting their communities where they are. And I think that is so inspiring for all of us.