Banned Books: 'Beyond Magenta' author Susan Kuklin on informing understanding Susan Kuklin published the award-winning Beyond Magenta in 2014. The collection of images and interviews with transgender and nonbinary teens and young adults centers their experiences and identities.

Banned Books: Author Susan Kuklin on telling stories that inform understanding

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We've been reading some banned books. They're works that people try to get out of public schools and libraries. In our coverage, we've heard from school boards and parents, and now we're hearing from writers. Photojournalist Susan Kuklin wrote a book that is banned in 11 school districts and has been challenged or debated in more.

SUSAN KUKLIN: I've always been interested in topics of social justice. I've been writing about these things for years. I've written about immigrants and teen pregnancy and teenagers on death row and human rights and prejudice. So this was sort of a natural evolution into a need that wasn't talked about at the time.

INSKEEP: The need she perceived a decade ago was to understand young transgender people. So she found and interviewed six young people about their lives.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: (As character) I don't like being a girl. I gave it a run.

INSKEEP: That's one of the teens as heard in the audiobook. Another relates hearing people talking about her on the subway.



UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: (As character) I don't know what that is.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #3: (As character) Yeah. What is that?


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #4: (As Christina) Are those girls talking about me?

INSKEEP: The result is "Beyond Magenta," which the American Library Association placed on its list of the 10 most-banned or challenged books in the United States.

KUKLIN: Why? Like, why would we go after a group of people who are just trying to make a life for themselves, a comfortable life for themselves and are not really hurting anybody?

INSKEEP: We should be clear that for some people this is a hard topic. They're not sure what to think about it. They have conflicted feelings. They feel that they're open-minded, but they may have a tough time with this one. Was it at any point hard for you?

KUKLIN: When I first started talking to various people about whether or not I should be doing the book and what are some of the issues that needed to be addressed, I was uncomfortable when I didn't know what the sex of the person was. It just felt strange to me. And I thought, why should it feel strange to me? Would I be speaking differently to a man than to a woman? It just - it didn't sit right. And I thought, are we hard-wired to believe this? So I went on a quest to find out if indeed we were hard-wired. And I found that we're not because, very quickly, once I got to know people, it became totally irrelevant.

INSKEEP: They just became people to you.

KUKLIN: Yeah. People are people. And that's the point of all my books, that people are people, and they do some crazy things, some negative things, some positive things, and that's who we are.

INSKEEP: Did you feel like you were an advocate in some way, a political actor, or just trying to get a get an important story?

KUKLIN: Well, I wanted to tell a good story, and I didn't think of myself as being political because this seemed extremely natural to me. But it turned out in the long run that it became a political issue. But when I was starting the story, it wasn't a political issue. It was just a story about a section of the LGBTQ+ community that hadn't been heard much.

INSKEEP: So you're on this list of banned and challenged books.


INSKEEP: What's that like?

KUKLIN: It's kind of awful, frankly. My whole point for doing this was to start a conversation, to bring humanity to the page, to show some empathy, to just be able to broaden ourselves. And instead, the book is being vilified because of who these people are.

INSKEEP: What are the specific complaints that people raise about the book?

KUKLIN: Oddly, the people are mostly complaining about things that have little to do with being transgender. So what they do is they'll pick a paragraph from the story, whether it's bad language - 'cause kids curse - or whether it's a story of someone's life. They take it out of context, and then they'd complain about that, that the whole book should be banned - and everything that's in it - because of a paragraph here or a word there.

INSKEEP: I am thinking of one case from Virginia that we were reading about in which someone correctly pointed out that there is what you could call sexual content in the book. One of your characters has had a troubled life, a troubled situation and suffered sexual abuse and describes that very briefly. Is this the sort of thing that gets you in trouble?

KUKLIN: That is exactly what gets me in trouble. Probably, if that was not in the book, something else would get me in trouble. But people took that chapter and that story and turned it around into something very negative and very ugly, whereas I saw it as an example of how someone can survive. I saw that chapter as someone who was born into a terrible environment with lots of violence and very little education and managed to become a hero and live a successful life and go to college. To pretend that people like this do not exist is ridiculous because we know they do exist, and so their voices being heard could be very helpful.

INSKEEP: Is there one of this collection of young people whose story you'd like to leave us with? Who are they, and what has happened to them?

KUKLIN: I think the most important story that I appreciated a lot was a young trans woman who went to an all-boys Catholic school in the Bronx. By her senior year, she decided she was going to live her true life. She started a transition right there in school. She bucked an awful lot of bullying and teasing and stood her ground and today is a beautiful artist and creative person and living a wonderful life. Also in that chapter, which was very important to me, was her mother, who was very much opposed to her becoming a female, her transitioning. And her evolution from being frightened, scared, uninformed to an absolutely adoring parent is a beautiful story. The mother asked to be in the book. She said she wanted her point to be taken so that parents would know what's - what were - they were feeling.

INSKEEP: Meaning that she wanted to be heard as having concerns and getting beyond them.

KUKLIN: Exactly. And getting concerned because of parental love - you love your child. You hear your child. You love your child.


KUKLIN: Yeah. It's a beautiful story.

INSKEEP: Susan Kuklin is the author of "Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out."

Thank you very much.

KUKLIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: It's on a list of books that are frequently banned or challenged. Those challenges turn out different ways. This year, for example, a parent questioned "Beyond Magenta" at James River High School in Virginia. School officials appointed a special committee which reviewed the book and decided it was fine.

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