Cover Reveal: This Book Is Banned – The Latest from Raj Haldar (With a Helpful Q&A for Spice)
I like big swings in my picture books. Risks. I like it too when people come up with ideas that seem like they should have existed long before now. In short, I like Raj Haldar.
Name ringing any bells? I suspect you’ve seen his P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever, a book that my kids were particularly fascinated by when I brought it home. He followed it up with No Reading Allowed, which was very much in the same vein. Today, we introduce a third picture book from Mr. Haldar and it’s a doozy.
Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of This Book Is Banned.
Here’s how the book describes itself:
“What the heck is a banned book anyway? It’s when one group of people decides that no one should be allowed to read a certain book, and they try to remove that book from libraries and schools. These folks might not agree with something the author wrote, but everyone should be allowed to share their opinions (as long as they’re not hurting others). If we only read books that we already agreed with, we’d never learn anything new! Banning books is downright dangerous and if you make it to the end of this book, you might just find out why…”
Now I’m revealing the cover of this title today, but that’s hardly my style. Just the book jacket? Let’s spice this sucker up and talk to Raj as well. After all, you may have questions about the new direction he’s taken with his books:
Betsy Bird: Raj! How delightful to talk to you today, particularly about your latest picture book. It’s essentially a perfect meld of the interactive picture book model and a response to the current wave of book bans. It’s such a good idea that you’re kind of floored that no one’s thought of it before. How did you come up with it?
Raj Haldar: Hey, Betsy! I couldn’t be more excited to chat with you about This Book is Banned and to share the cover with folks for the very first time.
The concept for the book came about in a pretty organic way. For starters, let me just say that as a kid I loved the fourth-wall breaking Sesame Street classic, The Monster at the End of This Book and more recently, as a new parent myself, I discovered Hervé Tullet’s brilliant interactive picture book, Press Here. In the back of my head, I knew that I wanted to do something that plays with the picture book form in an imaginative way. The stars kind of aligned when I was having a conversation with my manager and close friend, Peter Bauer (who also comes from the world of music as a member of the acclaimed indie rock band, The Walkmen) about the lunacy of book bans and whether I could somehow engage with the issue in a meaningful way.
From there it just instantly clicked in my head—a picture book whose characters and events are being banned or censored in real time, while kids are reading it, and leading to a surprise ending that helps young readers understand the dangers of curtailing differing points of view. After all, over the last several years we’ve even seen picture books like And Tango Makes Three about a gay penguin family, and many others being challenged. Even my first kids book, P is for Pterodactyl came under a lot of fire for including a Ouija board, so I felt an imperative to create This Book is Banned so that even our youngest readers have a lighthearted entrypoint for understanding a very serious issue that’s having a profound impact on their lives.
BB: Your career has had a bit of a fascinating trajectory. Considering how you began as a rapper, I can’t help but consider that there’s a lot of overlap between censored rap lyrics and censored books. Have you yourself, or anyone you’ve known, ever been censored in any way?
RH: It’s true, wearing my other hat, I’ve spent the last decade-and-a-half recording and performing as an indie hip-hop artist, under the name Lushlife. My albums are by no means G-rated, but at the same time, in the grand pantheon of rap music, they’re not nearly risqué enough to have come under the scrutiny of censors. That said, I’ve been a music obsessive at least from the age of 5, and there were several formative experiences with music censorship when I was growing up that informed my worldview—namely the mid-’80s push in Washington to censor “obscene” music and watching news footage of folks like Dee Snider from Twisted Sister eloquently spar with career politicians on the topic. With hip-hop, so many artists were being censored around the same time, and I learned an invaluable lesson from that early on, too. Groups like N.W.A. (who were banned from rotation by major radio stations nationwide) were creating musical documents that exposed the realities of life in urban areas in a way that the news media preferred to ignore. I hadn’t really thought about it specifically, but I guess by the time I was in middle school, I already had the formative understanding of censorship as a political tool to suppress different points of view.
BB: I’m always fascinated by the formatting of books. How did you come up with the book’s arc? Did you try things initially that didn’t work out and had to be cut?
RH: What was so cool about this book as opposed to previous picture books I’ve worked on, is that once the concept was solidified, the arc of This Book is Banned came together with a sort of spontaneous and improvisational feel. Of course there were still months of editing and workshopping and shifting ideas around. But a lot of what you’ll read in the final book did just kind of rhythmically pop onto the page right from the early drafts. And I hope that it feels that way to kids reading it—almost like a jazz drum solo or a freestyle rap that feels kaleidoscopic and knows no bounds.
BB: Julia Patton is the illustrator of your book. Was she selected entirely by your editor or did you choose amongst options? And how do you like the look of the final product?
RH: I tend to think pretty visually when it comes to all of my creative projects. Even as I was working on the manuscript for This Book is Banned, I’d already been mocking up an early ideation of the book’s visual identity in my head. I remember, one of the first things I made was a drawing of a unicorn with a photorealistic piece of black tape “censoring” its horn. As soon as my editor saw that, she instantly thought of bringing Julia Patton—whose illustration style is incredibly vibrant and all about using layers of mixed media—onto this project. I can’t say enough about Julia’s incredible work bringing This Book is Banned to life, and I’m stoked that folks can finally get their first look at the book’s cover here.
Part of my creative process is to write up fairly detailed descriptions of what each spread in the book should look like. And not only did Julia create the world that was in my mind’s eye, she added so much richness and her own unique, zany brand of humor to the proceedings. I feel like this book would be a shadow of itself if not for her brilliance and inspiration.
BB: I’m always kind of fascinated when I see characters saying little things here and there. Did you write all the speech balloon dialogue in the margins as well?
RH: Oh yeah, I love when there are little easter eggs in books and movies and video games, too. I’ve always tried to artfully add little asides into all my picture books, and I feel like they imply a rich universe inside the book that helps kids return to them and have different takeaways as they grow with them. After we had the idea for the characters holding picket signs in the end sheets of the book, I believe there was an email thread with the whole creative team spitballing funny picket sign slogans to which I added some ideas. But, speaking to Julia’s brilliance, I think she may have come up with a majority of the ones that got used. My favorite? I like big books and I cannot lie!
BB: Finally, what else do you have coming up, rap or book-wise?
RH: Well, I’ve always got a ton of projects cooking behind the scenes. There’s definitely new Lushlife music in the pipeline, so look out for that. But more than anything, I’m excited to finally get This Book is Banned into the hands of young readers later this year!
Good stuff, that.
You know what else is good stuff?
Cover reveals! Check it out, babies:
Beautiful. I’d like to thank Raj for taking the time to answer my questions today. Thanks too to Heather Moore and the team at Sourcebooks for this reveal.
This Book Is Banned! is on shelves everywhere September 5th, so be sure to look for it then.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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