Youngstown author Christopher Barzak is making lists — but not always ones on which he wants to be included.
Barzak, a professor at Youngstown State University, discovered earlier this month that his 2015 novel, “Wonders of the Invisible World,” is included on a list of 850 books compiled by Texas state Rep. Matt Krause and sent to school libraries. Krause claimed the books contain material that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
Barzak had been following the story, which has been national news since late October 2021, but he didn’t realize his book was on the list until a couple of weeks ago, when a friend texted and asked how he felt about the list. He thought it was general question, so he gave a general answer about thinking it was a political stunt.
“No, your book is on the list” the friend tweeted back.
“That’s how I found out, while I was trying to do Wordle,” Barzak said. “She sent me a link with a list of all the books. When I saw that, I was really surprised. It was weird. At first I had this sense of hurt feelings for some reason. What on earth would be in that book that someone found ban-able? It’s a fairly tender book.”
But both Barzak and the central character of the book are gay, and the novel won a Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association for having “exceptional merit” in its handling of that subject matter. He believes that award is probably what got “Wonders” on the list rather than Krause actually reading the book.
“I don’t think they read a whole lot in general, maybe even the bills they pass,” he said.
Barzak found an analysis by Danika Ellis on the website Book Riot that argued that more than 60 percent of 850 books either included LGBTQ characters or were written by authors who identify as such.
“I tried to understand why I had that (hurt) feeling,” he said. “The act itself is mixed up with memories of growing up gay in a time when it was much harder to be yourself and people did exclude and treat you badly in obvious ways. Having a book pulled simply because you’re gay was getting mixed up with those memories. It’s an exclusionary act in itself … Wow, this has not really gone away. There are still people out there that very much want people like me to go away and not be seen, not be heard, to not have a voice, to go back to being second-class citizens or even tertiary.”
Barzak, 46, grew up in Johnston and graduated from Maplewood High school in 1993. He attended both Kent State University at Trumbull and University of Akron before earning his degree from YSU. He is the author of four novels (one of which was adapted into the 2014 film “Jamie Marks Is Dead” ) and two short story collections.
There have been positives since the controversy started. This week the Human Rights Campaign included “Wonders” on a list of positive LGBTQ + books for middle school and high school students. Barzak has noticed an increase in social media followers from Texas. And since he shared his feelings about being on the list, others have shared the post and encouraged people to buy the book as a reaction to efforts to exclude his work from libraries.
“If sales of that book go up, that’s always good,” he said. “It might get the book into the hands of people who need it.”
Barzak, currently is working on revisions for a new novel and his agent is shopping a collection of short stories that is a retelling of classic monster fiction. He said it’s too early to tell what, if any, impact this experience may have on his future work.
“I’ve always written novels and stories with a lot of queer characters in them,” he said. “I’m always trying to make space a space for people like myself … In that way, I don’t think anything’s going to change. Maybe it will light more of a fire under me to do more of it.”