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Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Headlines the Green Mountain Book Festival


Published September 27, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Alison Bechdel - COURTESY
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  • Alison Bechdel

Eight days before she was to deliver the headliner address opening Burlington's Green Mountain Book Festival, Alison Bechdel confessed that she was still trying to get her talk together.

Bechdel is best known as the creator of "Dykes to Watch Out For," the groundbreaking comic strip that ran in newspapers for 25 years; and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, the 2006 graphic memoir about her father that was adapted into a Broadway musical that won five Tony Awards. She works in a studio tucked in the back of her home in the mountains outside Burlington. Brushes and steel-nibbed pens stand at attention there. Books line two tall bookcases and assorted shelves, while others form a Jenga tower on a small table. Softly lit on the day we talked, the studio is neat and orderly, with warm wooden floors.


"I think it's a veneer," Bechdel said.

But her five studio windows look out on solid wood, trees still lush and green. It's peaceful — "this time of year, especially," Bechdel said. "It's so quiet, September."

So it seemed incongruous to see Bechdel, her slight frame cradled in an office chair, a bit anxious as she considered her upcoming talk, "An Evening With Alison Bechdel," on Friday, September 29.

"It's cool that they're asking a cartoonist to give this keynote, and it's cool that they're asking a queer person to do it," she said. "I would love to just be able to talk about how 'Isn't it interesting that comics are now a legitimate literary form?' but we don't have the leisure for that sort of idle chitchat."

Book banning is on the rise, and the topic is a timely focus of this year's book festival, which runs through Sunday, October 1, the start of the American Library Association's Banned Books Week. Fun Home is among the books that have been challenged across the country, coming in at No. 31 on the association's Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books list for the decade spanning 2010 to 2019.

Bechdel used to pay little attention. "I have a lot of work to do," she said. "I don't want to have to address people who are censoring my book." That felt like a waste of time, she said, "but now it's just unavoidable."

Besides Bechdel's talk, the festival's lineup includes a speech by Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who's been traveling the state on a "banned books tour"; a four-author panel discussion on "Book Banning, Censorship and Rewriting Classics to Sanitize for Cultural Shifts"; and a reading of banned kids' books. It all comes just a week after the release of two new reports showing a sharp uptick in challenges to books and indicating that public libraries have been increasingly targeted, in addition to school classrooms and libraries.

PEN America, a free speech organization, recorded 3,362 instances of book removal or restriction in K-12 schools during the 2022-23 school year, an increase of 33 percent over the year before. More than 1,550 individual titles were targeted. Florida school districts had the most bans — 1,406 — followed by Texas, Missouri, Utah and Pennsylvania.

Forty-four percent of those books were removed while investigators decided if restrictions were needed. Subjects of violence and physical abuse were most often cited, followed by topics of health and well-being; sexual experiences between characters; characters of color; and themes related to race, racism, LGBTQ+ characters, grief and death. Many books contain more than one type of this content.

In a separate study, the American Library Association found a record surge in attempts to censor materials and services in public libraries. It recorded 695 challenges in the first eight months of this year, a 20 percent increase over the same period last year, which saw the highest number of book challenges since the association began compiling data more than 20 years ago.

The majority of those challenges targeted books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, the association said.

"They're not so much banning books as they're banning people," Bechdel said, echoing a slogan that resonates with her. "It's the queer characters and the Black characters and the characters of color. Those are the books they don't want kids to have access to."

Challengers often say they are exercising their parental rights. "What about the rights of the parents who want their kids to have access to those books?" Bechdel asked. "What about the rights of children who deserve to have access to those books?"

Fun Home tells the story of Bechdel's closeted gay father, who died — she suspects by suicide — four months after she told her parents she was a lesbian. "Fun Home is the book that's getting censored," Bechdel said, "and Fun Home is about the dangers of people not being able to be who they are."

Bechdel feels obligated to speak out; she just struggles with how. "Things are grim," she said. "But you can't just say that ... No one can bear to listen."

When Bechdel started her comic strip, in 1983, "I wrote it, really, out of survival," she said, "out of my own desire to see myself reflected in the world, and people like my friends." She named it "Dykes to Watch Out For" spontaneously. "But I liked its contradictory meanings," she says on her website. "'Watch out for' as in 'seek out,' and 'watch out for' as in 'avoid.'"

It seems to have gained a third meaning: "watch out for" as in "protect."

A major reason Bechdel quit writing the strip in 2008 was that she no longer felt the same sense of urgency, she said. Queer people were more widely represented. Society had moved beyond equating their identity solely with their sexuality. "And now we're all getting dragged back there," she said.

Bechdel would rather focus on her next book, a graphic novel she called "autofictional." In it, she will portray a version of herself, but unlike Fun Home and Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, a memoir about her mother, this book won't adhere closely to facts. "It's hard to force oneself into that kind of scathing revelation and honesty," she said.

"So I'm writing a book about how I live in rural Vermont with my partner, Holly, on our pygmy goat sanctuary." (The first two statements are true, the last, not!) The book is called Spent. It's about money, and Bechdel expects it to be published in early 2025.

"Dykes to Watch Out For" fans will be glad to hear that Bechdel has resurrected four of the strip's characters, Lois, Ginger, Sparrow and Stuart, for her new book and moved them to Burlington. "They're all in their sixties now, like me," said Bechdel, 63. Sparrow and Stuart's daughter, who was a baby in the strip, has just left for college. The old friends are community pillars, working hard, running organizations and playing pickleball.

June marked the 40th anniversary of the strip as well as its release as an audio series from Audible, a combination Bechdel called "thrilling." Playwright Madeleine George, who wrote the adaptation, told the New York Times, "My first Hippocratic oath was: Do no harm to the strip." Jane Lynch narrates, and the voice actors include Carrie Brownstein as Mo, Roberta Colindrez as Lois and Roxane Gay as Jezanna.

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal bought the movie rights to the musical version of Fun Home, intending to play Bruce, Bechdel's father. Though she is not involved with the project, Bechdel said Gyllenhaal is currently out. "They're still trying to make this movie happen, but it will have a different star," she said.

Bechdel, meanwhile, is happy to focus on her book, "the thing I love doing most of all," she said.

"I love the drawing. And so, even though I have an almost impossible deadline and I'm totally panicked about it, I'm so happy that after I do this talk next weekend, I don't have to do anything except draw and write."

Spreading the Word

Kekla Magoon - COURTESY
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  • Kekla Magoon

Twenty-nine authors will gather with readers in Burlington this Friday, September 29, through Sunday, October 1, to celebrate free speech, diverse voices and the love of books at the second annual Green Mountain Book Festival.

In the lineup are Caldecott Medal recipient Jason Chin, National Book Award finalist Kekla Magoon, 2023 Academy of American Poets laureate fellow Joseph Bruchac, Romance Writers of America lifetime achievement award honoree Anne Stuart and Dayton Literary Peace Prize in Fiction winner Brad Kessler.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman will speak briefly before cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel takes the mic on Friday for the headliner address in Burlington City Hall Auditorium. Tickets are $25.

All other festival events are free. Most take place at Fletcher Free Library.

New this year is a full day devoted to children's literature. "We really want it to be an exciting and welcoming day for all young readers, from toddlers, who love picture books and board books, up to teenagers," said author Kate Messner, who coordinated that Sunday programming.

Children will get to draw with Chin and take a writing workshop with Jo Knowles, Chris Tebbetts, Linda Urban and Susan Tan. Bruchac, Chin, Magoon, Messner and Loree Griffin Burns will share the inspirations behind their nonfiction, as well as their sometimes surprising research.

Other new events include a children's parade, forming at 11 a.m. on Saturday in front of city hall, bookmaking workshops and a slate of vendors in the library's main reading room.

Returning is the popular Lit Night at the Lamp Shop, a Saturday evening of poetry readings and performances at the Light Club Lamp Shop nightclub.

"An Evening With Alison Bechdel," Friday, September 29, 6:30 p.m., at Burlington City Hall Auditorium. $25.

Green Mountain Book Festival, Friday, September 29, through Sunday, October 1, various locations in Burlington. $25 for "An Evening With Alison Bechdel"; other events free.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Watching Out | Cartoonist Alison Bechdel headlines the Green Mountain Book Festival"

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