In The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks by Shauna Robinson, anti-bookworm Maggie Banks comes to Bell River to help out in her best friend’s bookstore. But she struggles to follow the strict rules put in place by the historic society, and eventually decides to play by her own rule book in order to bring new life to the store.
Maggie starts an ”illegal” book club with fun events for readers to enjoy, which you would think would be difficult as she gets closer to one of the historical society’s strictest employees. Her secrets grow when she finds out about some history that has been hidden in the town.
How will Maggie get out of this one?
After reading The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks, I got an opportunity to interview Robinson about banned books, representation, and falling in love with reading.
Maggie Banks is definitely an “every woman.” At the start of the book, she is in this place of limbo still searching for her life path. What inspired you to write this book?
The initial inspiration came from my love of books set in bookstores. I thought it would be fun to add some chaos to that concept by featuring a bookshop with strict rules that end up getting broken. And I knew I wanted the person running the bookshop to be essentially a temp who didn’t know what she was doing with her life. That’s a feeling I’ve spent years dwelling on (that concept also made it into my first book, Must Love Books) and I wanted to explore a different side of it through Maggie.
What do you love about reading and writing romance novels?
Romance novels are a happy place for a lot of people. They’re a world where readers are essentially guaranteed a happy ending, which is certainly something to cling to when life is unexpected and may not be all that happy.
From the writing side, while my books fall in the women’s fiction category, their romance arcs are a fun side plot to write about. My favorite part is writing banter. It takes me ages to come up with a clever quip or comeback in real life, so I love writing scenes where characters banter with all the in-the-moment wit I wish I had.
At the beginning of the book, Maggie is scarred from required reading in school, so she doesn’t really read as an adult. What was it like to write a character who fell in love with reading?
Maggie’s reading journey was fun to explore. I’ve always been an avid reader, but then again I had a childhood in which my mother read to me, took me to libraries and bookstores, and showed me how fun books could be. I don’t have a clear memory of falling in love with reading because that’s been my experience all my life. But Maggie gets to have that experience as an adult, and it was fun to live vicariously through her as she discovers how wonderful books are.
I did think it would be funny if Maggie continued to dislike reading throughout the entire novel, much to the chagrin of her bookworm friends…but I suspected that might not go over well with an audience of book lovers!
Malcolm subverts a lot of stereotypes of Black men. How do you think anti-Black racism and toxic masculinity hinder these groups from harnessing the joy of reading?
Black men deserve good representation. Along with racism and toxic masculinity, a lack of representation (or representation that’s only rooted in stereotypes) sucks the joy out of reading.
Maggie is a biracial Black woman. Do you feel biracial women are underrepresented in romance novels? How do you think her biracial identity adds subtle nuance to the story?
Growing up, it was rare that I found a book that featured a character who was half-Black and half-white. As the publishing industry attempts to do more to support underrepresented voices, I’m seeing more representation of biracial identities in books today.
Maggie’s biracial identity isn’t directly relevant to the story, which is sort of the point. I’ve read or come across many books in which the entire plot hinges upon a character being biracial, either because the character is white-passing or they have a sibling with lighter skin who is white-passing or something else, to the point where it felt like biracial identity existed in books just as a plot device. That’s not to say biracial identities can’t ever be related to the plot or explored in writing — that’s just not something I set out to do with this book. In my case, making Maggie biracial was just a way to show a biracial woman living her life and offer some representation to people who aren’t used to seeing themselves in books.
I heard that the only criteria for a romance novel are a relationship and a happy ending. Your books meet those criteria, but the major focus of the stories are the women finding and/or falling in love with themselves. Why do you feel like this focus is important?
That’s what I love about writing women’s fiction. I get to put the focus on the main character finding her place in the world, which is what I’m most interested in. When I entered my twenties, I felt like there was an expectation to have my life figured out, which led to desperately trying to catch up while feeling like there must be something wrong with me for not knowing what I was doing. I was always comforted by stories about characters I could relate with who were going through some of the same struggles I was.
It’s funny that you mention the criteria for a romance novel. I’ve learned that different people have different criteria! I don’t consider my books romance because they’re so focused on the main character’s journey, but I’ve seen that my books are sometimes categorized or shelved under romance, so some people must see it differently! It’s an honor to know that any romance side plots I write might be compelling enough for some to put the book under the romance umbrella. I just don’t put that label on it myself because I never want to promise more than I can deliver. I may not always meet all the expectations of the romance genre simply because I’m not writing in that genre, and readers deserve to get everything they’re promised!
Malcolm and Maggie read several books written by Black authors that students don’t read in school or that just aren’t that popular. Why do you think books written by authors of color aren’t deemed “classics” in the same way other books are? What are some books written by authors of color you would consider classics?
In a word, racism. If we go back centuries, when Black people were considered property and it was illegal for them to know how to read, it’s not surprising that books by white authors were primarily all that ever entered the literary canon for much of history. A few centuries later, the effects still remain. There’s nothing wrong with upholding and enjoying those classics (I do!), but there’s so much more out there. We’d miss out on a wealth of diverse perspectives and brilliant storytelling if we decide that books are classics only if they’re ancient.
The books I’m about to mention are considered classics by lots of people, so I’m by no means the first! But these are also books I had to seek out on my own because they were never assigned reading for me in school, and I wish they had been. Jubilee by Margaret Walker provides a fascinating view of American history — spanning slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction — from the perspective of a slave. Kindred by Octavia Butler paints a harrowing picture of what it’s like to time travel as a Black woman. And I didn’t learn a thing about W.E.B. Du Bois in school, so The Souls of Black Folk was a fascinating read for me.
What is your favorite banned book and why?
This is a hard one. There are so many! I’ll say Maus by Art Spiegelman. It covers a difficult topic in a thoughtful and insightful way that has stayed with me for years after reading it.
In the book, Maggie hosts events where authors do twists on their favorite classics (I will never think of Moby-Dick the same way ever again). What is a classic you would remix and how?
One of the examples Maggie shares in the book is “Sherlock Holmes looking for love on Tinder,” and I’d still love to see that! Throwing Sherlock Holmes and his deductive, know-it-all nature into a romantic comedy would be a lot of fun.