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Banned Books: Author George M. Johnson on the need to tell all people's stories

Writer and LGBTQ activist George M. Johnson sparked conversation — and controversy — with their 2020 memoir about growing up Black and queer. <em>All Boys Aren't Blue</em> has been banned in dozens of school libraries.
Vincent Marc
Writer and LGBTQ activist George M. Johnson sparked conversation — and controversy — with their 2020 memoir about growing up Black and queer. All Boys Aren't Blue has been banned in dozens of school libraries.

George M. Johnson's young-adult memoir All Boys Aren't Blue has become one of the most banned books in the U.S.

The book is about growing up Black and queer, and always feeling different but not having the words to express it. Over the past couple of years, at least 29 school districts have banned the book because of its LGBTQ content and for being sexually explicit.

"Any time you write a book where you write about your truth, there are going to be people who want to silence that truth," Johnson, who uses they/them pronouns, tells Morning Edition's Leila Fadel.

PEN America, a group that advocates for freedom of expression, says more than 1,600 books about gender and race were banned in more than 130 districts between 2021 and 2022, in what it calls a growing movement to censor books in schools. Taken together, the bans impacted some 4 million students at more than 5,000 schools.

Johnson worries about schools censoring works like theirs.

Johnson's debut "memoir-manifesto" published in April 2020.
/ Macmillan
Johnson's debut "memoir-manifesto" published in April 2020.

"The curriculum that is being taught in most school systems is still heavily geared towards the straight, white, male teen," Johnson says. "And so when we now have the ability to put books into curriculum that tell other stories, that tell stories that are non-white, that tell stories that are non-heterosexual, they're trying to take them out across the board because, you know, it's like, 'Oh, my God, how dangerous would it be if young white teens had to actually learn about the other people who exist in society with them?'"

"All Boys Aren't Blue" is bigger than Johnson's story

Johnson's book is still on the shelves in the New Jersey school district where they grew up, even though it has faced challenges in their home state. They say that some of their former classmates are now high school teachers, and recognize the book's value for students who may be struggling with questions about their own identities.

"They're using the book and telling them, 'I had a friend in high school who's gone through what you're going through,'" Johnson says. "And so it became very relatable."

Johnson is glad to have written a book that might help others, but says watching it be banned has been bittersweet. They say that if parents don't want their own child to read it, they should opt them out rather than try to block all students — some who may really need the book — from accessing it.

"Students ... have publicly said on record that works like mine have saved their lives, works like mine have helped them name their abusers, works like mine have helped them come to terms with who they are and feel validated in the fact that there is somebody else that exists in the world like them," Johnson says. "And you want to remove that from them. I just think it's sad."

Johnson also knows that the actual content of All Boys Aren't Blue isn't under attack, because the people who want it banned most likely haven't read it.

"You can't attack something you actually don't know," they say. "And this is really just an attack on an ideology, that just says that LGBTQ people shouldn't exist. And they want teens to feel unsafe and to feel silenced — and that is just something that I refuse to see happen again, because I lived as one that felt that way."

Johnson says the book has more supporters than critics

Johnson anticipated that their book would be challenged even before it published. They remember seeing Angie Thomas' novel The Hate U Give face bans years ago because it features profanity and racism, and saw it as a signal that their own book would also get caught up in controversy. (Thomas' book, published in 2017, has been among the top banned books nearly every year since its release.)

Johnson never expected the controversy around All Boys Aren't Blue to rise quite to this level, but says a lifetime of LGBTQ advocacy prepared them for the current conversation. Theirs is an important voice in the LGTBQ community — this year TIME magazine named them one of the 100 influencers shaping the next generation.

"I've been fighting for LGBTQ rights for as long as I can remember, because in turn I'm fighting for myself and fighting for people like me. This is just an extension of the advocacy work that I do," Johnson says. "Writing is a form of activism. ... And any time you do something that's a form of activism, there's going to be another side that doesn't like it."

While the book has its vocal critics, Johnson says they are far outweighed by its supporters, whom they've heard from at school board meetings and in written letters and recreated cover artwork.

"So the book ... is so much bigger than just my story," Johnson says. "And I'm watching it in real time help so many people, from parents to children to teachers to librarians, across the board. I just feel like the support is greater, and we just have to find ways to make sure that everybody sees that, too."

The audio interview was produced by Kurt Gardinier.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.