George M. Johnson’s debut memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, set out to tackle the subject of what it’s like to grow up Black and queer in America. The book, Johnson told Yahoo News, started out with the goal of giving others the tools to help navigate the world.
As they wrote it, however, Johnson, who uses the pronouns they/them, found that it evolved into a love letter to their former self. The result was a work that resonated with audiences and critics, going on to become an Indie Bestseller, a People Magazine Best Book of the Summer, and a New York Times bestseller.
But with that acclaim came controversy, and eventually All Boys Aren’t Blue became one of the most-banned books in America.
A collection of coming-of-age essays written from the perspective of a young Black queer person, the book has been banned by at least nine school districts across five U.S. states, according to data compiled by the free-speech group PEN America. All Boys Aren’t Blue is aimed at readers 14 years of age or older and has been challenged for its sexually explicit LGBTQ content. It was the second-most-banned book of the 2021-22 school year, according to PEN America.
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Despite the opposition to the book from conservative groups, Johnson says most have never even read it.
“You can't argue with fools anymore,” Johnson said. “At some point you just have to be like, ‘You know what? This is foolish.’”
Yahoo News spoke to Johnson about how All Boys Aren’t Blue became a target of those seeking to ban books. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. Why do you think there has been an uptick in book bans in recent years?
Ultimately, you just have to take a look at the current landscape of the entire country. I don’t think anything happens in silos. We have the book ban issue, and then we have the abortion issue, and then we have the “Don't Say Gay” bill issue, and then we have whatever the next issue is. All of these are all part of an entire system. Ultimately, the country is becoming more diverse year over year. And Gen Z is at this point pretty much more nonwhite than white.
So the makeup of curriculum started to shift where you had Black history and Asian history and Latinx history and LGBTQ history starting to be introduced into classrooms. What winds up happening when you do that is you produce kids that are more empathetic; you produce kids that understand diversity, that understand the different makeup of society. And then when they become the future leaders, they lead from a place of already having the knowledge and having relationships with cultures outside of their own. That's not what white people want. They want white supremacy. They want to stay supreme. The only way you do that is by keeping children stupid. That's just what it is.
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2. In your author’s note in the book, you tell the readers they will encounter sensitive topics and language in the pages that follow. I haven’t seen that much in other books. Why was that warning important to include?
For me, the author's note was there for several reasons. One, I knew I was covering heavy topics. Two, I knew I was writing to a young adult audience, which does then have the involvement, at times, of teachers and librarians and parents and guardians and guidance counselors. So I said, let me just make sure everybody knows what they’re entering into. I don’t want anybody to get into the book and be like, “Oh, my God, I had no idea,” because I don’t want anyone to be triggered by trauma. So if a person or a young person or whoever’s reading the book, if they’re still on a healing journey or dealing with something, this author puts it out there — it gives you the power and the agency.
That was always my thing. I want them to have the agency to say, “You know what? I don’t think I’m ready for this book yet,” because that’s OK.
3. If this kind of book were written when you were a child, what would it have meant to you?
It would’ve meant a lot to be able to have the book because it would’ve confirmed a lot of things. I think that’s what the reality is, that the book, for so many teens right now, is confirming and affirming. [Many of them are saying], “I’m having these feelings,” or “I’m struggling with my identity.” The book would have shown me that I’m OK, that other people have been through this. I’m not the first to be going through these types of feelings or emotions. And it gives you somewhere to kind of center yourself and center how you want to navigate the world.
But I often say I don’t like to get into that because it’s like if I start to change some of the things in my past, then All Boys Aren’t Blue never gets written. So I am happy that it’s out there now for the kids and the teens who need it.