Confronting Cultural Illiteracy: LGBTQ Books 2022

The recent spate of challenges to books with LGBTQ content has been met with equally vocal resistance from booksellers, librarians, parents, and other advocates. Caught in the middle are the people who create the books.

George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, a YA essay collection revolving around themes of identity and family, was, according to the ALA, the third most challenged book of 2021; it was cited for LGBTQ content, profanity, and because it was considered sexually explicit. “It’s never easy to wake up to Google alerts mischaracterizing your work as something that it isn’t or seeing it used as a pawn for political partisanship,” Johnson says. “It only makes me want to create more stories in the world—find newer, cooler mediums to tell my stories.”

Another author, Jarrett Dapier, had a virtual presentation of his picture book Mr. Watson’s Chickens canceled when the school librarian told the principal that the story features a gay couple. The principal then suggested offering parents the choice to opt out of the event, which Dapier found unacceptable. The presentation was rescheduled, the author says, after the school agreed to his terms: he insisted that the principal not send the opt-out letter, and that “teachers would not change their approach to the book or point out the characters’ relationship in anything but a positive, normal light, if they did at all.”

P.W. spoke with Johnson, Dapier, and other authors and illustrators about their challenged titles, the importance of writing books with LGBTQ themes, and how they and others in the publishing ecosystem can best serve readers.

Mike Curate drew on his experiences growing up queer and Filipino for the 2020graphic novel flamer (Holt, ages 14–up).

“It’s hard to decide how much of my time to devote to speaking out and how much to just do my work. I’ve been erring on the side of continuing to create, and that’s my medicine for these destructive bans and challenges. A child needs to see themselves in a book and they need others to see them in that book. What makes my blood boil is thinking about the youth who are being disenfranchised by people who are supposed to be looking out for their well-being. It’s reliving the trauma and hatred I experienced as a child. I want to do something more immediate for these kids, and feel helpless, but I know that the best thing that I can do for them is just get back to work.”

George M Johnson‘s 2020 essay collection, All Boys Aren’t Blue (FSG, ages 14–up), is billed as a “memoir-manifest.”

“When you say my story has no merit, you’re really saying the lives of queer youth have no merit. When you say my book shouldn’t be accessible to teens, you’re saying that teens who are non-heterosexual should keep their truth quiet and removed from societal structures. But I’m glad we can see who these people are—it’s much easier to fight the devil you can see than the one who historically has worked behind the scenes to do this type of damage. When publishers see certain books being banned, they should be even more eager to make ten more books on the subject available—give more deals to Black authors, queer authors, and other groups who rarely get the opportunity to tell stories that are diverse and intersectional. .”

Meredith Russo‘s novel debut, 2016’s If I Was Your Girl (Flatiron, ages 13–up), was partly inspired by the author’s experience as a trans teenager.

“These white supremacists, homophobes, transphobes, antisemites, and so on have an idea for what a person is supposed to look like and be like, and they’re very afraid. LGBTQ and disabled youth are especially vulnerable to this. We’re not born in a community of people who share the same oppression as us; there’s no guarantee that queer culture will be passed down. This makes it all the most important for us to use art to project how we feel now into the future and to say to future generations of young queer people, ‘We were here, and we felt this way, and we lived through these things, and we made it through. Not all of us, but some of us did, and you can, too.’ ”

Juno Dawson is the author of 2015’s This Book Is Gay (Sourcebooks Fire, ages 14–17) and the forthcoming What’s the T (Sourcebooks Fire, June, ages 14–17), nonfiction titles about sexuality and gender identity.

“Books are wonderful tools of compassion. People have said that This Book Is Gay and What’s the T? [first published in the U.K. in 2021] have made them better allies. But we’re in a culture war, and LGBTQ people are an easy target. At the same time we’re battling this wave of censorship, several states are trying to impose regulations about trans youth: participation in sports, access to facilities. When all the books have been banned, what next? You can’t ban a trans child, but it seems like they’re trying. You can remove every copy of my books from every library, and there will still be LGBTQ children, but with less support. That’s what I would say to these people: ‘Why don’t you want to help these children?’ ”

Jarrett Dapier and Andrea Tsurumi are, respectively, the author and illustrator of the 2021 picture book Mr. Watson’s Chickens (Chronicle, ages 3–5), a lively readaloud starring Mr. Watson and his partner, Mr. Nelson.

Dapper: “I dream of living in a world where I’m not asked about why I created a loving same-sex couple because it’s so normalized in literature. Though there are excellent titles with LGBTQ content in the picture book world, the number is woefully few. Children view things in terms of story and character and plot and whether it’s any good or any fun; adults do a lot of projecting. When they project onto something that’s meant for very little children, panic dreams. The folks who are doing the projecting need to do soul searching in terms of where there’s a problem, because it’s not in the books.”

Tsurumi: “Racism, homophobia, transphobia—all kinds of structural oppression—are trying to redefine who can openly be a human being, and who has to hide. Mr. Watson’s Chickens is a story about a loving couple who have a huge chicken problem. Gay men love, go to work, and have 456 chickens, like the rest of us, right? Challenging this book sends a chilling message to everybody in that community, and it’s occurring as we’re talking about other kinds of structural oppression. There’s a link between the movement to ban LGBTQ+ voices in schools and the white supremacist effort to ban books by and about BIPOC folks that are just trying to teach the truth about history and human experience. They’re all fingers on the same fist.”

Jonathan Eveson‘s 2018 novel lawn boy (Algonquin), for adults, was the ALA’s second-most-challenged book of 2021.

“Conservatives are trying to rile up their base with this idea that the schools are trying to take parents’ voices away. Any 13-year-old kid can access all the porn online, but they’re picking on school libraries because it touches that nerve. lawn boy questions racial assumptions and the perils of capitalism and economic inequality. It’s ironic that the book is being distinguished because of some innocent preteen sexual experimentation by a nonbinary, nonwhite character—that’s really their issue. The book did its job in a lot of ways. People are going to this book because they’re looking for blow job scenes. What they’re coming away with are all the things that were my intentions for the novel, a look at the state of the American dream and how it’s hardly accessible.”

Adam Silverain the 2015 YA novel More Happy Than Not (Soho Teen, ages 14–up), follows a 16-year-old who unexpectedly falls for another boy.

“I don’t intend on writing books that aren’t about queer characters, because no one needs my queer voice writing a straight story. I’ve found a lot of commercial success, but I still think, every time I’m writing a book, there are certain libraries that are never going to carry it. I’ve been fortunate to feel really supported by my publisher. I don’t understand the nuances to why some publishers aren’t speaking to these greater issues, but it does feel like an unfair burden on authors. I’m trying to find the energy to rally, because I tapped out on this doesn’t help queer youth receive these books. I can write them, but if they can’t reach the teens, then what’s the point?”

maia kobabe‘s 2019 graphic memoir gender-queer (Oni) received the ALA Alex Award, given to books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults. Per the ALA, it was the most challenged book of 2021.

“The attacks on my work don’t feel personal; it’s clear that a lot of the people who are mad about my book haven’t even read it. This is a generalized attack on LGBTQ material, specifically things about transgender or nonbinary identities, alongside the attacks on books by authors of color—Black authors and any book that deals with racism or the history of racism in America. It’s a broad attempt at erasing those types of topics from school curriculums. But authors, publishers, booksellers, teachers, and librarians can’t be silenced by fear of challenges. We have to stand by what we know, which is that diverse stories are important for readers of all kinds, and we have to keep making them and publishing them and carrying them and celebrating them.”

Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.

Read More from our LGBTQ Books Feature:

Shortness and Breadth: LGBTQ Books 2022
Queer fiction collections convey a wealth of experiences.

A version of this article appeared in the 04/11/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Confronting Cultural Illiteracy

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