“The whole affair is a study in disinformation.”
Jonathan Evison is a Seattle-based novelist who’s enjoyed a fair amount of success. He’s written seven novels — one of which was adapted into the film, The Fundamentals of Caringstarring Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez — and has received a smattering of literary awards.
However, at the moment, Evison may be best known as the author of a banned book. His novel lawn boy was published in 2018 to favorable reviews. (One in the Washington Post praised the writer for taking a “battering ram to stereotypes of race and class” while creating a work “full of humor and hope.”) The book also won an Alex Award, a distinction awarded each year by the Young Adult Library Services Association to novels that have a special appeal to young adults.
But otherwise, the book didn’t really receive much publicity. That was until last September when at a school-board meeting in Leander, Texas an infuriated mother raged over the “pedophilia” and profanity she claims the novel contains and how it was inappropriate for students in the district. Her diatribe de ella went viral and before long schools around the country were moving to remove lawn boy from their libraries.
As book bans emerged in the US, reaching the highest level in at least 20 years, according to the American Library Association, lawn boy quickly became one of the country’s most targeted titles. The majority of the works coming under fire are about Black and LGBTQ individuals, the association told the New York Timesand the movement to see these books taken off shelves has been embraced by some conservative politicians.
Evison tells KCM he has received death threats, was the target of a cyberattack, and has been doxxed.
“I got messages from people that are just hair-raising, targeting my 9-year-old and 4-year-old children. It’s all very strange,” he says.
The experience has been jarring, he says. But at the same time, Evison, who describes himself as an “old punk rocker” (he fronted a band of his own in Seattle that included members who would later join Soundgarden and Pearl Jam), “embraces” the controversy.
“There’s a certain amount of street cred that comes with being a banned book,” he tells us. “If you look at the list, it includes some of my favorite books.”
We spoke to Evison about his experience at the center of this phenomenon, his book’s newfound popularity, the effect this movement could have on the future of YA publishing, and more.
Katie Couric Media: What was your initial reaction when your novel first came under fire at that school board meeting in Texas?
Surprise. As a novelist, I’ve kind of always seen it as part of my job description to rattle cages a little bit. And I really intended to rattle a lot of cages with this novel. I wanted to take a good hard look at the state of America, at wealth and equity and the perils of late capitalism, racial assumptions, and the moribund American dream. But the topic of pornography was not one of those cages I was looking to rattle at all.
The people upset with your book claim it includes depictions of pedophilia and sexual content. What is your response to that?
The claim is categorically false. The scene in question involves the adult narrator reflecting on a sexual encounter from his youth involving another youth, not an adult. The scene is not graphic in its depiction, though the language is somewhat crude, and for reasons that are clearly salient in the context of the narrative. It is pretty clear that one woman at a school board meeting in Leander, Texas misread or willfully misrepresented the passage as a sexual encounter between an adult and child, posted a screed on TikTok that went viral, and from there, a bunch of people who never even read the book just started piling on and calling the book pedophilia. The whole affair is a study in disinformation, a microcosm of our times. I say, read the book, or sit your butt down.
What would you say to parents concerned about their children getting a hold of this book?
I’m sorry, it might be a jagged pill for you to swallow, but the chances are your kids have gay friends and they have Black friends and they have Latino friends. I don’t know exactly what you think you’re protecting them from.
I feel like these people have already lost the culture war. Even if they try to keep these books off the shelves, culture accelerates. This is where we are. When I look at it through a wider cultural lens, I just think they’re fighting a hopeless battle here.
What has been at the center of this phenomenon been like for you?
The first few weeks I needed to shut down my social networks. I got doxxed. I was even the target of a cyberattack and received some death threats. I got messages from people that are just raising hair, targeting my 9-year-old and 4-year-old daughter. It’s all very strange.
But after that, it’s been mostly an outpouring of support from students, educators, librarians, school librarians, and some school board members. I’ve connected personally with a lot of these people, who I consider to be fighting the good fight.
People, and especially teens, love forbidden fruit. What has this done for the book’s popularity?
The more backlash there’s been, the more the book sells. People are buying my book in bulk and giving them away. Students are going online and ordering it, they’re going to independent bookstores, they’re going to libraries that haven’t taken it off the shelves.
All these people are doing is just shooting themselves in the foot if they’re really trying to keep from exposing their kids to this literature. Really, they’re just pushing them toward it. I don’t know how any parent can’t see that.
Do you think this antagonism is changing the way that YA writers are thinking about their work?
It varies from artist to artist. For me, I’m gonna write what I’m gonna write. And if you try to challenge me, that’s just daring me to go further. I think it would be a mistake for people to be pulling their punches. Writing a novel is like operating a chainsaw, you can’t be timid about it. You really have to be confident when you go in or else you’ll lop off a limb. A lot of writers already deal with so much self-doubt that I don’t think it’s smart to allow these outside forces to attempt to limit the scope of what they write about.
How do you think the publishing industry’s responding to this? Do you feel as if publishers are stepping away from more provocative content?
Probably. I saw this whole situation as an opportunity immediately. But I think publishers were scared of it a little bit. I didn’t get a ton of publicity support, everyone seemed to shy away from it. So yeah, that’s a good point, it may have an effect on corporate publishers’ willingness or enthusiasm to publish stuff that they see as edgy or problematic. I hope not. That would be terrible.
Lawmakers are seizing on this fervor and are rushing to pass legislation that takes aim at fiction. What do you think about the politicization of this?
I think it’s atrocious, and an insult to the First Amendment, that a group of conservatives who have the audacity to characterize themselves as patriots want to effect a massive censorship campaign directly targeting that audience most in need of adult advocacy. It is crystal clear that conservatives are using the issue of book banning as a political straw man to rile up desperately needed support from their misinformed constituency by framing the argument as a threat to parental freedom — ie “These woke educators are trying to keep your voice out of the classroom!” It’s pathetic, really. The fact is, they’re losing the culture war and they know it, they’re like cornered animals. They’re terrified of being “replaced,” terrified of seceding the precious advantages they’ve enjoyed their entire lives to those marginalized groups and individuals who’ve never got a fair shake in America. Shame on them.