George M. Johnson hears people say being an author of a banned book isn’t something to be proud of.
Johnson wishes it wasn’t the case for their 2020 book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, but they admit they are proud to have created a work that’s helped readers find healing, gain empathy for those who don’t look like them, and, notably, “pissed people off.”
“I’m very proud of that,” said Johnson, who spoke at the American Library Association’s (ALA) LibLearnX conference in Baltimore on January 21. “Because people who came before me, like Toni Morrison, pissed people off. James Baldwin pissed people off, Angela Davis pissed people off, and Nikki Giovanni pissed people off. I get to be part of this very proud writing canon that challenged people’s thoughts so much that it pissed them off but also created change.”
Johnson, an activist, author, and journalist, has seen their “memoir manifesto” All Boys Aren’t Blue become a New York Times bestseller—and one of the most-banned books in the country. In 2022, it was the second-most challenged book in US libraries because of its LGBTQIA+ themes and content, according to data from ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
In conversation with moderator Elisa Anais Garcia, supervising librarian of the MyLibraryNYC Collections at New York Public Library, Johnson discussed their journey as an anti-censorship advocate and award-winning spokesperson for intellectual freedom. In 2022, they earned the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Free Speech Defender Award. That same year, Time magazine listed them as part of its Time100 Next List, which honors emerging leaders who are shaping our world.
Most recently, Johnson became a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Escambia County (Fla.) Public Schools and its board. They join a group that includes PEN America, Penguin Random House, other banned authors, and parents in suing the district for what it says are unconstitutional removals of books (including All Boys Aren’t Blue) in its schools. In a January 10 decision, a federal judge ruled the suit can proceed.
“This fight has chosen me,” Johnson said. “There comes a point in time where sometimes these fights choose us, and we have to be ready for the challenge.”
Johnson emphasized how public and school library workers can support queer youth, particularly with diverse library collections and more subtle nods, like putting up posters of queer trailblazers. When asked what to say to queer youth whose identities are currently being marginalized, Johnson said that history proves their place in society. Laws denying queer people rights date back centuries, they said, proving they’ve been there all long.
“You never make a law for something that doesn’t already exist…. Reminding [everyone] of the fact that [queer people have] always been here is the most important thing,” Johnson said. “Now is just the time where they get to be reflected in the pages and get to be seen and heard.”
Johnson also discussed their next release, Flamboyants (September), which will tell the stories of Black and queer figures from the Harlem Renaissance through essays, illustrations, and original poetry. It’s a chance, they said, to share these legacies without removing the queer lens.
“I felt my heroes were stolen from me, because I should’ve known when I learned about James Baldwin that he was queer, so I had a writer to look up to,” Johnson said. “Now this next generation of kids who are writers have me and so many others to look up to, but I also want them to know who we should’ve had the ability to look up to.”