(NEW YORK) — Author George M. Johnson has found himself at the center of a culture war over what kids can read.
Johnson’s memoir, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which chronicles his experience growing up as a Black queer man, is the second most banned book in the U.S. and has been taken off the shelves in at least 29 school districts across the country, according to a Pen America report released Monday. The schools have cited the sexually explicit content, including descriptions of queer sex and sexual trauma, as reason for removing the collection of essays from bookshelves.
“It’s been bittersweet to see our stories be attacked in this way, but it is also amplifying many of our stories and I’m able to get the book out to the teen readers who really need it the most,” Johnson told ABC News Live in an interview that aired Tuesday.
“If there’s anything I’m thankful for, it’s that it’s actually getting to the hands of the people who need to read it to heal from it.”
Johnson is this year’s honorary chair of the American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week” celebration – an annual event that launched in 1982 – that has gained increased attention over the past two years as droves of books are being challenged and taken off the shelves in public schools and libraries across the country.
“Banned Books Week is much about providing space and opportunity for local libraries to talk about censorship and to highlight the importance of celebrating the freedom to read,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told ABC News.
PEN America, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to advance freedom of expression through literature, documents the “rapid acceleration of book censorship nationwide” in its latest report and finds that nearly 140 school districts in 32 states issued more than 2,500 book bans during the 2021-22 school year.
According to the report, the vast majority of the challenged books are written by authors of color and center on stories about people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Meanwhile, states like Texas and Florida are leading the way, with 801 bans in 22 districts and 566 bans in 21 districts, respectively.
Following the release of the PEN America report, LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD said that “banning books is just one arm of a larger, organized campaign to target and harass LGBTQ youth nationwide.”
“Everyone deserves to see themselves represented in books and other forms of media, and the targeting of LGBTQ youth through book bans and other anti-LGBTQ school policies must end,” GLAAD told ABC News in a statement.
Republican Texas state representative Matt Krause, a leading voice on this issue, told ABC News that for him this is not about banning books.
“Being a father, I want to make sure that there are age-appropriate materials in our schools,” Krause said.
Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, two former school board members in Florida, told ABC News that as they observed their children’s experience with virtual schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, they became concerned over some of the content their kids were being exposed to.
They co-founded Moms for Liberty in 2021 — a grassroots nonprofit that grew “organically” among like-minded parents and now has hundreds of chapters in 40 states across the country, Descovich said.
The group, which fought against mask mandates in schools, is also on the frontlines of demanding that parents have more control over what their children read in school.
“When you’re talking about what’s age appropriate for children, parents need to be a part of that conversation,” Justice said.
Summer Lopez, PEN America’s chief program officer of Free Expression Programs, told ABC News that by targeting so-called “sexually explicit” content, conservative politicians and parent advocacy groups have targeted LGBTQ+ content without taking the entire work into context.
“None of this is to say that parents don’t have a role to play in their children’s education – of course they do,” Lopez said.
“The problem is when you decide that your concerns about your own child should apply to everybody else’s children,” she added.
Johnson said that when he was growing up, he did not see himself represented in books and hopes that works like “All Boys Aren’t Blue” can help children and young adults find validation and support. “It’s extremely important that our curriculum starts to mirror what our actual school systems look like,” Johnson said.
“Everyone should be allowed to be seen and represented in the books that they read in a way that I wasn’t when I was a teenager,” he added.
Lopez said that the growing national and political movement to restrict what kids can read has a “chilling effect” where fear of controversy or being targeted leads to self-censorship.
“The most nefarious restrictions on freedom of speech are the ones that the government doesn’t have to make, that we make for ourselves because of the environment that we’re living in,” Lopez said.
“In order to be a vibrant democracy, we have to make sure that people feel they can say things that might be radical.”
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