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Author George M. Johnson on the need to tell all people's stories

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In recent weeks, we've brought you the perspectives of authors whose books have been challenged or banned in some parts of the country. Today, we replay our interview with George M. Johnson, who I spoke to back in October. When Johnson was growing up, they didn't see themself in books. So Johnson wrote the book they wish they'd had, the 2020 memoir "All Boys Aren't Blue."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GEORGE M JOHNSON: It's about the love that I had from a Black family as a young Black queer boy from Plainfield, N.J., who at the age of 5 didn't really understand why I was different but knew that I was different even if I didn't have the words to say it.

FADEL: Johnson says it's for teens that might feel alone as they navigate their identities and the world. But today, it's become one of the most banned books in the U.S. in a growing push to pull certain books off shelves in schools. Much of the focus of the groups calling for these bans are on books dealing with race, racism, gender identity and sexual orientation. So Johnson is in the center of a fight against censorship, a battle over what kids and teens can and cannot read.

JOHNSON: When you look at the curriculum, the curriculum that is being taught in most school systems is still heavily geared towards the straight, white, male teen. And so when we now have the ability to put books into curriculum that tell other stories, that tell stories that are nonwhite, that tell stories that are nonheterosexual, they're trying to take them out across the board because, you know, it's like, oh, my God, how dangerous would it be if, you know, young, white teens had to actually learn about the other people who exist in society with them?

FADEL: Is your book available where you went to school?

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Yes.

FADEL: OK.

JOHNSON: But it is being challenged in New Jersey. So it has been interesting because some of my classmates from high school are now high school teachers. And, you know, they read the book and were like, one, we had no idea you were going through all of this, George. And they're like, we feel so bad because you were always just so cheerful and so funny. And realistically, like, they were like, you were going through a lot. The second thing is they were like, it's beautiful because some of us now have queer students. And we know you, and we knew you. And we get to, like, not just share the book but actually, you know, tell them, like, but I know - I actually know this person and went to school with this person.

And some of them now even have, you know, queer children. And they're using the book and telling them, like, I had a friend in high school who's going through what you're going through, right? So it became very relatable. So it's been interesting in New Jersey. We've won every challenge in New Jersey because New Jersey is one of the only states that allows LGBTQ curriculum in high schools. So, you know, but yes, it has been challenged in New Jersey in a few places, but we won in those cases.

FADEL: You know, there's a saying that you have repeated often about why you wrote that book. If you could repeat that again for me, and then I have a question.

JOHNSON: Yes. I'm going to assume it's the...

FADEL: It's the Toni Morrison.

JOHNSON: ...Toni Morrison quote.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: It's the only quote I have on my body. "If there's a book that you want to read...

FADEL: You have it tattooed, right?

JOHNSON: Yes, I do have it tattooed because I have to look at it every day, sometimes, when I need a little inspiration. The quote is, "if there's a book that you want to read and it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

FADEL: So when I read that - that that quote was your inspiration, I just wondered what it felt like to have written the book that you needed as a kid and then see it become banned in how many school districts now?

JOHNSON: I believe we're up to 29 school districts, but more keep popping up. Watching it be banned, it's just kind of bittersweet at the end of the day because it's like, none of this had to happen in my opinion. It's like, if you don't want your student to read it, that's fine. Just opt your child out. But to try and dictate that other students who you know need this text, students who have publicly on record said that works like mine have saved their lives; works like mine have helped them name their abusers; works like mine have helped them come to terms with who they are and feel validated in the fact that there is somebody else that exists in the world like them - and you want to remove that from them? I just think it's sad at the end of the day, right?

FADEL: Yeah.

JOHNSON: And, you know, for me, I know they're not attacking my story because you didn't read it. So it's like, you can't attack something you actually don't know. And this is really just an attack on an ideology that just says that LGBTQ people shouldn't exist.

FADEL: When you wrote this book, did you see yourself becoming a spokesperson for this kind of cause?

JOHNSON: When I wrote the book, I always - like, I knew it was going to be challenged.

FADEL: Yeah.

JOHNSON: And, you know, I knew at some point, it was going to be banned.

FADEL: Why did you know that?

JOHNSON: I knew it because I remember watching "The Hate U Give" get banned. And I was like, huh. Well, I've read "The Hate U Give," and I know what I'm writing. And I'm like, If that's getting banned, my book doesn't stand a chance. So (laughter), you know, and then, you know, by the time the CRT wave started happening, and it was like, OK, well, I definitely talk about, you know, the problem with the former presidents of this country and slavery and, you know, righting some of the wrongs that - how history has been taught. So I always knew it was going to be one of those books that got caught in it. I never thought it would become, like, such a heightened center of political conversation. But at the same time, I've always been prepared for these type of things. I've been fighting for LGBTQ rights for as long as I can remember because in turn, I'm fighting for myself and fighting for people like me.

FADEL: You know, in all of this negative reaction that we've been discussing, book banning and groups politicizing the situation, have you had also those support and positive reaction to your work from teachers, from librarians, from parents?

JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, most definitely. I would say the support far outweighs the nonsupport. It is being talked about at school board meetings. Like, that you - because they're the loudest, a lot of times, the other side is what's heard the most. But be very clear - I've sat in on school board meetings and watched enough of them. There is a lot of support for the book. And teens have not only supported, like, at school board meetings, but they've written letters. So the book in and of itself - like I said, it's so much bigger than just my story. And I'm watching it in real time help so many people, from parents to children to teachers to librarians across the board.

FADEL: George M. Johnson, author of "All Boys Aren't Blue." Thank you so much for your time.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.