Memoir as Mimesis: George M. Johnson Visits DePaul

“You sometimes don’t know you exist until you realize someone like you existed before.”

George M. Johnson

My younger self was an avid reader, definitely the Matilda– esque “no books at the dinner table” type kid for whom a trip to the library was a weekly ritual. Books were a fundamental part of my childhood, each one a new window through which to see the world that was still so new to me.

I think there is a tendency for older readers to underestimate the influence of YA literature, likely due to the very nature of these books targeting a younger (and thereby “less-literary”) audience. But our teenage years are some of our most formative. Adolescence sees the development of both the self and the other; here is where we (hopefully) learn the meaning of empathy and hone our emotional intelligence. Books introduce young people to alternative perspectives–lives outside of their own–and articulate feelings that they may struggle to express for themselves. But this is only possible if the books we read reflect a diversity of perspectives, and that is only possible if a wide diversity of books are published (and not subsequently banned).

Which brings me to George M. Johnson and All Boys Aren’t Blue. All Boys Aren’t Blue follows Johnson’s childhood growing up in New Jersey and coming to understand their intersecting identities as Black and queer. The memoir-manifesto speaks candidly about racism and homophobia with a level of agency not afforded by most books that strive to do the same. This candor is undoubtedly why All Boys Aren’t Blue was the third most-challenged book in 2021, only a year after its release. People who advocate for the banning of books seem to possess an ideology uniquely threatened by empathy.

George M. Johnson recently visited DePaul to speak about the national attempts to ban the book and what the book means to them. “My love for writing came from my hatred of the books I had to read,” they explained. Why should Holden Caufield voice a universal teenage experience when his is a distinctly male and distinctly white worldview? Johnson recalled never encountering a protagonist who reflected their experience as a child; those few characters who were Black still fell into stereotypes, ultimately created by and for white audiences. Johnson felt that they needed to write All Boys Aren’t Blue for other young people who still don’t see themselves on bookshelves. In a country with Puritanical sex education standards (assuming sex-ed is implemented at all) and whitewashed history curricula, a book like All Boys Aren’t Blue can be cathartic. What you’re feeling is normal and okI’ve felt it too,’ the book seems to say. ‘You’re not alone.’ Which makes it all the more menacing that there are people who would seek to prevent this potential validation, instead forcing conformity by propagating outdated, exclusionary images and ideals.

Regarding the censorship of All Boys Aren’t Blue, Johnson explained that they were confident the book will persevere. “The loudest people are always the minority,” they explained. There will always be people itching for outrage. Pay them no mind.

The pursuit of banning books is an inherently paradoxical one. Ridiculous, even. Launching censorship campaigns only attracts more attention to that which is being censored. As a teenager, I remember hearing about the controversy over John Green’s Looking for Alaska and immediately thinking: ‘Dang. Maybe I should read Looking for Alaska…’ (I did, and I live to tell the tale). This is not to say that reactionaries are truly powerless–especially when they wield gubernatorial influence–but they are fighting a losing battle. I would argue that YA literature is experiencing a Renaissance with authors of color and queer authors at the helm. Alongside All Boys Aren’t Blue is also Gender Queer, The Hate You Give, Lawn Boy, Beyond Magenta, just to name a few examples. There is a persisting impact these books have on young people that cannot be legislated away–that they exist confirms that these are real stories, that these are real are ways of being. Attention must be paid.

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