Content warning: This review contains mentions of sexual violence.
"I contemplated whether I would write about you now that you are dead."— George M. Johnson
It is the summer of 2006. I'm sitting on the eve of my childhood—which is the porch of my friend Melanie's house—wondering what we're going to do tonight. Maybe watch the Dallas Mavs vs. Miami Heat game. Maybe fantasize about sitting courtside at The Finals, but Melanie's dad said that'd only happen when the Mavs win tonight. Maybe talk about church, since we'd just left there a couple hours ago. There was so much we could do; I didn't know this would be the house that holds my undoing. I didn't know this night would be devoid of my maybes.
Despite the memory of this day being buried for decades, it comes back to me vividly after reading George M. Johnson's provocative, yet necessary debut young adult book, All Boys Aren't Blue. This book covers many things, including Blackness, queerness, and coming-of-age in a world that suppresses your presence. It also touches on a thing that plagues over 57,000 children in the United States: sexual assault.
When I first read "Boys Will Be Boys," the chapter that describes Johnson's assault in chilling detail, I found it an audacious choice to include this particular story in the book.
Isn't this for young adults? I thought, as if the subject of sexual assault isn't necessary to talk about with youth; as if one in nine girls and one in 20 boys under the age of 18 don't experience sexual assault in this country. Of course, sexual assault is a potentially uncomfortable topic to talk with people aged 12 to 18 (the target audience of YA literature) about, but they are at risk. It would be remiss for YA literature to address it in a surface level manner—or worse, not address it at all. Once I dealt with my naivete and discomfort, I realized Johnson was doing life-saving work.
It was work I was owed in '06, after the game wrapped and the Mavericks lost. Me and Melanie, with faces longer than the longest NBA playoffs, sulked all the way to Melanie's room, which was filled with posters of Black boys and piles of unfolded clothes. She moved her clothes off the bed, and invited me to sleep next to her that night. I obliged. It wasn't a red flag for two girls to sleep in the same bed (yet). Her hand reached for my panties and moved them down. I jerked. Then, after a (manipulative) conversation, I sat back and accepted my fate.
The fate of my body was that it would belong to someone else. At 11 years old, my body became a thing to be played with, despite my not wanting it to.
It was wild to realize that, 16 years later, what I experienced was abuse. Like me, Johnson was sexually assaulted by an older kid they knew. The assault on him occurred at almost the same age that it happened to me. For some reason, I was led to believe that childhood sexual assault was a thing that happened between adults and children, so I always viewed the things that transpired between Melanie and me as miscommunication. It took me reading this YA book that I kept seeing on social media (due to the unfortunate reality of book bans) to make sense of my past. This part of me I buried for years; this story I buried so far down that I thought I'd swallowed it.
I wish I had a book like All Boys Aren't Blue, and a chapter like "Boys Will Be Boys," when I was 11 and full of questions no one was willing to answer, full of emotions—regret, disgust, and shame—that weren't on me to process alone. I could have had the language to know what happened to me was wrong. I could have understood that my depression, PTSD, and substance abuse issues were common ramifications for survivors of childhood sexual assault. I could have told my parents, who punished me when they found Melanie violating me in my childhood bed, that they shouldn't punish me for "the sin of being gay." The only sin in the room was the sickness that compelled Melanie to do those things, the adult that surely told this kid—implicitly or explicitly—that this behavior was okay. The sin was the misfire of homophobia that stopped my parents from knowing the truth about our predicaments.
Despite winning the Stonewall Book Award, the book has landed on banned lists across the nation. "It is terrifying to think that a story about a kid who is loved by his parents for being exactly himself could be painted as menacing."
I'll never know what could've happened, but I did recognize what did after reading All Boys Aren't Blue. This book is vital to both youth and adults who desperately need to figure out their shit (like me). States and cities banning books like All Boys Aren't Blue are banning Black folks, queer folks, survivors, and folks who hold multiple of those identities from seeing themselves–in literature and in life.
I want to live in a world where the things that happened to Johnson, me, and many other youths don't happen. Assault, anti-transness, and the stripping away of reproductive rights all live under an ugly umbrella that say that our bodies aren't ours. I can talk about this now that my abuser is dead—at least to me, or at least the part of them that controlled the way I loved/lived. Books like All Boys Aren't Blue make me believe in a world where all kids get to be kids. But that world won't be far if we continue to talk about where we are.
And if we have nothing else, at least that we have our stories.
MORE BANNED BOOKS:
Contraband Books: What Texas prisons have against Michelle Alexander, Frederick Douglass, and Alice Walker
Scalawag is a Bookshop.org affiliate, and receives a small commission for purchases made through the links above.