“This is how fascism begins,” warned George M. Johnson, author of the young adult novel “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” early in a sold-out panel on Sunday at USC’s Newman Recital Hall during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. But “Banned Books: Defending the Right to Read,” which also featured “The Hate U Give” author Angie Thomas, was less focused on defining opponents of access to books than on the writers, librarians and students for whom the stakes are highest — and on the generation best positioned to fight back.
In 2022, the number of attempted book bans across the U.S. surged, almost doubling from 2021 and setting a 20-year record, according to the American Library Assn. There are concerns that these bans are disproportionately targeting queer writers and authors of color. In the school year spanning 2021 and 2022, PEN America — whose Los Angeles director, Allison Lee, moderated the panel — reported that nearly half of the banned books were YA novels, 41% featured an LGBTQ character and 40% had a character of color.
Johnson, whose book is currently the third most challenged book in 2021, said he believes this is intentional and driven by fears that Generation Z, the most racially diverse and LGBTQ-identifying demographic, is threatening to push major changes at the ballot box.
“When they become the next governors, senators, people in power, they already go into these systems wanting to dismantle them,” said Johnson, whose receptive audience included an entire class visiting from Los Angeles Unified School District’s Fairfax High School. (The fourth panelist, Peter Coyl, is the president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, winner of this year’s L.A. Times Innovators’ Award.)
Thomas added that books like hers are seen as dangerous because of the immense power they have to create change through empathy. “The Hate U Give” (2017) was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and offered a critical look at race and police violence in the U.S. The New York Times bestseller was adapted into a 2018 film by the same name.
Six years later, Thomas says she is still overwhelmed and gratified by the response from all types of readers and viewers who have applied lessons from her book to their lives and politics.
But both writers on the panel were eager to emphasize that they didn’t publish their books to have them banned. “We weren’t writing to have a political agenda,” Thomas said. “We were writing about experiences. We were writing about real people. I’ve had 16-year-old white, rural Americans tell me, ‘I didn’t know any Black people. But this book helps me to learn things that Black people have gone through.’ ”
Coyl, who is also director of the Sacramento Public Library system, said that while Californians might not be affected by book bans in states like Florida and Texas, libraries that intentionally focus on inclusive programming are still vulnerable to backlash. Just last year, he noted, a drag queen story hour in an Alameda County library was interrupted by Proud Boys.
That violence, he said, is now a part of their daily lives.
“We start thinking as librarians, ‘What plans do we have to have in place? Do we need to have extra security?’ ” Coyl said. “These are the things going through our minds now whenever we’re planning a program, not just drag in story time, but anything that could possibly be controversial.”
Far from sounding defeated, the panelists repeatedly expressed optimism.
Coyl said the siege of public institutions has forced young people to be politically active in unprecedented ways, in many cases leading the charge against bans.
“I think that adults need to take more notice that kids and young people know a lot more than we give them credit for,” he said. “When they see injustice, they speak up against it. If [a book] speaks to them, they will find it. They also know what they don’t want to read. Like, have you ever tried to get a kid to do something they don’t want to do?”
Johnson recalled that as a young Black queer person he never saw himself in any books he read. Some of the readers who told him his work made them feel seen for the first time were not young at all, he said, but well into their 60s.
Given the impact of books like his, he said bans have only led him to redouble his efforts. “My philosophy has been, ‘Well they can’t ban all the damn books,’ ” said Johnson. “So I keep writing.”
During the Q&A session, one student from Fairfax High nervously asked the panelists if they had any advice on becoming a writer. Thomas advised her to “read as much as you can.” The student then walked up on stage to have her books signed by Thomas and Johnson — a breach of protocol that became a scene of sweet solidarity.
Much of the conversation focused on the power of the generation represented in that class.
“There are things that are happening right now in your community, in your neighborhood, your school, that you have the power to change, and you could do something about them. That’s how you change the world,” Thomas said. “The power you have is stronger than the hate anybody could give.”
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” only get it moving, she added, but she acknowledged that progress can be slow, grinding work. She pointed to her newest book, “Nic Blake and the Remarkables.” Fifteen years ago, she wrote a draft of it, only to receive more than 300 rejections. But she kept revising and querying, and last week the book was on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Her counsel on activism, as in writing, involved both persistence and patience.
“I challenge you all to create a world where we don’t have to have a banned books panel,” she said as a parting message to the audience. “Create a world where a panel like this is not necessary.”
Deng is a queer Angeleno and multimedia journalist.