(NEXSTAR) — Writer and illustrator Mike Curato didn’t set out to write one of the most-banned books in school libraries (or the most banned, depending which list you’re reading). Instead, he says he was just being honest about what it’s like being a young LGBTQ person.
The Massachusetts-based artist has written several children’s books — many starring a polka-dotted elephant named Little Elliot — but older readers may be more familiar with his blockbuster young adult graphic novel “Flamer.” Released in 2020, the book, aimed at readers ages 14-18, is a based on Curato’s own experiences as a gay Filipino Boy Scout.
“Flamer” has earned rave reviews and won awards for its portrayal of suicidal ideation, which LGBTQ youth are at higher risk of due to societal mistreatment. In “Flamer,” fourteen-year-old protagonist Aiden discovers a first male crush — but he also faces severe bullying and alienation at summer camp. The book doesn’t pull punches when discussing ideas about mental health, bullying, sexuality or sexual concepts.
But not everyone has been a fan of its honesty.
“It’s funny because back in 2020, when the book was first released, there were no book challenges against ‘Flamer.’ It was a lovely year, year-and-a-half of being in a welcoming environment. And then, in 2021, a Texas lawmaker shared this McCarthy-esque list of over 800 books that he wanted investigated. And that’s really when the ball started rolling. I think this is very politically motivated movement. It’s a distraction.”
Curato’s book is among the most banned or challenged books in the U.S. of the past few years, based on several lists. According to literature advocacy group PEN America, “Flamer” shared the top spot for most-banned book in the U.S. during the first half of the 2022-23 school year (Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” also received 15 bans during this time period).
“I think any LGBTQ-themed book is automatically going to be stigmatized as ‘sexual,’ because queer people are sexualized in this country and not seen as three-dimensional people,” Curato says.
Last August, “Flamer” came under fire after Oklahoma Secretary of Public Education Ryan Walters labeled the book “pornography” and the book was banned as part of a larger ban on “sexual” material approved by the Oklahoma Board of Education. Ultimately, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond gave a binding opinion nullifying the board’s decision, though it’s unclear if “Flamer” has made it back to Oklahoma school library shelves.
Curato says he’s also aware that because “Flamer” is a graphic novel, it’s very easy for bad actors to pull images from it out of context to cause outrage, “making it seem like the book is about sex, which it’s not.”
“One thing that book banners are doing is making people think that my young adult book is being shared in elementary schools. This is a book for teenagers about teenage life and teenage situations,” says Curato. “And it’s an honest book. But there’s nothing worse than what you’d find in a Judy Blume book.”
Why do LGBTQ books for young readers matter?
In reference to LGBTQ+ materials marketed toward younger audiences, the LGBTQ+ community has faced targeted accusations of “grooming” from some far-right and conservative groups, though the Anti-Defamation League notes the language is not used legitimately.
“Instead, [anti-LGBTQ+ figures] imply or explicitly claim that LGBTQ+ people are pedophiles who are preying on children by discussing issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity,” writes ADL.
As defined by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the word “grooming” refers to “manipulative behaviors that [a sexual abuser] uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.”
Advocates and readers — both LGBTQ and not — argue it’s important for young queer people (or even straight people who may fall outside of traditional gender stereotypes) to see themselves reflected in media.
As explained by nonprofit The 19th, the book sales don’t lie about what the public wants — of the 5 million LGBTQ+ books sold in 2021, a huge portion came from the young adult category. Between 2020 and 2021 alone, there was a 1.3 million-unit increase in sales, the organization reports.
Curato says many of his most personal reader interactions are from people who say they’ve never seen themselves reflected in books.
“It’s startling when you see yourself in something for the first time,” Curato marvels. ” …An interesting interaction I’ve had with several people — adult readers — they’ll say, ‘I’m also Filipino, I’m also gay, I was also in Scouts and I was also an altar server. And we’re about the same age. How are you writing my life story?’ What’s really unbelievable about that is thinking back to when I was 14 and thinking I was all alone in the world and there was no one like me — but there were so many people who were exactly like me. We just didn’t know we existed.”
Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed Texas House Bill 900 into law, which will require book vendors to rate books sold to school libraries based on “sexually relevant material” — the law broadly defines this as content that “describes, depicts, or portrays sexual conduct in a way that is patently offensive.” Under the new law, companies would also need to “issue a recall” of a book deemed to be “sexually explicit.”
Critics and advocates of such broadly defined laws worry the law will be used to ban queer books from readers.
“We’ve seen that used in the past as justification to ban any discussion of LGBTQ+ identities or topics,” Ash Hall, a policy and advocacy strategist on LGBTQIA+ rights at the ACLU of Texas told KXAN News in Austin. “So we expect that the same would happen here.”
Recently, library book removals at a school district in Davis County, Utah, made headlines after it announced that copies of the King James Bible would be removed from elementary and junior high libraries. It was the latest in public removal requests based on Utah laws on pornography, with a book review committee finding that some elements — sex, murder and incest — could be considered inappropriate. The decision, which is being appealed by a community member, is a wrinkle in the crusade to ban certain types of books. If a book can be banned for everybody based on what one or a few people consider “inappropriate,” are any books safe from being banned?
Last summer, Penn State Graduate School Professor Sigal Ben-Porath spoke with her school ahead of the release for her book “Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Inclusion, and Renew Democracy.” Ben-Porath points to book bans as an easy way for political parties to rile up their base.
Additionally, she points to similar book challenges and bans regarding materials dealing with racial inequality and slavery, explaining the challenges are a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and increased visibility of people of color.
“The backlash is similar regarding sexuality and gender expression,” Ben-Porath told PennToday. “We have seen the legal recognition of marriage equality. We are seeing the proliferation of books and materials in classrooms and libraries in celebration of Pride Month, and the greater visibility and cultural acceptance of transgender, and nonbinary, and diverse-gender-expression individuals in books and movies and society… book banning is a pushback against these efforts to expand our vision of our community, to try to entrench and limit again the scope of what is appropriate and what is desirable.”
What can be done?
If you’re concerned about a book banning or challenge in your area, there are many ways you can report it for awareness, including PEN America’s Report a Book Ban. The American Library Association also has a confidential challenge reporting form.
Meanwhile, the Gay and Lesbian (GLAAD) recently teamed with EveryLibrary to put together the Book Bans: A Guide for Community Response and Action playbook. The kit offers tips for first putting together a plan, executing it with unified messaging and driving it toward meaningful decisions.
Curato says finding out what’s going on in your community, who’s serving (or running) on your area’s school boards, and who your local representatives are key. But all-in-all, he reiterates that being present is the most effective way to combat bans.
“So far, from what I’ve witnessed, the most effective response is when the community comes together and says, ‘Stop it.’ I’ve seen instances — Newtown, Connecticut is a good example — of community members showing up en masse. Not just parents but students as well. They made their voices heard and they were persistent. The book banners are well organized, they’re persistent, and they’re very loud — but there also aren’t a ton of them. And that needs to be matched with people showing out, being heard and not letting the noise dictate our freedom of speech and our freedom to read.”
Though Curato says he’s currently writing an adult graphic novel titled “Gaysians,” he says he doesn’t want book banners to be mistaken: he hasn’t been scared away from writing for youth. There is much more coming, he says.
“I can’t even imagine how different things would have been for me,” he adds. “… if I knew that people like me were out there at the same time.”