In mid-May last year I met a trans boy; I call him Jay. Jay was 9, with a bowl cut and a crazy smile. He waddled like a penguin to the snack table to fill his pockets with candy, because who wouldn’t want to walk like a penguin and have pockets full of candy?
I had his copy of my book signed Call me Max, an early reader who introduces a trans boy and his friends. When I returned it, his father was silent. “I just realized it,” he said. “This is the one he brought. That’s where it all started.”
We were in Utah. I had traveled there to support teachers who gathered at the Capitol to protest the prejudice against LGBTQ+ in education. As an openly trans author who writes children’s books with trans characters, I had played a small part in that mobilization.
Jay, this kid who loves soccer and learned to tell the time, found the courage to tell his parents he was trans earlier in 2021. They immediately supported me, looked up books with children like him and found my work. Jay wanted to share something about himself with his class, so he brought Call me Max to school and asked his teacher to read it aloud. Of course she did, because that’s what good teachers do, accidentally putting Jay in the middle of a local controversy with national implications.
That was the first time I heard a school banned my work. A similar situation broke out in Texas a few weeks later, when a fourth-grade teacher read: Call me Max to her class and the ward reacted like it was a crisis. In the second half of 2021, hundreds of other books—mainly, but not exclusively, by authors from marginalized communities—were subjected to censorship ranging from subtly pernicious to cartoonishly exaggerated. There are other calamities to watch out for (an ongoing pandemic, accelerating climate change), but this one is also deadly.
Common responses to book bans include discussion points like “All children deserve to see themselves in literature,” which is true, and “parents shouldn’t decide what other people’s children can read,” which is also true. .
It is also common to talk about how banning books is an attempt to ban people and identities. In the fall of 2021, I watched a YouTube video of a school board meeting in Indiana where Call me Max was read to ridicule. I’ve spoken to controversial educators in Southern California and central Pennsylvania, and a wealthy private school near New York City has withdrawn an invitation to let me speak, citing parents’ fears of backlash.
When I watch these school board meetings or read the bills filed to punish librarians for their collections, I hardly see bloodlust disguised as courtesy. I see the veneer of due process peeling off the edges of genocide fantasies. I see Jay, and his peers, and his adult counterparts like me, from human beings twisted into points of rhetoric and symbols of societal degeneration. And I see allies struggling to deal with the other side on their terms, allowing them to constantly move the acceptable goalposts and drag the rest of us with them. It’s more than time to reclaim those goalposts and pull them fully in our direction, but it’s not too late.
Kyle Lukoff is the author of Call me Max and other titles for young readers; his novel Too bright to see was a finalist of the National Book Award†