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While some banned queer books see a sales bump, others quietly disappear

Even authors who have seen a surge in sales lament that it’s those who need these books the most — namely LGBTQ youth — who will lose access due to the bans.
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George M. Johnson’s young-adult memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” about growing up Black and queer, appeared on The New York Times bestseller list this month for the first time since its publication nearly two years ago. The spike in sales was undoubtedly fueled by the publicity the title received after being banned in public libraries and schools in at least 19 states, according to Johnson’s count. 

Johnson’s book was joined on the Times’ young adult hardcover bestseller list by two other widely challenged books — 2017’s “The Hate U Give” and 2020’s “Stamp” — which made the American Library Association’s 2020 list of Top 10 most challenged books. But while banned book lists drive sales for some LGBTQ authors and authors of color, others say challenges and bans to their titles simply make them quietly disappear. 

“People were seeing me on list after list and congratulating me and being like, ‘Oh, my God, you must be so happy. This must be such a badge of honor. Your sales must be so great,’” author Mark Oshiro said of banned and challenged book lists. “That’s not how it actually works.”

When Oshiro, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, heard one of their books, “Each of Us a Desert,” a fantasy novel about two girls falling in love on a quest through the desert, was on Texas Rep. Matt Krause’s list of 850 books to be pulled from Texas schools, they didn’t realize how much attention this particular list would get. After all, their books had been on many such lists before. But even with all the publicity surrounding the Krause list — which included titles the lawmaker said could "make students feel uncomfortable" — because Oshiro's book was just one of hundreds, they didn’t see a spike in sales, despite the many calls online to buy the banned books in support.

Since the list’s release in October, Oshiro has had multiple teachers cancel class visits, an immediate and significant loss of income for an author. 

“That’s been a much more obvious barometer for me of what’s been going on for me than book sales,” they said. 

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said book bans can indeed generate more demand for certain titles, as communities will often buy a copy of a book to donate to a public library when a school library bans it. However, she said, she is also concerned about quiet censorship, a term that includes instances when librarians or educators choose not to buy a book out of fear of potential challenges. 

Book challenges doubled from 2020 to 2021, according to the association, and Caldwell-Stone said she is also concerned about what’s happening on the legislative front, with proposals such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and a bill in Tennessee that would prohibit any instructional materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address” LGBTQ people or issues. 

Author Adib Khorram, whose young-adult book about a gay teenager, “Darius the Great Deserves Better,” appears on Krause’s list, said he is also concerned about so-called quiet censorship. 

“I think the atmosphere of fear the bans create is actually far worse than the bans themselves,” he said. “On that list of 850 books, one or two of them are going to be very loudly talked about, and people are going to go check them out. But 848 are going to quietly disappear.”

Khorram is one of many LGBTQ authors and authors of color now weighing how this climate factors into their future work. When he was writing his biographical blurb for his next book, “Kiss & Tell,” that comes out next month, he said he paused when choosing whether to include that he is a queer Iranian American. 

“There’s every chance that just having that in my bio will make people not stock the book,” he said. Ultimately, he did choose to include that personal information, saying he did not want to let the current climate affect his work.

“Adults fearing the discomfort of majoritized students is not going to stop me from writing books that uphold the lives and dignity of minoritized students,” he added. 

Maia Kobabe, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, is also writing a new book without the bans in mind. In the meantime, Kobabe's illustrated memoir, “Gender Queer,” has seen skyrocketing sales along with frequent challenges and bans. Already on its fifth printing, a new hardcover edition will come out in June. 

While Kobabe acknowledges that "Gender Queer" being banned and challenged has led to a flurry of publicity that it would not have otherwise received, Kobabe worries about who is gaining access to the book through the increase in sales. Those who listen to NPR to hear an interview, read articles about book banning or have their own income to buy books are the ones increasing the sales, according to Kobabe, but the young people who don’t have money to buy books or who need the access at the library to read it there instead of bringing a book back to an unaccepting home will not be the ones contributing to the sales numbers. 

“The part that really hurts is the fact that the people who might need this book the most are the people who are going to have less access,” Kobabe said. “So it’s just another case of the most marginalized readers being further marginalized.”

Kobabe added, “I would rather have the book not be banned and have it just quietly existing on library shelves where queer and questioning teens could discover it in a peaceful, quiet way and could safely read it on a shelf.”

As for Johnson, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, making The New York Times bestseller list is bittersweet. Having their book banned has not been easy, Johnson added, but they said they are the kind of person who isn’t afraid to fight back. 

“It sucks. It is overwhelming. It’s heavy,” Johnson explained. “But at the same time, I’m witnessing parents buy this book for their teens. I’m witnessing parents and teens reading the book together. I’m also witnessing students find their agency and find their voice because I’m using mine.”

Editor’s note: The writer of this article is the author of two young-adult books on Texas Rep. Matt Krause’s list of 850 books to remove from Texas schools: “Queer, There, and Everywhere” and “Rainbow Revolutionaries.”

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