Jonathan Evison on the Attacks on His Novel, Lawn Boy

Jonathan Evison wrote this essay in 2021 about the attacks on his novel Lawn Boy, which won a 2019 Alex Award from the American Library Association, and the upsetting threats to him and his family. 

The Would-Be Banning of Lawn Boy, and Why I’m Not Booking any Flights to Texas in the Near-Future

The first week of September, at a school board meeting in Texas, a woman lobbied fiercely to get one of my novels, Lawn Boy (2017), banned from libraries for content relating to my gay protagonist and his gay life experiences. My protagonist, Mike, has a sexual experience at a youth group meeting at the age of ten with another ten-year-old boy, which Mike is still ashamed of in early adulthood. During the course of the novel, which lands squarely in the realm of bildungsroman, Mike owns this particular sexual experience and revisits it through a (sometimes uncomfortable) humorous lens as he recontextualizes the event as a part of his self-actualization. There is graphic language in this scene, which depicts sexual acts. It is worth noting that the book, which was intended for an adult audience, found some crossover success due in part to winning an Alex Award from the ALA’s Young Adult Library Servies Association for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18″. In addition to the aforementioned sexual passages, Lawn Boy was found to have contained “44 fucks and 42 shits,” and I would argue that not one of them was wasted. When your protagonist is a 23-year-old working class kid who is disillusioned with capitalism and racial assumptions, along with the deteriorating personal, political, and global events that seem to be conspiring against him, there’s bound to be some “shits” and “fucks” if you’re writing anywhere near the modern-realist realm.

In the days that followed the woman’s protest, a video of the school board meeting went viral on TikTok and elsewhere. In the video, the woman read a few graphic passages with absolutely no context beyond the fact that her fourth grader had gotten his hands on the book (possibly mistaking it with Gary Paulsen’s book by the same name). That’s all it took before I began receiving a steady stream of threats, both overt and veiled, to my Facebook messenger. Mostly men, but a number of women, too, calling me a “pedo,” and accusing me of “grooming” young boys, and in some instances threatening me with harm should I ever set foot in the state of Texas or Arkansas. Of all the conversations I had hoped to engage by writing a coming-of-age novel about the empty promises of the American Dream for so many—be it wealth inequity, social inequality, racism, sexual identity—I assure you, pedophilia was not among them.

I have chosen—wisely, I hope—not to engage those who would seek to ban my book and call me a pedophile. I suspect no amount of contextualizing would persuade these people—many of whom might have had their own sexual experiences in youth with which they are still deeply ashamed—that in addressing the subject of sexual identity graphically, metaphorically, or otherwise (particularly when it does not comfortably jibe with their Judeo-Christian conception), I am not a “sicko”, “pedo”, or “freak.” I am an author of fiction and well aware of where my moral center abides.

What really saddens and alarms me about all of this is the fact that beyond the fourth grader who mistakenly brought Lawn Boy home (again, the book was in no way intended for a 10-year-old) and his mom, who at the very least turned every page counting “fucks” and “shits”, I am quite confident that not a single person threatening me or lobbying to ban my book even read a single passage of Lawn Boy beyond those few isolated passages read on the TikTok video. That’s all it took to mobilize their blind hatred and zealous call-to-arms to ban my book. They. Didn’t. Even. Read. It. That’s what we’re still up against today. A streak of anti-intellectualism that runs so deep in America that people feel they no longer need to inform themselves before they make the decision to ban a book—or seek to destroy the reputation of a father of three.

But in the end, I’m glad this happened. Especially right before Banned Books Week. Because when I look at the wealth of great literature that unenlightened souls have sought to ban through the ages, how could I feel anything but pride to be listed among them? To those who would ban my book and burn me at the stake because they are ashamed of their own past experiences or uncomfortable with any non-heterosexual identifications, I hope you find healing. And to poor Gary Paulsen, who for all I know may also be receiving threats, sorry, man!