Banned in the USA Spotlight: Maia Kobabe
By Lisa Tolin
Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir had been on shelves for two years before it started to get unwelcome attention.
The coming-of-age graphic novel explores Kobabe’s feelings about eir identity and sexuality as e develops an understanding of what it means to be nonbinary. (Kobabe uses the pronouns e/em/eir.) Although it was not marketed to young adults, the book received an Alex award from the American Library Association for being of special interest to teens.
In the run-up to the 2021 midterm elections, Gender Queer was attacked by conservative politicians and groups like Moms for Liberty that stormed school board meetings to demand its removal from classrooms and libraries. Gender Queer was the most banned book of the 2021-2022 school year, and tied for most banned with Mike Curato’s Flamer in the fall of 2022 in PEN America’s new report, Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression.
Despite the many decisions to ban Gender Queer, numerous schools and libraries, parents and educators in districts where the book has been challenged have opted to keep the book on shelves after review, from Maine to Wyoming, to Illinois, Kentucky and Texas.
Among the book’s fans is Judy Blume, who told The New Yorker, “It’s lovely—a very sweet story about someone who finds themselves.”
In conversation with Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs, Kobabe talks about how the book came to be, and what it’s been like to be at the center of the book banning controversy.
So as you know, Gender Queer has been attacked all over the country. I would love if you could just tell us a little bit about why you wrote this book.
I wrote this book because I was wanting to come out as nonbinary to my friends and family and community, and I was having a really hard time explaining what gender means to me in conversation, and in particular to my parents. And in many ways, I wrote this book as a letter to my parents and my extended family, hoping that they would finally understand what I was trying to say and really know me at a deeper level.
Was there anything like this, when you wrote it?
There were a couple of books that inspired me – Fun Home by Alison Bechdel being one of them. But I also wrote this book because I couldn’t find a book like this to give to my family and to explain what I was talking about, about gender.
What would it have meant to you to see a book like this on the shelves when you were younger?
I spent my teen years searching for queer stories and I was a high schooler in the early 2000s. There was a lot less representation at that time and I felt like what I found was crumbs, side characters, tiny little side plots, one-off episodes and TV shows. And I was so hungry for queer stories, and I was so hungry for stories that touched on gender. And I was able to find very, very few. But I think if I had been able to find a book like Gender Queer as a teenager, it would have meant the world to me. It would have become my favorite book. I would have been obsessed with it. I would have made everyone read it. I would have probably read a copy of it until it fell to pieces. Because I was just so desperate to figure out who I was and to find the answers to the questions that I had. And I really couldn’t find them until I was much older. I think it just would have meant the world to me.
What have you heard from young people, parents across the country who have read the book and found it inspiring?
I have had so many beautiful, heartwarming responses, the kind of responses that an author lives on. I’ve had people tell me, the book helped them understand themselves better. The book gave them language that they’ve never had before to explain their identity. I’ve had younger people tell me that they give it to their parents and now their parents use their pronouns and understand where they’re coming from, or I’ve had people tell me, they gave it to their partner or their best friend or a co worker, and that it has opened conversations they never had before.
How does that feel?
It’s wonderful. I mean, it’s wonderful. That’s exactly what you want when you write a book like this.
When did that start to change? Can you talk us through the experience of hearing about this negative reaction?
There was almost no negative reaction to the book for the first two and a half years that it was out. And the negative responses didn’t really come until the run up to the 2021, fall midterm election. And that’s when I started to hear about challenges in a couple of different school districts. The first one I heard about was in Fairfax, Virginia. But I know that there were others around the same time. And I was not shocked, because I’m definitely aware that queer and trans and nonbinary stories often get challenged. But the timing of it surprised me until I realized that multiple politicians were making it a real talking point of their campaigns. And at first, it was like, oh, gosh, like, how do I respond to this? This is like, you know, this is a two-and-a-half-year-old book, and now it’s being challenged. And you know, what do I say? And how many interviews do I respond to?
And then what I realized is that so many more challenges were happening, and they really felt like copycats of each other. And so I sort of developed a set of responses because most cases seemed very similar. It often was people who had never read my book, challenging it and making very erroneous statements about what the book is about. And it was definitely tough in the beginning. But I’ve like gotten more confidence as also many other authors who’ve been challenged have reached out to me and said like, you’re not alone in this. This is happening to a lot of us. And we’re gonna stand together.
Is there anything in the responses that has been shocking or surprising?
I think it’s been surprising to me how long book challenges and book bans have stayed present as a conversation in the media. I’m used to things going viral and sort of fading out of attention more quickly. But we’re now heading into like the second full year of Gender Queer being one of the most challenged books. And so I think, really, it’s the longevity of it that’s the most surprising to me right now.
What do you say to those who think this book is inappropriate for young people?
The first thing I would say is, please read it before you judge it. And the second thing I would say is, I started questioning gender and sexuality basically, when I hit puberty when I was like 11, 12, 13 years old, and I was asking these questions by the time I was in high school, and I was searching for this type of information. And if I’d had a book to read like this, specifically, when I was like a freshman in high school, it would have saved me years of questioning and confusion about my identity, and could have really helped me figure out who I was and how I wanted to interact with people through the world and who I wanted to be much sooner. I didn’t really figure that stuff out until I was in my late 20s.
One of the things that I think most people don’t realize about this book, you know, seeing some images on the internet taken entirely out of context, is that actually a lot of its focus is about asexuality.
It is a little bit about that. Yeah, I have come to have many identities throughout my life. I identify as queer and bi, as nonbinary and as being on the ace and aro spectrum. And this book is partly about trying to figure out, Where does my gender identity intersect with my sexuality? And it’s a tricky question. They’re very interwoven. But one of the experiences of the book is having a brief relationship and realizing, I actually don’t know if this is for me, I don’t know if this is something that I want, or that I’m interested in. And by the end of the book, I’ve kind of concluded I am not interested in dating or sex right now. Maybe I will be in the future. But it’s not something that I’m interested in at this time.
What do you think is unique about it?
It is a memoir. It’s about my life, I’m the only one who has lived it, no one has had the same sort of set of circumstances that I have. But one thing I think is actually unique is that it’s a story of queerness and coming out in a very accepting and loving family and a very accepting and loving part of the country. And I actually faced very little external pressures in my life, and all of my sort of conflict was very internal. And a lot of queer stories have dealt with a lot more external struggle than mine. And I think those stories are really important. But I think we need all kinds of stories. So we also need the ones where someone is able to grow and come out very gently in a very safe environment.
If they were listening, what would you say to those who want to ban it?
There are so many kinds of people in this world, and everyone needs a different kind of story. And stories can serve multiple purposes. They can be mirrors, in which you see yourself, they can be windows in which you can see a view into another person’s lived experience. Even if a book does not seem useful, or valuable to one reader, it might be deeply valuable to another. That’s why we need lots of types of books and lots of types of stories. And I don’t think my book is for everyone. But I think for the people who need it, it could be a lifeline. And I am very against censorship. And I think all books need to stay on the shelves because readers need all kinds of stories.
What are you working on next?
I am excited to be working on my second book. It’s fictional, but it explores a lot of the same themes of Gender Queer of sexuality, identity, trying to find yourself, but more in the junior high range. And I’m very excited to be working on it with a co-author, Lucky Srikumar, and it is due out from Scholastic Graphix in 2025.