(NEW YORK)— Maia Kobabe, now 34, couldn’t find any book like Gender Queer: A Memoir, growing up. That’s why the author wrote it— to guide young people grappling with questions about gender expression and sexual orientation. Today, Gender Queer is one of the most challenged and most frequently banned books in public schools.

Kobabe, who identifies as queer, bisexual, and nonbinary, told PEN America in an interview that eir intention behind the book was to make it easier for young people: to help them understand and find the words to explain who they are. (Kobabe uses e, em, eir pronouns.)

 “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. 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.”

When e was a teenager e found little help to gain eir footing.

“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.”

Though the book has been widely banned in schools, it has also unleashed an outpouring of praise and support from readers, said Kobabe. From July 2021 to Dec. 2022, the book was banned in 56 school districts, the most of any book, according to PEN America’s documentation.

“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.”

Kobabe said e wrote the book specifically because from 11 to 13,  “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.”

One outcome of efforts to remove the book is also the decision to keep the book on shelves. Following reconsideration processes where Gender Queer was read in full, rather than challenged based on a few illustrations with sexual content, many districts and school boards across the country decided to keep the book. In schools where the book was challenged, Gender Queer was retained in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, Texas, and Wyoming as well as New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Oregon.

Superintendent Bob Sokolowski from West Chester school district in Pennsylvania said the following after the school board voted to keep Gender Queer 8-1:

“The illustrations of concern are just a piece of the larger mosaic that supports the tale and message of this memoir, a story of coming into understanding of one’s sexuality and one’s orientation…Keeping it aligned with the principle of protecting freedom of speech, as well as the rights and regard for our LGTBQ+ students.”

The popular children’s and young adult writer Judy Blume (“Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret”) is a fan, telling The New Yorker:  “It’s lovely—a very sweet story about someone who finds themselves.”

Kobabe’s message to those who would ban eir book: “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. And even if a book does not seem useful, or valuable to one reader, it might be deeply valuable to another. And that’s why we need lots of types of books and lots of types of stories.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057