Reflections from LGBTQ+ Creators of Banned Books

A Conversation with Mike Curato, Alex Gino, Noah Grigni, Cathy G. Johnson, and Kyle Lukoff

August 24, 2022

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Miriam Moore-Keish: To start out, I’d love all of you to just go around, introduce yourself, and say a little bit about your books, why they’ve been banned, and why they’re important books—what they bring to the table and what they offer to readers.

Cathy G. Johnson: My name is Cathy G. Johnson. I created THE BREAKAWAYS. It came out in March, 2019. It is a middle grade graphic novel. It is about a girls’ soccer team that loses every game. It’s all about losing and how being in middle school is difficult, and it’s about making friends and trying to hold onto relationships as they are changing. Why is it banned? There’s a transgender character who says he is trans. But he is barely a character, you know how it goes.

Kyle Lukoff: I’m Kyle Lukoff. I mostly write picture books and middle grade novels about trans kids and their friends. My most famously banned book is CALL ME MAX, which came out in 2019, I think. What’s really fun, and by fun, I mean one of the worst things that’s happened to me so far is that when the governor of Florida signed that [Parental Rights in Education] bill into law, he had [an] image [from CALL ME MAX] on stage behind him with a red banner stretched across it that read “Found in Florida,” which means that he very specifically knows my name and I don’t like that he knows my name. My picture book WHEN AIDAN BECAME A BROTHER finds its way onto the lists with all of your lovely books. And I don’t think that my middle grade novels have been banned yet, but my most recent picture book, IF YOU’RE A KID LIKE GAVIN probably will be as soon as people find out about it. I get asked a lot if I’m afraid of my books being banned and I’m like, “No, it’s literally happening right now, there’s no point in being afraid of something that is actively ongoing and also feels inevitable at this moment.” My books are banned because I write about trans kids and there are people that feel like we shouldn’t be able to exist in the first place. That’s why.

Mike Curato: My name is Mike Curato, I’m an author and an illustrator. I make picture books and YA graphic novels. I have several banned books: an illustrated book, THE POWER OF ONE, which is banned in one school district—why, I can only guess because in the book there’s a white kid yelling at a Brown kid and in the end he apologizes and then everyone makes up? So that possibly can’t be good? Then I have WORM LOVES WORM, which I illustrated, written by J. J. Austrian, which is a pro-marriage equality book, so obviously that’s banned in three or four school districts. Then the most banned one is FLAMER, and it’s been banned in a bunch of school districts in Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, possibly Utah? I’m not sure where that’s at, and challenged in many more…There was a story that came out yesterday that someone filed a police report in Texas and the police came to remove my book from a high school library. It is now back on the shelf. Anyway, FLAMER is a young adult graphic novel about a Filipino, white, mixed kid who is 14 years old. He’s away at scout camp the summer before he begins high school and he is dealing with bullying, racism, he has questions about his religion, his body dysmorphia, and all of that is the backdrop to exploring his sexual identity. It’s been banned for obscenity, it has been constantly labelled as pornography, there are scenes from the book that are easily taken out of context—which is easy to do with graphic novels because things are visual and people immediately freak out. There is no sex, but I would say there are sexual situations. There’s one or two sexual situations in the book. It’s important to me because it’s very much based on my own experiences growing up and I wanted to make a book for someone who is like me, who doesn’t see themselves in books and media. Something they never mentioned when they banned this book is that the point of the book is to talk about suicidal ideation and prevention. That’s why I made this and why it’s part of my heart. It’s been a really weird time.

Alex Gino: I’m Alex, my debut book, now called MELISSA, originally called GEORGE, because time shifts and we realize our mistakes, was on the top ten banned and challenged book list by the American Library Association five years running. It was not on the list last year because all of you wrote books! Yay! [laughs] My main character is trans, that is clearly the reason why people are trying to challenge and ban it, though I have also heard it’s because I “explain how to erase a web history” on a web search—which, I say it can be done?! I talk about “dirty magazines,” which is a brother misunderstanding their kid sister’s Junior Cosmo, and I mention tampons, which is downright body shaming. The reasons are ridiculous, so going down that road is absurd. The books are ridiculously important because when we see ourselves we get to exist better. And when we see other people, those people get to exist better.

Noah Grigni: Hi, I really love all of your books. That’s insane, Mike, that someone called the cops to remove your book from the library shelf. That just makes me really sad. And Alex, [MELISSA] was the first book I read with a trans character, the first fiction book, at least. Like it was the first story for kids about a trans character that I can remember reading and I love it a lot. I was frustrated for years in college because I would tell my professors that I wanted to write things for and about trans kids and they would be like, “oh have you heard of GEORGE?” And I’d be like, that can’t be the only book, like, come on guys. I am an illustrator and soon to be a writer? I’m writing two books right now, but I’m only published as an illustrator. I do children’s books and my work tends to be for and about young trans kids because I came out as trans at a young age—which Miriam remembers because we grew up together—but, yeah, I came out as a trans boy when I was 13 and have been wanting to create content that affirms young trans people. I’ve illustrated two books that have been excessively banned, and that’s IT FEELS GOOD TO BE YOURSELF by Theresa Thorn and THE EVERY BODY BOOK by Rachel Simon. They’re both banned because they talk about gender identity and they’re for young kids. I don’t know how to see where they’re banned but I know many school districts and states have banned them. There was this conservative group in Australia that tried to ban [IT FEELS GOOD TO BE YOURSELF] from the entire country of Australia and that was like…[laughs] that was fun. I think the only reason for the bans for IT FEELS GOOD TO BE YOURSELF is just…having a transparent discussion about gender for kids. For THE EVERY BODY BOOK, it’s a book about sex, gender, and puberty, so there are graphic illustrations of body parts in it, which I think is important for kids who are going through puberty to understand what body parts look like.

Kyle Lukoff: Noah, have you illustrated any, like book covers of anyone that you might want to mention?

Noah Grigni: Oh, I did Kyle’s book cover [laughs].

Kyle Lukoff: [Holds up TOO BRIGHT TO SEE]

Noah Grigni: Yeah, I do book covers, too. Um…have you gotten any tattoos of anyone’s book cover?

Kyle Lukoff: Uh, yeah, I have your work on my arm right there [holds up arm to show tattoo of TOO BRIGHT TO SEE cover]. Have I not shown you that? I thought I showed you that.

Noah Grigni: Yeah you did, I just wanted to see it again [laughs].

Kyle Lukoff: Oh, oh, oh, I see, okay.

Miriam Moore-Keish: Some authors are proud to be banned authors. Alex, about a year ago you said that you aren’t. That that pride often reflects a certain amount of privilege. I wonder if you could speak more about that. And how does everyone else feel?

Alex Gino: It’s an awkward place to be, absolutely. So I understand that sometimes people want to give congratulations, to go, oh, it means you “made it.” But to feel good about being banned makes it about the author—somehow the author is cool, the author is special, the author is transgressive. Particularly, what’s “transgressive” [makes air quotes with their fingers] about my books is that people exist. Trans people exist. People like me and not like me exist. That’s gross—to be something to be lauded for in that way. It does nothing for the children who don’t have access to the books. The people who are excited and want to read the book because [it’s been banned] are often, especially in the case of children’s books, adults who are already perfectly comfortable with trans people. That book sale means nothing to me, especially if the kid who doesn’t have strong access to trans representation—who needs it—is denied it because of a book challenge or a book ban. There’s no honor in that. It’s just yucky.

Kyle Lukoff: I actually had a thought as you were talking just now, Alex. I was thinking about why it feels so gross. I’ve also gotten the congratulations and then I’m seeing people like, “oh I wish my book would be banned,” and so here’s the thought I just had: I think that that congratulatory tone does make sense in one and a half situations. Situation one is when the book that you’re writing is truly about resisting fascism or, like, a satire on the powers [that] be–like books that are actively challenging the power structure. In that case, getting banned is like, “you did it! They noticed you.” They are coming for you, but it means you did a good job of doing what you set out to do. The other situation where it’s like 50% understandable to be proud is for all those people who are getting banned for writing outside of their own lived experiences. Because their goal is to say, “look how great I am. I am this brave soldier doing this work for these poor voiceless people who can’t possibly talk for themselves. And the fact that my book is getting banned means that I am sacrificing myself for these poor people.” Whereas when I am writing a book about myself and someone says “congratulations, you [got banned],” I’m like, yes, but they are also coming for me as a human being and that is what this book is symbolizing. I think maybe the congratulatory tone is mistaking a political manifesto for a novel that draws upon my own experience of humanity.

Alex Gino: That’s what I mean by privilege. Yes.

Cathy G. Johnson: And another aspect for me is I feel like there’s a certain part of [celebration] that’s like almost distracting culturally to think about book bans, because it’s like a fluffier way of talking about actual anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ legislation. Like Texas is banning a lot of our books—well multiple districts, I don’t want to spread one color across Texas because there’s a lot of Texas that’s fighting—but they just had the school sports law where transgender kids can’t play on sports teams with the gender they identify with. It’s frustrating to only talk about myself as an author getting banned, and I’m like, “I care about the kids!” I think we all—like, we make books for kids! We want kids to have good lives. I’m like, “talk about the laws that are getting passed, talk about the bills.” I don’t know. It sucks.

Noah Grigni: I did a panel with Maia Kobabe, who is the author of GENDERQUEER, and something e said about this question was, that there’s profit to be acknowledged, like book bans often mean more sales, and if people are purely like, “congratulations you’re making more money,” like that’s really sad and really gross that more profit for the author comes at the expense of kids in red states or conservative areas being unable to access the book. It completely undermines what we want to achieve when we are putting these stories into the world, that the kids who need them will be able to read them and–like Alex said–we don’t want it to stay within communities of adults who are already very aware. It needs to actually reach kids. The kids are the ones who suffer.

Miriam Moore-Keish: Some people say the recent rise in censorship has also had other impacts on books' trajectories, including increased media coverage and interview opportunities, as well as increased sales. How does this feel? How do you grapple with the cognitive dissonance of censorship being associated with what many would consider positive things?

Mike Curato: There is a sort of cognitive dissonance that’s going on for me right now. I have a few feelings about it. I mean, first of all, I think it’s not right to assume that everyone has increased sales just because their book gets banned. If you have a book that’s already really popular like MAUS, that will continue to do well, but if you have a new title that people aren’t as familiar with, maybe a librarian won’t take a chance if their job is on the line. And not everyone that is getting banned is getting the same amount of media coverage. I know my book has been mentioned a lot in the media but on that list in Texas there were 850 titles. They’re not going to talk about all 850 titles in every single article. They’re going to talk about the most sensational ones that are getting banned. It sucks that a book that represents someone who is underrepresented is associated with this negativity. I wanted to make my book so that a young reader could read this and feel good about themselves, but because it’s on the banned list, the people that would most associate with this book—it’s just reinforcing that “there are a lot of people that don’t want you here.” It’s weird. This reaction is a case in point to why these books need to exist, but at the same time it’s traumatic to a young reader because it makes it very real for them.

Cathy G. Johnson: I just want to say that I have said no to a lot of interviews. Do I want to talk to a FOX anchor? No. I don’t want to. Do I want to talk to ABC? I don’t trust ABC. I’ve said no to a lot of major networks because I don’t trust them to cover the story like I want to cover [it]. I almost said no to this one, Miriam [laughs], if you remember. Yeah, I’ve been saying no to all sorts of stuff because I don’t want the harassment that would come with doing this interview.

Kyle Lukoff: A few things: One is that it is often not true that increased attention leads to increased sales, and it’s interesting that the book of mine that is the most banned, that has gotten the most attention, [CALL ME MAX], still hasn’t earned out of its advance and that advance was very small, comparatively, to some of my other books that have earned out. So I don’t know if attention always equals sales. As for the cognitive dissonance, I just decided to say to myself, you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance and that’s okay. Like when this first started happening to me, in earnest, last winter, my career suddenly took off in a way. I did do a lot of interviews and I researched ahead of time to make sure I was only talking to sympathetic people. I was flown out to Utah to give a speech on the steps of the capitol, which was cool. I kept getting good things. And I would get some hate. Like, I got some death threats and some negative attention, but not as much as a lot of people get for, like, a stupid joke they make on Twitter. But it also feels terrible. I do know that they’re coming for us. I do know that for every interview I do, that’s time that I don’t get to spend doing my actual job—that is writing children’s books, or doing the dishes or cooking, or the things that I actually want to do. The weird dopamine hit that I would get of “ooh, attention, people are talking to me, yay” is contrasted with “this is terrible, real people are suffering, trans and queer people in all these different places are learning terrible truths about their neighbors—that they might have known already—but are now being shoved into their faces.” Any positive that I’m getting is coming from other people’s pain and my own precarity. So I’ve decided that I’m allowed to have feelings no matter what they are. And so long as my emotional response doesn’t negatively impact me or anyone else, it is okay to have feelings. I don’t want to feel guilty for my emotions, I just also want to make sure that I don’t start going out like, “oh yeah, being banned is so great! It’s so good for everyone! Yay! No one is suffering in this, especially not me!” So, yeah, I’ve been to a lot of therapy, which is why I can say things like, “I’m feeling my feelings,” knowing that they don’t materially impact the world unless I use them irresponsibly.

Alex Gino: I think that it is absolutely true that most books do not do better because they are challenged somewhere. It means that a librarian may decide not to put it in their school. It means that bookstores may not decide to go there...It [means] that publishers may be less likely to pick up a new title because they don’t want to go down that road. It also means that people who are writing might decide not to finish [their book], not to start it, not to send it out. All of these things are bad for books. All of these things are bad for book freedom and stories. And the rare book that does better because of the challenges, the way that I deal with the cognitive dissonance–because there’s cognitive dissonance there–is that I don’t think my book is doing well because of the challenges, I think it is doing well because it is a good book and kids speak well of it to each other. I think that adults buy it because of the book challenges…Sure it looks good on your shelf like that—and I think that’s its own thing—but to me, the book is doing well because people like it and people tell other people about it. Because so little [representation] existed because there had been so many barriers up, that there’s so little stuff to compare it to, that the one thing that’s halfway decent gets treated as really special. None of that is about my book being banned, that’s about my book existing. My book wouldn’t have been challenged—wasn’t challenged 20 years ago. None of our books were challenged 20 years ago, or books like them, because books like them didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Noah Grigni: I didn’t mean to imply that a book ban means more sales, I just meant that people have that perception, and that’s why they congratulate me. Then it’s like, really weird, because, not only is that not happening, but also, I’m like, “do you think I’m only in this for the money?” Like, “you think I’m an artist because I want money?” [laughs] Yeah, like Cathy said, Theresa—the author of IT FEELS GOOD TO BE YOURSELF—and I got a really weird inquiry from Dr. Phil last month about whether they could use the book on their show. And they framed it as if they were going to use the book to have a—they used the word “inclusive”—to mean that they were going to include all perspectives on whether or not trans people actually exist, and, of course, I said no. But I had to do a lot of decoding of this message and then do my research and see that Dr. Phil had done transphobic things in the past and sort of tricked people into appearing on his show just to invalidate them. I’ve [gotten] a lot of attention from alt-right internet people that is actually really scary and does not help me in any way. I have gotten death threats and I’ve gotten doxxed…One of the things I’ve noticed, with IT FEELS GOOD TO BE YOURSELF, specifically: the author is a cis woman, she’s the mother of a trans child. I love her. I think she did a wonderful job with the book, but she has not been targeted in the same way I have. Nobody has found her address and mailed her death threats. But that happened to me and I didn’t even write the book, I just illustrated it. That’s really scary too, to see the way the people who hate us will not target our allies, but will only do these hate campaigns against trans people, trans POC, whoever they happen to hate that day. I don’t know if y’all have had any experiences like that, working with someone who’s an ally and then being targeted in a way that they’re not, but that was really unnerving for me. I’ve moved so they don’t have my address anymore but that was just scary.

Mike Curato: Yeah, I definitely have some safety concerns. I’m so sorry that happened to you. That’s really scary. I haven’t done a public event in so long because of the pandemic, and now, I certainly am second-guessing, do I want to do public events for a while? Because in this country anyone can just roll up to my event and shoot me or others who are attending, and that’s real and not an over-exaggeration. And we have a school shooting every other week, so even going in to talk in a school, someone may not necessarily be there for me, just to shoot kids, and it’s just another day in America. I’ve gotten hateful messages. I haven’t been doxxed. But certainly had awful things messaged at me. I’ve changed a lot of settings on social media so I don’t see that anymore because it got to be too much. Not necessarily in quantity, and I wouldn’t say it was in quality, because…yeah. But you can only be called [names] so many times, told that you’re going to hell, or that they wish you a slow painful death. You know, you can only read that shit so often. And it’s always before bed! Google Alerts always shows up right before bed, horrible messages show up before bed, or–I guess it’s happened to me early in the morning too. It’s just like, “okay there’s my whole day, just shat on from the jump.” Or like, “oh another sleepless night, thank you.” So I’ve definitely jumped in and out of being open and having conversations about the bannings and also reserving time for my mental health and to get my work done and to live my own life.

Miriam Moore-Keish: Mike, you've created viral content on TikTok with a lighter, more humorous tone addressing FLAMER being banned, like a recent post mocking the poor grammar of hate messages. How are all of you coping and responding? Humor? Throwing things? Both? Other?

Mike Curato: I do as much as I can to cope but I feel like I want to kind of measure my public responses. I don’t want people to have the satisfaction of seeing me hurt. I’m more frustrated than anything. More frustrated and angry for the kids, because in the big picture of things I’ll probably be fine. But there are still kids like me who are trapped in their communities for a while in unsafe environments and that’s really what freaks me out…just knowing, being scared for them. I think it is effective at times, responding with humor, because this is fucking ridiculous, right? This is a joke that this is even an issue, considering all of the awful things that humanity faces on a day-to-day basis. We’re wasting a lot of time on something so ridiculous and unnecessary. And we’re running out of time on so many other problems. I definitely am in therapy. I was in therapy before. I’ve been in therapy for so long. It’s great. I recommend. Ten out of ten. I have my support group: friends within publishing that I can talk to about this sort of stuff, and friends outside of publishing. I think it’s important to have people in our lives that [we] can vent to and they can say, “that fucking sucks.” Or people I can talk to and it doesn’t have to come up. I think what’s so annoying to me is that it’s kind of consumed my life lately. And I hate it. Like, can I have one day where I don’t have to think about this thing? Where I can live my life, write my books, or have a day off and eat my ice cream? I think I mentioned before, that I kind of pick and choose my battles. Just like Cathy, I have passed on a lot of interviews. I just did my first recorded interview, though, with Vice News because…they kind of assured me where their stance was and I trusted them. So I had a lot to say. I know they’re interviewing other authors; I don’t know who else is going to be up there but it will probably be out soon. I did that one camera interview, I’m doing a bunch of Banned Book[s] Week panels, and then I’m stepping back for a while. I have more gay shit to write and a life to live and it’s just going to take a whole lot of us taking turns, passing the baton and speaking out and showing up. It can’t be the same people all the time.

Kyle Lukoff: Before this all started happening to me I had daydreams about how I would respond, mostly on social media. Like, there would be the sassy retweets, and there would be the snarky responses, and there would be the thoughtful and logical dismantling of their incoherent arguments. But since it started happening, my only response is just to block. Sometimes to report and block, but always to block and not engage. Because I just have one wild and precious life and I don’t think that a sassy tweet or earnest explanation will get these people to believe that my life is real and that it is worth living. I would rather prove that with my actions than just with bots or strangers. I sometimes engage with people if I actually know them. If I think that they’re doing harm and we know each other, then I do feel a responsibility to reach out, but usually I don’t know them and they’re just strangers. Also, this may be unfair, but I think I outsource a lot of my emotional processing. Like, I get other people angry for me and I get other people afraid for my well being and I get other people concerned about my mental health so I can just kind of tra-la-la along on my day. That might not be fair. I have started drafting a will. Just in case. I try not to have an emotional response to that, because it’s not a bad thing to have a will regardless, but, you know, it’s good to have your ducks in order just in case. I think I just say the things I’m afraid of and let other people have the emotional response for me. I should probably work on that. But then also the thing that does help is my lifelong habit of dissociating from uncomfortable or unpleasant situations. It’s coming in so handy right now! It came in a lot of handy when I lived in New York and I was crammed on the subway like “I’m not here anymore! Bye body, I’ll come back to you later!” It was just like a magic trick. And now what I do is, I almost intellectually dissociate. I know it’s not about me. They don’t know me. They don’t know what I make for dinner. They don’t know the annoying habits that I have, or like, my incredibly strict routine because I’m such a routine-oriented person. It’s not about me. It’s not even about my books. These are just one tendril in a larger war that is being fought. And I am doing my part because it is not upon us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. I’m just one of many, and so I don’t take it personally. Because I’m great! Or, at least, I’m fine…I don’t know…I’m a person.

Alex Gino: I was genderqueer visibly in the 90s so the notion of violence I luckily have not physically faced, but I have been close to. As horrific as someone putting up a picture of my face and a knife on Twitter is gahh, disorienting, I’m physically safe. That doesn’t mean that I’m always physically safe, and I am going to take the advice to tell the hotel that if anyone wants to reach me they should be reaching me by a different name, otherwise you don’t get me. Part of it is I don’t believe it’s really happening, but I also don’t believe that my book ever got published. So we’re living in this bizarre world where people like me have space?! That’s the part I still don’t get, the fact that I get paid to go to junior high schools and talk to people about being queer and trans on purpose! That still messes with my mind…I will interact with a school or a community where there has been a challenge, especially when there’s been a challenge and then there wasn’t a ban. Like in Oregon–Oregon Battle of the Books had a whole big thing where schools didn’t participate in this voluntary summer program because my book was one of the optional books you could read as part of this optional program. So they told all the fifth graders, “there’s no Battle of the Books this year.” And so I went to Canby, Oregon, and I talked to like 300 community members who had been rallied to be more queer supportive than they’d ever been before. Another time I met a kid—the parent was there—the parent contacted me because their teacher said they couldn’t do their school report on my book because they would have to put up a poster and other kids would see it. The mom was freaked out because she was like, “have I steered my child wrong? My child is so sad” and this and that. It turned out they were half an hour from somewhere I was going to be. So we went all out for ice cream together. That [laughs], I mean, you can’t do that every time, but that to me is the thing…I go with them. And that works for me.

Miriam Moore-Keish: What kind of love and support are you receiving for your books? What are people saying that stick in your minds?

Cathy G. Johnson: I actually am a teacher. I was thinking about a middle school girl—we were having a hard day, as happens in middle school. And I told her I had made a book, and the next day she said, “I went to the library. I read that book.” The next morning! She was like, “I really liked it. It was good.” And I was like, “oh, what was your favorite part?” and she was like, “the kiss.” And I said, “I know right?” [laughs]

Noah Grigni: That’s so cute!

Cathy G. Johnson: It was pretty awesome. Which, admittedly, the kiss part is part of the argument, right, like one of the things that gets the book banned.

Noah Grigni: We need the kisses. It’s worth it. I really love meeting young trans kids and their families and I’ve gotten to do a lot of that recently because of a project that I did. I love meeting kids in person who felt represented by my book or, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from adults, too, for IT FEELS GOOD TO BE YOURSELF, specifically, because it provides a really basic, open-ended framework to talk about gender identity and most adults haven’t had that broken down for them in such simple terms before. I’ve gotten messages from adults who are like, “I read this book to my kid and it made me realize that I’m non-binary.” Those make me really happy. Some of the young trans kids who I’ve been working with in my community project that I’ve done for the past few years are now my friends. And it makes me really happy that these eight-year-olds consider me a friend and want to go get ice cream with me and want to invite me to their karaoke party. Like, it makes me really happy. And also, those are things I’m afraid of talking about because, like Mike said, these people like to call us [names] so I don’t want to talk about my actual…like, talking to kids and hanging out with them is the most rewarding part of making children’s books for me, but obviously I don’t want to talk about that because [of what] people are calling me.

Alex Gino: I’ve gotten so much love, it’s wonderful. I am lucky I get more love than I get hate. I get love from adults who say it’s the book they wish they had as a kid, which is wonderful. I get emails from teenagers who wish this was the book they had when they were younger. But the one that does me the best for the “age-appropriateness” of young children reading about queer and trans issues, was a six-year-old’s mom who contacted me and said that she had finished reading the book with her kid and her kid had come back and said, “my stuffed bunny is trans!” And if you know anything about developmental stages, this was a kid not thinking, “oh, I might be trans,” but rather, “I might meet someone trans. Let me, through play, develop and practice what that might look like and how I would respond and how I would celebrate my stuffed bunny.” I just love the hell out of it!

Kyle Lukoff: I do book festivals where, after the fifth or sixth person comes up to you with tears in their eyes and is just like, “thank you so much, you have no idea what this means,” I’m like, “at this point, I think I do, because you are the fifth or sixth person today to come up to me with tears in their eyes.”…I will say that I’ve come across at least one child who named himself after one of my characters, which is delightful and pretty intense to learn. My second novel [is] called DIFFERENT KINDS OF FRUIT. I get a lot of feedback from adults about that, which is more meaningful to me than almost anything else at this point, because it’s from the perspective of an 11-year-old. Her dad is a Gen X trans man who was mostly stealth until the book takes place, and her mom is this queer fat femme who is like all the queer fat femmes I’ve ever known. And I get adults who are either old trans men or dads and then moms who are like queer femmes who are feeling some kind of way about not being as visibly queer as they were when they were younger, who are saying, “I never thought that I would see me and my family in a book and this one is for kids but somehow it’s also for me.” Friends have sent me selfies of them crying on the last pages. And I was worried about this book because, like, these are my people who I’m writing about. I wasn’t a trans child, but this is very deeply my community, and hearing from people that I captured their experience correctly is really gratifying to me.

Mike Curato: I’ve also had a lot of really positive responses to my book, and way more positive than negative, which is very much appreciated. I’ve heard from kids in communities where there is no visibility and I’ve had people tell me, “this book makes me feel like I’m not alone.” It’s like, “okay, good, that’s why I wrote it, so you would feel that way.” Adults have messaged me, too. There were two gay, Filipino, femmy guys—one of them was even in Boy Scouts—and we’re all about the same age and I just cried when one of them messaged me because we’re exactly the same age and I was just like, isn’t it amazing to know that someone had a completely parallel experience to yours? And you thought you were the only freakshow like that? But someone else knew exactly what you were going through. I think that’s pretty magical to have a connection where it’s like, all these years later, we found each other, and it’s so validating, right? One of those two told me, “this is the book I will share with my parents when I finally come out to them.” This is a grown man who is still struggling. So, whoa. It’s a lot. A lot of strangers online [are] promoting the book, unprompted, which is always like…“thanks! [laughing] Gee, thanks!” Seeing the educators out there who are fighting so hard for our books, they’re on the front lines. They have to deal with the BS every day. I have to remind myself sometimes when I’m being bombarded: No, I don’t have parents literally in my face yelling at me, threatening my job, so I’m always so grateful for people who literally risk their livelihoods standing up for free speech and for the rights of their students to be able to read. Grateful for the warm fuzzies.

Cathy G. Johnson: It’s nice to meet everyone who’s going through this. The pandemic makes it hard to meet up.

Noah Grigni: It’s nice to meet you all!

Cathy G. Johnson: Mike, I love FLAMER. I love FLAMER. It does deal with some pretty dark stuff and I think that it does it so beautifully and it’s rare to read such a wonderful book that confronts that and talks about it. I really like FLAMER.

Mike Curato: Thanks. Oh, man, I wish we could all hang. Maybe one day soon.

Mike Curato is the award-winning author and illustrator of the Little Elliot series, Where is Bina Bear, and the graphic novel Flamer, and has illustrated a number of other books for children, including What If… (by Samantha Berger), Worm Loves Worm, and All the Way to Havana.

Alex Gino loves glitter, ice cream, gardening, awe-ful puns, and stories that reflect the diversity and complexity of being alive. Their first novel, Melissa, was a winner of the Children’s Stonewall Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Children’s Choice Book Award. For more about Alex, please visit them at

Noah Grigni is a queer, trans, freelance artist and illustrator from Atlanta, Georgia (stolen Muskogee land). Noah makes art for, about, and in collaboration with their communities, who they define as trans kids, queer southerners, and sexual trauma survivors. Noah creates children's books, comics, paintings, zines, and whatever else brings them joy! They are best known for their exhibition "Protect Trans Dreams" at the Boston Children's Museum, and for illustrating the children's book It Feels Good To Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn.

Cathy G. Johnson is an award-winning cartoonist, printmaker and educator residing on occupied Narragansett land in Providence, Rhode Island. Her comics delve into the complicated worlds of young people, exploring the hardships and joys of adolescence. She holds a master’s degree in art education from the Rhode Island School of Design. She received the 2014 Ignatz Award Winner for Promising New Talent. Past works include the graphic novels Jeremiah (2015), Gorgeous (2016), and The Breakaways (2019). The Breakaways won the 2019 Dorry Award for Book of the Year in Children’s/YA. Cathy has also published numerous smaller works through self-publishing and independent presses. Her newest comic, Black Hole Heart, self-published in 2020, won the 2020 Ignatz award for Outstanding Minicomic. Cathy regularly exhibits at comic book conventions, holds speaking engagements, and enjoys being a visiting author at libraries and schools.



Kyle Lukoff is the author of many books for young readers. His debut middle-grade novel, Too Bright To See, received a Newbery honor, the Stonewall award, and was a National Book Award finalist. His picture book When Aidan Became A Brother also won the Stonewall, and his book Call Me Max has been banned in schools across the country. He has forthcoming books about mermaids, vegetables, death, and lots of other topics. While becoming a writer he worked as a bookseller for ten years, and then nine more years as a school librarian. He hopes you're having a nice day.