By: Kelly Bilz
Juno Dawson, renowned author of 17 books and writer for multiple magazines, celebrates her birthday on July 10. Raised in West Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, Dawson began her career as a teacher and journalist. She lives in Brighton as a full-time writer, where she continues to publish books at an impressive rate: both Proud and Meat Market (which is being adapted for television) came out earlier this year.
Dawson, an avid Whovian, writing a Doctor Who novel featuring the Twelfth Doctor, draws on her experience as a teacher and writes primarily for young adults and teenagers. One of the most striking things about Dawson’s YA books is how she embraces difficult topics, from acne to addiction, that affect teens.
YA fiction and other books directed at teens seem especially targeted for book challenges, book bans, and censorship–and frequently, the most challenged books are the ones that include diverse characters. Dawson, who writes about the LGBTQ+ community and her own experiences as a trans* woman, is no stranger to these challenges.
This makes Dawson’s 2015 This Book Is Gay so important. Intended to be the book Dawson–and so many other LGBTQ people–needed when they were young, This Book Is Gay is written as a manual, with advice for those questioning their gender identity/sexual orientation, as well as an overview of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK, U.S., and global community.
Unfortunately, attempts to keep LGBTQ content from libraries show up in headlines every day. Drag queen storytimes at libraries have faced opposition, and Raina Telgemeier’s book Drama has also been challenged because of its LGBTQ content.
It’s not that any of these “make” children gay, or curious, or queer, but they empower gay/curious/queer children to be who they are. One of the key themes from This Book Is Gay is how the LGBTQ+ community has been defined as “abnormal” (or the Other, in more academic terms). When there are characters representing the greater queer community, the excitement is palpable: as Dawson puts it, “A book about YOU in a school library! What next?!”
In 2015, This Book Is Gay was challenged in an Alaska public library, which has been covered by the OIF blog (the article, from 2015, uses the name Dawson went by at the time) and originally in The Frontiersman. The book remains but was moved from children’s nonfiction to the YA shelves, which Dawson herself considers the right decision, as she wrote in an article about Banned Books week.
There is a paragraph in the book where Dawson addresses the controversy that surrounds LGBTQ+ sexual content (if you can call it that–the article from The Frontiersman calls it a “sex ed book,” which gives you a good sense of its scope). Introducing a chapter about “the finer details of same sex pairings,” Dawson assures her readers that they can skip it if they don’t feel ready, but she goes on:
“HOWEVER, before you do, I’d like to remind you that we taught you all about straight sex when you were ELEVEN YEARS OLD during the sixth grade. The fact that they didn’t also teach you what same-sex couples do is nothing less than institutionalized homophobia.”
Straight sexual content in YA books is also often controversial, but queer content faces a double standard. Straight sexual content (“sexual references”) is cited as reasons for banning The Hate U Give and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in 2018’s Top 11 Most Challenged Books, but the twelfth book of Captain Underpants is banned for a same-sex couple, no sexual reference necessary. Movies about trans* teenagers get R ratings, apparently just for the character’s existence. Dawson knows readers have internalized these attitudes and encourages them to confront those attitudes, as well as those who would attempt to censor the book.
Happy birthday to author and advocate, Juno Dawson!
Kelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.