George M. Johnson: All Boys Aren't Blue (2020, Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 4 stars

In a series of personal essays, prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson explores …

Review of "All Boys Aren't Blue" on 'Goodreads'

3 stars

This was a compelling and enjoyable memoir of Johnson’s life so far. From his early childhood happiness and traumas to his growth and coming-into-being as an adult, he shares with the reader deeply personal and intimate moments. It feels like skipping the awkward, small-talk phase of a friendship and having those hours-long 3 AM conversations with a close friend about your lives. While I enjoyed and am grateful to have shared in Johnson’s life and his story, the memoir does read like a debut work and is probably more enjoyable to its target audience.

Many of the themes in the book resonated with my own experience, and I laughed and (figuratively) cried with Johnson as he takes us through everything, not sparing the reader any words. The themes of repression, loss, trauma, self-acceptance, and others are very much relevant not only to Johnson’s intended audience of young, queer, Black readers but also to people who fit none of those labels. Because of that, I suppose most people would find some point of commonality in this memoir, though perhaps those who share some or all of Johnson’s identities would find it more meaningful. I do, and found it both relatable but also a bit frustrating. While the memoir is deeply personal, it also feels quite raw in the emotions and relationships that Johnson portrays. He loves his Nanny and mother, and both are pivotal to his life; though I was glad that he had positive and supportive figures in his life, I also felt empty at how much my family is the exact opposite. I’m not sure if this aspect of the book will feel as hopeful to some young readers, especially those dealing with painful familial struggles. It was tough to read the interludes of personal letters to various family members, since he was fortunate to be surrounded by loving and supportive family. It felt like a sharp contrast to my own experience, and Johnson doesn't really give much time talking about this potential disconnect readers may feel.

The manifesto element of the book was also a bit unclear. Johnson tells us snippets and moments from his life in a mostly chronological manner, and then analyzes them and spells out some profound statements at the end. The statements themselves may be worthwhile, but this method became repetitive and felt vague at times. As one other reviewer put it, there is too much telling and not enough showing; Johnson could trust his audience to infer some of the conclusions he explains to the reader. Reading a book is not one-sided. The reader is free, and indeed often, imparts their own meanings and inferences to the story (whether fictional or not), and this may or may not align with the author. I certainly disagreed with some of Johnson's statements, but this is reflective of the fact that no community or minority is a monolith that will always agree.

This is a significant and important work, and I applaud Johnson for writing this. It took a lot of effort, bravery, and introspection to publish a book that details not only your heroic family members but also your most personal traumas and embarrassing experiences.

It has been a week of the new year, and this is my third book read so far. The pandemic and lockdown might have disrupted my reading rhythm last year, but I have a good feeling about getting back into the swing of it now, even though it feels like it is still March 2020. Or maybe I tend to be really into reading more books in the beginning months of the year… we’ll see.

“The boy who had struggled to find friends for so long finally had a whole group of people he could call his brothers.”