How misinformation about ‘Lawn Boy,’ a book that was never intended for children, made it the second-most contested book last year
Brandi Burkman arrived at the Texas school board meeting with a printed speech, a plastic-sheeted library book and a swelling sense of fury.
The 43-year-old mother of three approached the podium at the Sept. 9, 2021, meeting of the Leander Independent School District board with her 16-year-old son in tow. As Burkman began to speak, the teen hoisted white posters scrawled with sentences in black marker. They were taken from the book he’d discovered a week earlier in his AP English classroom and brought home for supplemental reading: “Lawn Boy,” a novel by Jonathan Evison.
Burkman’s three-minute speech recounted passages that describe a sexual encounter between two 10-year-old boys. Quoting pages 19, 91, 174 and 230, she told the roomful of adults how the boys meet in the bushes after a church youth group gathering, touch each other’s penises and progress to oral sex.
“What sort of diversity are you intending to teach my child with material like this?” Burkman asked, her voice shaking, her son expressionless. “Who normalizes sex acts between fourth-graders?”
She did not wait for an answer: “I’ll tell you who. Pedophiles.”
Burkman’s remarks set off a tsunami of condemnation that, a year later, would see the book “Lawn Boy” challenged in at least 35 school districts spanning 20 states and temporarily removed from shelves in almost half those places, according to a Washington Post analysis. Most of those districts — 63 percent — later returned the text to shelves after a review, while at least four banned the book for good. The plethora of complaints, 87 percent of which were brought by parents, The Post found, rendered “Lawn Boy” the second-most challenged book of 2021, according to the American Library Association.
The complaints against “Lawn Boy” came amid a historic nationwide spike in schoolbook challenges and bans as conflicts simmer over what to teach about race, racism, history, sex and gender. Already, 25 states have passed laws restricting what teachers can say about these topics or limiting the rights of transgender students at school, a Post analysis previously found.
“Lawn Boy” is in many ways the quintessential target for the book-banning movement: It is a coming-of-age novel centered on a gay character of color, Mexican American Mike Muñoz. The thousands of books targeted for school removal in the past two school years were overwhelmingly written by and about people of color and LGBTQ individuals, according to the American Library Association and PEN America.
Mandy Peterson, a leader of the Nebraska School Librarians Association, said book acquisitions often stem from American Library Association recommendations: “We check those awards lists on the day that they come out.” She said librarians usually cross-reference the association’s suggestions with professional review sites such as the School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews, both of which gave “Lawn Boy” high marks. Peterson said she does not know of any librarians who confused Evison’s book with Paulsen’s. But a few months ago, she noticed many commenters online giving Paulsen’s book bad reviews for pedophilia.
Evison said his novel, an exploration of racial assumptions and the failures of late capitalism, is meant for adults. If schools want to offer the text, he said, they should restrict access to older students.
“Nobody below a teenager is ready for that book,” Evison said. “It’s got a lot of adult stuff.”
Burkman did not know Evison’s feelings when she stood at the podium in Texas that warm September night. Informed during an interview, she said that she does not much care. What matters is that the book is still available in schools, she said — including in her own district, which never removed the text because Burkman, distrustful of the system, never filed a formal challenge.
Burkman said she did not mean to kick-start a nationwide push to eradicate “Lawn Boy.” But she’s glad it happened. A devout Catholic, she said she sees more than coincidence at work.
“Out of all the kids to bring that one home, out of all of the books …” she paused. “I’m the mom that he brought it home to.”
‘Is this a problem just in Texas?’
On the Friday before 9/11 last year, Stacy Langton was cooking dinner and half-watching “Spicer & C0.,” a television show hosted by President Donald Trump’s former press secretary. Then something made Langton, a 53-year-old parent of six, pause and stare at the television screen mounted above her pantry.
It was the voice of Brandi Burkman, railing against “Lawn Boy” at the Leander school board meeting.
“Well, what the heck?” Langton, a stay-at-home mother in Northern Virginia, recalls thinking. “Is this a problem just in Texas?”
The next day, Langton checked out the book from her son’s high school library in Fairfax County. She kept the novel locked in her car and brought it out for perusal only after her children — including her youngest, age 7 at the time — had gone to bed.
She zeroed-in on the same scene of oral sex that troubled Burkman in Texas. She became convinced, wrongly, that “Lawn Boy” shows fellatio taking place between an adult and a boy. In fact, the book describes a man in his 20s meeting another man in his 20s and remembering the consensual sexual encounter they shared in fourth grade.
Langton wanted to protect the children of Fairfax County. Inspired by Burkman’s example, she called the school district and asked how to speak at the next board meeting, which she’d never done before. Two weeks later, she was standing at a podium, waving her copy of “Lawn Boy” and shouting.
This “book describes a fourth-grade boy performing oral sex on an adult male,” she said. “Pornography is offensive to all people! It is offensive to common decency!”
Langton later submitted a formal complaint and, after conducting a review, the Fairfax school district denied her requests to yank the book from shelves.
But she had a more lasting effect elsewhere: supercharging the debate over “Lawn Boy” by taking it national.
Her speech received coverage from mainstream outlets, including The Washington Post, and drove an explosion of stories from conservative media. A Post analysis shows that, in the month following Langton’s remarks, right-wing shows and sites produced at least 13 articles or episodes criticizing “Lawn Boy.” Overall, 64 percent of conservative stories and shows produced between September 2021 and early October 2022 that negatively referenced “Lawn Boy” also pointed to Langton’s speech, The Post found. At least 31 repeated Langton’s contention that the book depicts pedophilia.
“The novel ‘Lawn Boy’ contains graphic depictions of sex between men and children,” Tucker Carlson said falsely on his namesake Fox News show in September, shortly after referencing Langton’s efforts to ban the book. “So why are they pushing this on kids? Well, of course to prime them for sexual exploitation.”
And parents nationwide were paying attention.
It is impossible to say precisely how each of the 30-plus adults who challenged “Lawn Boy” became aware of the book. The Post attempted to contact every person who criticized “Lawn Boy” during a school board meeting or filed a formal complaint, additionally analyzing school video footage and documents. Many did not respond.
Still, Burkman and Langton, and news coverage of their activism, played a significant role.
The Post was able to determine the source of concern for 12 complaints brought against “Lawn Boy.” In half of the cases, parents said they grew worried about “Lawn Boy” due to the book receiving “national attention” or by reading “national news reports.” Three of those parents pointed specifically to Burkman’s or Langton’s activism. Three parents mentioned hearing about the book from politicians, one from a neighbor, and two parents, including Burkman, said their child spontaneously checked out the text.
Langton inspired Mary Ellen Cuzela, a 50-year-old mother and substitute teacher in Texas’s Katy Independent School District, to check out “Lawn Boy” from her public library. Deeming the book “well-written but … R-rated,” she persuaded her school district to permanently yank the novel in October 2021, an account confirmed by local news reporting. The district did not respond to requests for comment.
“This is not about canceling people or being insensitive to someone’s walk in this life,” said Cuzela, who had never challenged a title before. “It’s about removing sexually explicit, vulgar material from schools.”
In North Carolina, father of three Chad Slotta said he decided to challenge “Lawn Boy” in the Wake County Public School system after reading about a push to remove the book nationwide and in Virginia — likely including Langton’s efforts, although he cannot remember precisely. He bought and read “Lawn Boy,” which he found graphic and obscene.
“My wife and I heard these stories and were curious about what was going on in our own children’s schools,” Slotta said. (Wake County officials later decided not to remove the book.)
Of the 38 parent speeches and challenges against “Lawn Boy” identified by The Post — some of which were filed within the same district — at least nine include false assertions that “Lawn Boy” depicts an encounter between a man and a boy.
“This one is about pedophilia,” Florida parent Alicia Farrant announced to Florida’s Orange County Public Schools board at a Nov. 9, 2021, meeting. Farrant, who did not respond to requests for comment, repeated the charge in a formal complaint she filed against “Lawn Boy.” Under a question in that document asking what she’d done to review the book, Farrant wrote: “I watched another mom discuss the book.”
Today, Langton acknowledges that she was wrong about the pedophilia. She said it is “unfortunate … if there are other parents who have gone to school board meetings and repeated that particular misconception.”
But if given the chance, she said, she would do everything again. Exactly the same way.
‘How to blow the whistle’
Conservative politicians and activists were close behind parents.
It began with Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R). At a debate five days after Langton’s speech, Youngkin called attention to “Lawn Boy,” listing it as an example of school officials refusing to listen to parents.
“In Fairfax County this past week,” he said, “we watched parents so upset because there was sexually explicit material in the library they had never seen. It was shocking.” The next day, the Youngkin team pasted video of Langton’s board-meeting assertion that “Lawn Boy” contains pedophilia into a campaign advertisement, which appeared on television and YouTube, where it garnered 56,000 views.
A week later, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in North Carolina posted a Facebook video in which he asserted sexually explicit materials are infecting schools and cited three texts as proof. One of them was “Lawn Boy.”
“These materials,” he said in a clip seen nearly a half-million times, “do not belong in public schools.”
Sixteen days after that, Texas Rep. Matt Krause (R) included “Lawn Boy” on a list of 850 objectionable books he flagged to the Texas Education Agency in late October. The next month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered a criminal probe into “pornography” in school libraries, pointing to “Lawn Boy.” Not long afterward, Oklahoma State Attorney General John O’Connor announced he was reviewing 54 books, including “Lawn Boy,” to see “if they violate the state’s obscenity law.”
And in late March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) mentioned the book while signing a law that grants parents greater control over the selection and removal of textbooks and school library books. Lauding the new legislation, DeSantis repeated a falsehood that had originated several-hundred miles north and six months back with Virginia mother Langton.
“‘Lawn Boy,’ a book containing explicit passages of pedophilia, is somehow accepted as being okay,” DeSantis said.
Youngkin, Krause, Abbott and O’Connor did not respond to detailed lists of questions. DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin sent a one-sentence email: “If you don’t see an issue with the content of the book Lawn Boy being in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, then you have exemplified the problem.”
A spokesman for Robinson said the lieutenant governor first heard of “Lawn Boy” in October 2021, when someone submitted a complaint against the book to an online portal Robinson’s office maintains to uphold classroom “fairness and accountability.” After Robinson “shined a light” on the title, the spokesman said, North Carolina schools pulled the book from online catalogues — but “it is hard to say exactly how many.”
The Post’s analysis shows that at least three school districts in Texas saw challenges of “Lawn Boy” due to politicians’ actions. In November, a mother in the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District argued for removing “Lawn Boy” and several other books after communicating with Rep. Krause about the titles, she said. The next month, school officials in the North East Independent School District said they opted to reconsider “Lawn Boy” after seeing Abbott single-out the book as inappropriate. And this February, two parents in the McKinney Independent School District complained about 282 books — “Lawn Boy” among them — all of which appeared on Krause’s list.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups were spreading the word, too.
The founder and president of parents’ rights group No Left Turn in Education, Elana Yaron Fishbein, said that, over the course of 2021, she communicated her worries about “Lawn Boy” to the several dozen chapters of No Left Turn in Education established across 27 states.
“Our volunteers sought out the books in their local school districts and when they found the book was present in the schools, they demanded they be removed,” she emailed The Post. “Our volunteers challenged this book in approximately 20 school boards including KY, MO, PA, GA, WI, GA, and others.”
She declined to share the names of the 20 school districts or to review The Post’s list of school challenges and say whether her volunteers were responsible.
A spike in threats and sales
Jonathan Evison is not sure how to feel.
In the first days after Burkman’s speech, as video of her remarks accumulated more than 30,000 views on TikTok and YouTube, Evison received a flurry of death threats and messages calling him a “pedophile,” mostly through Facebook. Those didn’t bother him much — but the strangers who vowed sexual attacks on his daughters did. He set his accounts to private.
Evison is not sure he disagrees with all the criticisms of his book. “Too profane? I’ll own that, fine, who cares. My mother would heartily agree.”
But he defends the passages showing the sexual encounter between 10-year-olds. That account, he says, marks a pivotal step in the protagonist’s process of coming out to his best friend Nick, who is racist and homophobic. Muñoz is using coarse language to power himself through a moment of extreme vulnerability, Evison said.
“I don’t think the effect was to glorify the experience,” he said of the sex scene.
He also questions the motives of some parents. He suspects they “don’t like a marginalized, non-White, non-cisgender character trying to be comfortable and find their place in the culture. I think the end game of these people is they want to keep the status quo, and the best way to do that is not to have these stories told.”
He is heartened, he said, by The Post’s finding that most school districts returned the book to shelves.
He also noted that sales of “Lawn Boy” have spiked massively in the past year: The paperback edition has now sold 100 percent more than it did during its first print run in 2018.
Evison declined to give specific numbers. But, he said, the book has gone into four extra printings since Burkman’s school board speech in Texas.
The Post tallied the number of school challenges, temporary removals and permanent bans of “Lawn Boy” in a roughly one-year period by reviewing public databases compiled by nonprofit groups PEN America and EveryLibrary. The Post also conducted its own independent research by reviewing more than 3,000 news articles, at least 50 school district websites and more than 150 social media accounts maintained by school districts, school employees and parents.
In every case where The Post identified an incident concerning “Lawn Boy,” The Post contacted the school district to verify the details. In every case, The Post also attempted to contact and interview the parent(s), teacher(s) or school administrator(s) who complained about the book. If The Post was unable to verify a book challenge, removal or ban, The Post removed that incident from the tally.
Additionally, The Post tallied politicians’ negative comments about and actions taken against “Lawn Boy” between September 2021 and September 2022, as well as the number of articles critiquing “Lawn Boy” published by conservative news outlets in the same period.