“Belongs to me.” Belongs to me!
“You don’t have permission.” You don’t have permission!
“To touch me.” To touch me!
“It went great,” Johnson said afterward. “Everyone was receptive.”
At a time when books intended for young people have come under intense scrutiny in communities across the nation, Johnson has been trying to get more children to read one she wrote. Her effort has been met with resistance and receptiveness. She has found people in her own community unwilling to place the book on shelves and she has found classrooms in other countries eager to hear her read it.
Johnson, whose résumé shows she received a master’s degree in social work in 1996 and has spent decades working for Baltimore City Public Schools, published the book “Body Safety Zones BSZ” in April 2020. The main character in it is a school social worker named Ms. B Persistent and she works at the Rhoda Lee Jones Elementary School. There, she teaches students about body autonomy and how to ask for help if someone touches them inappropriately.
“REMEMBER, all of your body belongs to you, and if someone is in your space or touches you and you don’t feel comfortable, you have the right to tell them!!” reads one page. “Especially tell a trusted adult RIGHT AWAY if someone touches your Body Safety Zones!”
Johnson recognizes some people might feel uncomfortable with children talking about their bodies. But she believes empowering them with that information is crucial because too many people endure physical and sexual abuse each year. She recalled living in a homeless shelter in Baltimore as a child and not realizing until later how wrong the actions were of a woman who worked there. When Johnson was 13, that woman gained her trust and tried to convince her to date her brother who was in his 20s.
“There is not one child of any culture that is not potentially a victim in waiting,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t care who you are, what language you speak or where you come from.”
The idea for the book came to Johnson long before she started writing it. A decade ago, she was working at Baltimore’s Central Booking and Intake Center, conducting mental health evaluations of inmates. During those conversations, she saw time and again how people who hurt others as adults had been hurt as children. She watched grown men cry as they talked about they ways they had been abused and listened as women described falling into patterns of repeated abuse.
“I was looking at the aftermath of someone’s spirit being violated,” she said. “It breaks your spirit. It breaks your view of the world.”
Those conversations also reinforced for her that a person doesn’t have to experience abuse to be affected by it. Even if parents believe their child will remain safe from abuse, she said, statistics show that their lives will inevitably intersect with friends, relatives and strangers who have experienced it.
“What about the kid who grows up and feels no one ever cared about their pain, and now they want you to feel pain?” she said. “Now, they are holding a gun in your face.”
To hear Johnson talk about the issue is to believe that she is less concerned about making profits from her book than making an impact. The book is being sold through major retailers and Etsy, and she has given away many copies and she has offered to do free readings at schools and libraries.
When she went to Africa a few weeks ago for an educational conference, she could have spent her free time sightseeing. Instead, she made arrangements to read the book at several schools and orphanages. In the span of a few days, she spoke to more than 150 children between the ages of 4 and 9. She recalled one child asking about unwanted touches to the face and another pointing out that the chests of boys should also be off limits to uninvited touches.
“These kids are different than when we were coming up — they will speak up,” Johnson said. “But they have to have the correct information.”
Her worry is that too many young children aren’t getting any information or are getting it in forms that don’t empower them. She said it was easier for her to arrange for those readings in Africa than it has been in the Washington region. Several requests she’s sent to local schools and libraries have been met with hesitation and rejection. In one email she shared with me, a library official wrote, “While this is an important topic, I do not have a place for it in our curriculum at this time.”
It’s impossible to say whether Johnson’s book would have been more embraced during a different time. But it’s clear she picked one of the worst moments to try to get a book that takes on a sensitive subject into the hands of kids.
Children’s books have become a casualty of politics and pandering. Recent months have seen books banned from school systems, taken off library shelves and quietly slipped out of the reach of children because either parents complained or there were fears some might. In November, in response to attacks on books about racial, sexual and gender identity, the American Library Association released a statement saying it “condemns these acts of censorship and intimidation.”
Adult squeamishness should not cost well-intentioned educators their jobs or children the chance to access books that may change their views of reading, the world or themselves. And yet, here we are, watching it happen again and again, with the targets growing more ridiculous. Consider two recent examples.
On April 6, author Jason Tharp was preparing to read his book to students at an Ohio Elementary School when he received a call from the principal telling him he couldn’t. The title of Tharp’s book: “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn!” The book is described online as “an inspiring story about the rainbow magic of kindness.” Tharp told The Washington Post that he wrote the book to remind children “that it’s okay to be different.”
A month before that, an assistant principal in Mississippi was fired after he read the children’s book “I Need a New Butt!” to second-graders. The book tells the story of a boy who discovers his bottom has a crack and goes in search of a replacement. It is supposed to be silly. It is supposed to make children laugh and show them that reading can be enjoyable. The termination letter for Price, which was made public, describes the topics in the book as “inappropriate.”
My children’s bookshelves are filled with silly, wonderful books that, yes, in some cases, contain butt and fart jokes. Those shelves also contains books that teach them about wildlife, mythology and the human capacity for creativity, evil and kindness. I have two elementary school-age sons and they are both voracious readers. I don’t keep any children’s books from them. If ever those books touch on subjects that I think will raise questions, we read them together and talk.
Johnson said she welcomes parents reading her book with their children. She recognizes the subject is one that will raise questions and she believes a trusted adult should be there to offer answers. To make the book more accessible, she is working on getting it translated into Spanish, Arabic and French.
She is also continuing to try to find opportunities to reach children, whether they live in the state where she grew up or in countries she hasn’t yet visited.
For her upcoming 50th birthday, Johnson plans to travel to Cartagena, Colombia. While there, she will spend time exploring the area with friends and celebrating. She will also visit elementary schools, read her book to students and lead them in a chant that she hopes will help keep them safe.