I LOVE to write. I’m constantly amazed how words and ideas can just come together, and that words can be combined in infinitely creative ways. And frankly, as a result of going to school for a very long time, I feel I’ve had to re-learn how to write in a fun, engaging, inspired way. Academic writing, particularly in the form of authoring journal articles, is the antithesis of creativity. It’s dull, dry, insipid, and soul-draining. So I don’t do it. I love writing non-fiction, but not that kind of non-fiction. And one of the things that’s helped me the most in re-learning how to write is writing something other than nonfiction – particularly something that is far, far away from nonfiction.
That’s where my friend Mira Reisberg comes in.
Mira is a children’s book author and illustrator. She’s an academic expat, having left a tenure-track university post after feeling like academia was sucking the creative life out of her. Now she teaches classes on writing and illustrating children’s picture books. I had the pleasure of taking one of her classes last spring – and it’s done wonders for clearing out the cobwebs of my right brain. Plus it’s just been sheer fun to learn how to write a creative, engaging, kid-friendly story in 600 words or less.
So far, most of my children’s stories aren’t about LGBTQ-related topics. One of my stories involves Humpty Dumpty getting fixed, another is about toes who constantly argue and can’t find a way to cooperate, and another is a story about a very loud rooster who’s welcomed in the neighborhood by some, but not by others. (Maybe the rooster one is LGBTQ-related, in the metaphorical sense.) But I’ve also been learning a lot about the children’s picture book market and the kinds of stories that are likely to get published – and, more specifically, about the landscape for LGBTQ-themed picture books.
Most people have heard of Leslea Newman’s groundbreaking book, Heather Has Two Mommies. Published in 1989, this was the first lesbian-themed children’s book ever to be published. The story is about a little girl, Heather, who is being raised by lesbian women, Jane and Kate. The book notes that Jane, Heather’s biological mother, got pregnant via donor insemination, and it portrays Heather’s family (and other non-traditional families) in a very positive light. It is a very simple, endearing, and inspiring book – and, according to the American Library Association, Heather Has Two Mommies was the 11th most challenged book of the 1990s. It continues to be banned in libraries. Despite the negative backlash to this book, Heather Has Two Mommies is still one of the bestselling books that focuses on LGBTQ issues.
Fast-forward to 2005. Since the publication of Heather Has Two Mommies, only a few additional LGBTQ-themed books made it onto the children’s picture book scene – one of the most popular being And Tango Makes Three. Based on a true story, the book is about two chinstrap penguins, Roy and Silo, who live in the Central Park Zoo – and who are, as they say, “a little different.” They play together, they cuddle, and they share a nest, but they aren’t parents like the other penguin couples. One of the zookeepers helps them out by giving them an abandoned egg, and they become fathers to Tango (because it takes two to Tango). As of this writing, And Tango Makes Three was the 8th most popular book in its category on Amazon. It was also, according to the American Library Association, the most challenged book of 2006, 2007, and 2008, and the second-most challenged of 2009 and 2010.
Leslea Newman has continued to be a prolific children’s book writer, and she has also written books for middle-grade and young adult audiences. Lots of books have been published about children who have two mommies or two daddies. But where are the gender issues?
10,000 Dresses was published in 2008. My Princess Boy came out in 2010. Both books address the issue of gender nonconformity in boys. Written by Marcus Ewert, 10,000 Dresses tells the story of Bailey, who dreams every night about magical dresses made of crystals, flowers, and rainbows. But when his parents hear about his dreams, they try to squash them: “You shouldn’t be thinking about dresses at all!” they say to him. In contrast, My Princess Boy is about a little boy named Dyson, who loves dressing up like a princess – and whose parents love him just the way he is. Again, both of these books have been selling like wildfire. So far, they haven’t made it to the ALA’s “Most Frequently Challenged Books” list, but they’ve nevertheless been met with powerful resistance. A perfect example: “This Isn’t ‘Acceptance’: It’s Warped,” writes conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel regarding My Princess Boy.
Notice any trends? Clearly, all of these books have an audience – otherwise they wouldn’t sell so well. All of them are powerful tools for teaching acceptance to children (and modeling acceptance among adults). And every single one of them has been challenged or subjected to protest in some way, shape, or form.
If you think about it, the LGBTQ-themed books that have been published for children haven’t been all that radical, in the grand scheme of things. Children being raised by two mommies or two daddies is becoming more commonplace. Boys who are gender-nonconforming are increasingly met with acceptance rather than with a trip to a gender-reparative therapist. And few books stray far from those themes. What if there was a book about bisexuality, or about being raised by a polyamorous family? What if there was a book featuring lesbian and gay people of color? Or a book that helps children deal with the harsher realities of homophobia? Or a book about a child who has a transgender parent? Or a book about intersex identities? The possibilities are endless.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get published as a children’s book author. Regardless, I’ve got a few ideas in the works for LGBTQ-themed books. If they got published, that would be a miracle. If they end up on the ALA Banned Books List, I’ll really feel like I accomplished something.