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LGBTQ Children’s Picture Books And Its Evolution

Pigeonhole Books

Over the last three decades, LGBTQ children’s books have gained in prominence and importance. We owe our gratitude to children authors who were and are brave enough to broach the subject head on despite knowing the backlash that would ensue. Thirty five years on we have seen greater acceptance of these books into a wide cross section of family units. Be it read for awareness, education or the simple pleasure of enjoying the word, they play an important role towards universal same gender equality.

By the same token, we still face challenges. We still face discrimination and injustice toward such literature, aimed at nothing more than to express one’s belief or simply as a resource for children growing up in modern society. Let’s delve into how these books have risen to the occasion against all odds and how they have made a credible contribution to the literary world.

1980 your family
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This author’s diversity dilemma: Reflections on Authors on the Move

Last Saturday, I attended a charity fundraising gala for the Sacramento Public Library Foundation. The event, called “Authors on the Move,” literally involved “authors on the move” – over 40 authors (including me) rotated from table to table, speed-dating style, and chatted with attendees about our books, our writing process, and all sorts of other things. We were treated to a champagne reception, a four-course gourmet meal, plenty of wine, and a live auction. It was a very lavish and fun event, and it was an incredible honor to be asked to participate.

And I almost didn’t go.

Why? Because the invited keynote speaker was Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket. Many children know him for his books, including A Series of Unfortunate Events, All the Wrong QuestionsThe Dark, and We Are Pirates. Many people got to know him because of his remarks at the 2014 National Book Awards Ceremony. When he presented Jacqueline Woodson with the award for Brown Girl Dreaming, Handler quipped that Woodson is allergic to watermelon – likely assuming that our “post-racist” society could find humor and social commentary in such a statement. He also probably assumed that, because he and Woodson were friends, that he could joke with her about watermelon and that she would “get it.”

But she didn’t get it. No one did, actually. And even though Handler later apologized, and even though he tried to make amends by making a large matching donation to We Need Diverse Books, the wound lingered. If you read Jacqueline Woodson’s New York Times op-ed piece, “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke,” you can feel the sting of that wound. It takes seconds to tell a joke, but years for the stab wounds to heal.

And that’s why, when I learned that Daniel Handler was the keynote speaker at this event, I had second thoughts about attending – and I knew I had a dilemma on my hands. If I went, my attendance could be taken as a form of passive acceptance of Handler’s racist behavior, and as a reinforcement of his privilege. If I didn’t go, then diversity in children’s books probably wouldn’t be part of the conversation at the event. You see, in a split-second epiphany, I realized that among the children’s book authors, I was the “diversity” – meaning that my book was the only one featuring a historically marginalized and underrepresented group. Layers upon layers of oppression, you see.

My dilemma, of course, was minor in the grand scheme of things. Those of us who identify with minoritized groups face all sorts of no-win situations like this, and in many cases the stakes are much higher. But the bottom line always boils down to this: How do I choose a course of action that maintains my integrity, and that doesn’t involve participating in systemic oppression?

As you know, I decided to go. But even up until the night of the event, lots of evil voices in my head kept telling me that I was making a bad decision. You just want to get dressed up fancy! the evil voice said. You just want to sell lots of books! Boycott the event, and be a REAL activist!

Somehow, through all that clamor, a quieter voice kept saying, Go.

So I did. I trusted my gut. And I’m so glad I did.

I got dressed up real fancy. So fancy, in fact, that I got more questions about my necklace than I did about anything else. I sold lots of books. All of them, actually. I ate wonderful food, met many interesting people, and watched people bid huge amounts of money on dinners, weekend trips, and other auction items. (Dinner with me brought in $1,400, to give you an idea.) The Sacramento Library Foundation raised over $100,000, much of it to be used for their Summer Reading Program for kids.

And at every single table I was seated at, we talked about diversity (and oppression) in meaningful ways. We talked about the limited narratives in LGBT children’s literature; the absence of LGBT writers of color in the children’s book world; the dangers of raising children to be “color-blind,” rather than educating them about racism and other forms of oppression; the importance of being able to see oneself reflected in books and other forms of popular culture. We talked about Daniel Handler and the National Book Awards, reflected on whether he would address it in his keynote, and debriefed afterwards about what he did say. (He did address it, and it was the one time during his whole talk where he was dead serious.) Among the highly privileged, we even had discussions about privilege – White privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege. And we had time to talk about lighter topics, too – like where I bought my stunning necklace.

Would those conversations have happened if I hadn’t attended? It’s hard to know. But I do know that if you live in the bubble of privilege, it’s very easy NOT to have those conversations. I think this is what my gut knew all along, and why it kept quietly telling me to go. Inserting ourselves into privileged spaces and speaking our truth is a powerful act, I’m realizing.

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What counts as “history”?

A few days ago, I read an article on the Internet titled, “Learning That I Do Exist: Why LGBT History Matters.” It’s an excellent read, and it briefly covers a few LGBT historical events that many people don’t know about. However, that’s not what most struck me about the article: Reading it triggered a memory of an event I hadn’t thought about in years, an event that was shockingly similar to the college incident shared in the article.

In my 11th grade AP History class, one of our assignments was to write a paper about a 20th century historical figure. Mr. Reinhardt, my history teacher, rattled off a list of examples, most of which involved the usual suspects: John F. Kennedy. Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson. Boring, I thought to myself. The last thing I want to do is write another paper about a dead White president. I wanted to learn about someone who isn’t usually studied in a typical history class, but I couldn’t think of anyone. One night, I was watching a baseball game on TV with my father, and I asked his advice. “Who would you write about?”

My dad didn’t miss a beat. “Jackie Robinson,” he said. (Obviously he had baseball on his mind.)

“Who’s that?” I asked.

My dad snorted. “Write your paper about him,” he said, “and you’ll find out.”

The next day, I did some research at my high school library. (This was 1987. Google didn’t exist then.) Once I learned who Jackie Robinson was, I got so excited about writing that paper. History seemed like such a boring subject, probably because all we talked about were wars, dead White presidents, and military heroes. No wonder I had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. This paper opened a door for me, and made me realize that history could be about baseball players and the Brooklyn Dodgers – and that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only Black man and civil rights activist of importance.

The day after our paper topics were due, Mr. Reinhardt asked me to stay after class. “You can’t write your paper on this topic,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. “Why not?”

“Because Jackie Robinson isn’t a real historical figure.” (Yes, my teacher really did say that.)

I was a pretty good rule-follower in school, and I rarely challenged authority. But this time, my automatic knee-jerk reaction was to pick a fight with Mr. Reinhardt. “What do you mean, he isn’t a real historical figure?” I asked. Many years later, I still remember Mr. Reinhardt’s eyes narrowing when I said this.

“He was just a baseball player,” Mr. Reinhardt said. “There isn’t much else to say about him.”

I remember standing there in total disbelief as he said this. “If you let me write my paper about him,” I said, “I’ll prove you wrong.”

Mr. Reinhardt laughed. “Okay,” he said. “If you’re willing to risk your grade.”

I was willing to risk my grade.

In high school, “history” was about White men, for the most part. And that’s true in most academic disciplines, including psychology. (Read Even the Rat Was White for an expose of the history of racism in psychology). It wasn’t until I got to college that I took courses in women’s history and African-American history – neither of which were graduation requirements. In graduate school (which, by the way, is a program that’s lauded for its approach to multicultural education), we were required to take just one class that focused on a historically marginalized group. I took several – one on Mexican-American history, one on Asians in America, and one on the history of those indigenous to the Americas. I have never taken a class on LGBT history.

The point is this: It’s easy to spend years in higher education without ever really learning about women, people of color, or LGBT people. And invisibility is one of the most powerful forms of oppression. If you don’t see people like yourself represented, then people like yourself must not exist. Or people like yourself who are important must not exist. If, on the other hand, you only see people like yourself represented – well, nothing breeds privilege and ethnocentrism more strongly than that.

This isn’t just a theoretical issue – we’re seeing the real-world consequences of this. Many studies have documented a significant achievement gap between White students and students of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Several of those studies show a link between poor academic performance and the lack of representation of these groups in their curricula. Several studies, including one recently conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, show that Black individuals who lack knowledge about their history are more likely to endorse negative Black stereotypes. Other studies, including classic work by psychologist Claude Steele, demonstrate that internalized stereotypes can have a negative impact on test performance – a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” And LGBT history is rarely taught in schools; most of my students have no knowledge of the Compton Cafeteria Riots or the Stonewall Riots, just to give two examples. In fact, very few of my millennial students have meaningful knowledge about the AIDS crisis.

Recently, our pastor at church gave a sermon about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. After she told the story, she asked, “And where was Sarah in all of this? How come her voice isn’t heard in this story?” I’d heard the story of the sacrificial lamb many times, but it had never occurred to me that Sarah’s voice had been silenced. But this happens all the time – the voices of those who lack power don’t make it into the history books. In elementary school, I learned that Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer who discovered the Americas. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that “bravery” from one point of view is “genocide” from another. Who gives voice to a particular historical event determines who gets seen and heard, who is deemed to be “important,” who appears on your AP History list of possible paper topics.

So I wrote my history paper about Jackie Robinson. And I worked my ass off. I visited multiple libraries (including a university library), searching for every shred of information I could find. I wrote and rewrote the paper with fierce determination until it was as good as it could be. Mr. Reinhardt decided that my efforts were worth a B+. And I got a tiny taste of what it’s like to have to convince an authority figure that something is worth learning about.

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Top Ten LGBTQ Books the Younger Me Desperately Needed by Dawn Betts-Green

Nerdy Book Club

Educators and librarians are well aware that every child and young adult needs to find themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read.  For some this is more difficult to achieve than others.  As an LGBTQ youth just coming out in the 90s and living in small-town, rural Alabama, I sought frantically through my library’s shelves for books that would help me understand this new part of my identity.  Whether it was because they weren’t there or I just didn’t find them, I was unsuccessful, and I didn’t locate those books until I started college and discovered the wonders of my first gay bookstore.  It’s my hope that someday, this will simply be an historical anecdote that no LGBTQ person can relate to, that all libraries (school and public alike) will be stocked with multitudes of relevant books for these kids.

With that end in mind, what follows…

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This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman

“When I saw the images of bare chested men, bikini-top wearing marchers and adults kissing, I had a strong oppositional reaction to the idea of showing this to a child however reading the discussion guide in the back of the book helped me to see that a child looking at these illustrations would not read the same sexual context that I see, into these images.”

It’s hard to see the world truly through a child’s eyes. Children don’t impose the same assumptions onto the world that adults do. But they do watch us, observe our reactions to things, and then copy those reactions. That’s one way prejudice is learned.

Great review!

Diverse Kids Books--Reviews

cover for This Day in JuneThis Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman is an easy way to introduce a child to the joy motivating people to celebrate in Pride Parades every year. Easy to follow, simple, two line rhymes in inconspicuous locations on the pages, which seem to overflow with vibrant illustrations, describe the many sights common in a Gay Pride Parade. Not a part of the sparse text, but present in the illustrations are many of the political messages that are commonly seen at a Gay Pride Parade. While the illustrations are fun, this isn’t like the books we normally review, which represent LGBT-parents leading a family. There are children in a few of the illustrations but most of the illustrations feature adults having parade fun, which means that in addition to images of people with rainbow colored hair, parade floats, flags and Carnivalesque costumes, there are illustrations of men without shirts and…

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