Tag Archives: LGBT children’s books

99 problems (and my story has them all): Diversity and “issues books”

For a while there, I had a great writing streak going. Ideas popped into my head at the most random times – at meetings, during conversations, while driving, or in the shower. I started carrying a small notebook with me so I could jot these ideas down before I forgot them – because too many times, I’d said to myself, “Oh, I’ll remember.” And, well, you know how that goes, I’m sure. It was like I couldn’t write fast enough. My day job was beginning to feel like this big inconvenience, because I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do justice to all these great ideas. But when an idea grabs hold of you, it’s hard to let it go. So I made the time to write, whether it involved staying up late, getting up early, or grabbing a few minutes here and there. The writing didn’t always come easy, and sometimes what seemed like a good idea in my head sounded clunky on paper.

And then . , . the well ran dry. For months, I’ve had trouble coming up with new, fresh, and compelling stories. Many writers I know have experienced this very thing, and in each case, the writing eventually started up again. But this felt a little different that what I’d heard people describe. It wasn’t like the well ran dry slowly, like a riverbed drying up in a drought. No, this felt more like the coin-operated showers you find at campgrounds – when your five minutes are up, the water stops abruptly, and there you are, freezing and dripping wet. Strange. And I had no idea why.

Until today.

Every spring, I attend a writing conference that’s hosted by my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Last year’s conference focused heavily on diversity in children’s books, probably in response to the well-publicized and much-needed #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. One of the workshops was “How to Write Diversity Into Your Stories,” which, ironically, was led by young White female associate editor from a large New York publishing house. At the end of the session, one of the questions I had was this: When writing for a diverse audience, how do you incorporate issues like racism, homophobia, class oppression, etc., in a way that’s appropriate for children?

“I wouldn’t focus too much on those things,” she said. “If you do, then it’ll be an ‘issues book,’ which are the scourge of the publishing industry.”

An “issues book.” I’d never heard the term before. But since the conference, I’ve seen that term tossed around quite a bit, along with its sibling, the “problem story.” Book reviewers tend not to like issues books, and if they do, it’s despite the presence of these issues. Most children’s picture books with LGBT characters fall into the category of “issues books.” Many books featuring people of color do as well – and when they don’t, the race and ethnicity of the characters aren’t really a central part of the story.

So now what do I do? I thought to myself. I’d written a manuscript about a girl who’s grieving the loss of her transgender sibling – an issues book. I’d started working on another one, at the request of my editor, about a mixed-race girl with two daddies who’s trying to figure out how to navigate Mother’s Day at school – another issues book. I’d been playing with a story about an intersex character, and another about a child whose mother comes out as transgender – which are, of course, issues books. Meanwhile, in the back of my head, round and round like the stock ticker in Times Square, I’m hearing, Issues books are the scourge of the publishing industry. No wonder I couldn’t get anything on paper! So many of my ideas involved addressing a character’s personal struggle triggered by oppression, and the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to a scourge.

That was only part of my epiphany. The other came this morning, when I read this article from the Diversity in YA blog. What they had to say about “issues books” basically boiled down to this:

  • If your characters are part of historically marginalized groups, then oppression is part of their experience.
  • If your characters have multiple minority identities, then the issues they face will involve these complex intersections. (For that reason, most books don’t include characters with more than one minority identity.)
  • Simple narratives that have a clean ending don’t reflect the realities that multiply minoritized people face.
  • As long as minoritized people face oppression, then books that realistically capture their experience will need to include issues – even if it seems like “too many issues.”

BINGO. This article nailed it. This is what I wish I’d thought to say at that conference.

It’s scary to me how easily this editor’s words derailed me, which speaks to the power of internalized oppression. I’ve studied internalized oppression for a long time (my dissertation focused on internalized homophobia), and I’m continually amazed at how, like a toxic mold, it can creep up and invades our psyches so easily. Internalized oppression may keep us from writing the stories we want to write. It keeps publishers from putting those stories out there – they fear they won’t make money, or they’ll be too depressing. But I don’t think it’ll keep readers from reading them – because, for many of us, they are our stories.

Just before I started writing this blog post, a little story idea popped into my head. I jotted it down, and later I’ll play around with it. Yes, that quickly, the idea well seems to be filling again.

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Filed under children, covert homophobia, culture, intersectionality, intersex, LGBTQ youth, media

What happens when you don’t trust your gut

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail message from the Family Matters coordinator at the San Diego LGBT Center, inviting me to do a storytime and book signing at San Diego Pride. I wasn’t sure, however, if I wanted to make such a long trip, and I was also uneasy about the expense. The next day, I got an e-mail from Southwest Airlines advertising their $69 specials. If there’s such a thing as a “sign,” this was it – I immediately clicked on the link and booked my super-cheap flight. Easy-peasy.

What was not so easy-peasy, though, was finding a broad selection of books to bring for the storytime. I’d read my own book, of course, but I wanted to bring in other books to share – ideally, a wide range of books with diverse characters and themes. A challenging task, as it turns out.

There’s Heather Has Two Mommies, the landmark publication that launched the genre of LGBT children’s picture books. There’s And Tango Makes Three, a sweet tale (based on a true story) of two male penguins who care for an egg and ultimately father a baby penguin hatchling. There were only two stories I could find that had any kind of multicultural content: Antonio’s Card, a story about a boy celebrating Mother’s Day with his two mommies; and Best Best Colors, a story about a boy with two mommies who can’t choose his favorite color – so he chooses all of them, in a rainbow spectrum. Both of these books were written in English and in Spanish.

However, most books follow a predictable pattern. As you might imagine, there are lots of books about two mommies and two daddies. There are a fair number of books about same-sex weddings – Donovan’s Big Day and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding are two examples. And, increasingly, there are lots of books about gender-nonconforming boys (or transgender children) wearing dresses: 10,000 Dresses; Jacob’s New Dress; Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. All of these books have similar storylines, and all of them bother me immensely – not because of the gender nonconformity (this is a hugely important topic, and one that I embrace), but because all of the protagonists in these books are bullied (in 10,000 Dresses, the bullying and rejection comes from parents as well as peers). Obviously, there’s a lot of social policing that happens to gender non-conforming boys, and I understand that the bullying themes in these books are a reflection of reality. However, I often wonder if these books inadvertently teach bullying to children who might not otherwise question gender flexibility. I needed to decide whether to include any of these books, and if I did choose one of them, which one I should pick.

My gut said don’t pick any of them. My brain, however, overrode my gut. (If you’re thinking, Oh, I bet this doesn’t end well, you’re right.) This is what my brain said:

You need to include a story about gender nonconformity. 

You need a book that’s contemporary – not one that was written fifteen years ago. (Many of the books I found were, in fact, written fifteen years ago.)

The bullying really isn’t THAT bad! 

I ended up reading, along with a range of other books, Jacob’s New Dress, which I felt was the most positive of the three options I was considering. This story, written by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, is based on their experience raising their gender nonconforming son. The bully in this story is a boy named Christopher, who just can’t wrap his head around the idea of boys wearing dresses. However, Jacob’s parents are supportive and loving, and his mother even helps him sew his own dress. Jacob’s teacher is also supportive, standing up for him when Christopher gives him a hard time. I figured that exposing kids to affirming adult characters could mitigate the bullying element. And, in the end, Jacob finds the strength to stand up to Christopher, which was another plus.

Well, here’s what happened. The story opens with Jacob and his friend Emily playing dress-up. Jacob chooses the princess costume. And Christopher, the bully, says, “Jacob, why do you always wear the girl clothes? Put on the knight armor. That’s what the boy wears!”

We’re thirty seconds into the story, right? After I read that line, a little boy interrupted and said, “Yeah!!! He shouldn’t wear the girl clothes! He’s a BOY!!! EWWWWWWWWWW!!!” (Remember, this isn’t just your garden-variety storytime at the library: This is at a Pride celebration.) I stopped reading and gently challenged his opinion, but his mind was made up. As Christopher continued to bully Jacob, this little boy’s comments continued to escalate, and another child joined in. (As an aside, the more severe Christopher’s bullying became, the more my heart hurt – reading the words aloud actually made me feel like I was bullying Jacob.) After trying to create conversation around this, I eventually had to ask both of them to stop commenting, to be respectful of others, and to listen. It felt necessary, but it also felt punitive, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted to convey during the storytime. I should have trusted my gut, I thought to myself.

Obviously, the fact that this little boy voiced this opinion so strongly confirms that reactivity against gender nonconformity in boys is alive and well – which is why these themes are in these books in the first place. However, I also think that this little boy said what he said because Christopher said it first. And even though he heard the whole story, the fact that Jacob’s parents and Jacob’s teacher supported him did absolutely nothing to change this little boy’s opinion. Bullying often happens that way – children don’t engage in the behavior until they see another child doing it (or they see a character bullying on TV, or read about a character bullying in a story), and then, having been effectively granted permission, they jump onto the bandwagon.

Fifteen years ago, most LGBT children’s books contained clear and obvious themes of oppression. Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, for example, a book written back in the early 1990s, features a scene with a group of anti-gay protestors. (Interestingly, this is the only other book, besides This Day in June, that’s been written about Pride.) This can be helpful – reading children’s books that contain these themes can serve as conversation-starters and help prepare children to deal with these realities. However, so much has changed in the last two decades. The LGBTQ rights movement has gained considerable traction, and we have more visibility than ever before. And yet, we still don’t have many LGBT-themed books that are affirming, celebratory, and radically and inclusively accepting. If we’re going to end oppression, then we need to stop embedding oppression-reinforcers in our narratives – and start to reflect, affirm, and celebrate the beauty of who we are.

 

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Filed under activism, anti-gay bullying, children, gender nonconformity, homophobia, media, stereotypes, transphobia, violence

This Day in June is released TODAY!!!

Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday to you!

Happy birthday, dear This Day in June!

Happy birthday to you!

TDIJ cover

 

 

You may think I’m very weird for singing “Happy Birthday” to my new children’s book. But you have to understand: Today is Book Release Day. Which, if you’re a writer, is a Very. Big. Deal. It really is like the day you gave birth to your child (if you have a child, of course). And writers do all sorts of things to celebrate The Big Day. Some throw a party for themselves. Some go to a bookstore and buy their book – because that’s just a cool thing to do. Some go out to dinner.

And some worry. Will anyone buy my book? Will it get a horrible review – or LOTS of horrible reviews? 

I’m one of the worriers.

So many of us have amazing creative talents. We write. We paint. We sculpt. We sing, or dance, or design, or craft. But for many of us, especially those of us who are “professionals,” those creative talents are hidden. Because it’s one thing to have our guilty creative pleasures. It’s another thing to go public with them, and celebrate our creativity with exuberance and pride. Why? Because it’s scary.

Consider these examples:

A few days ago, I complimented a little girl at my daughter’s school on her outfit, which was colorful and wildly creative. Her mom, who was standing next to me, whispered, “I wish I had more time to sew. Maybe when my kids get older.” As it turns out, she had made the outfit, but she didn’t want to admit it – probably because she didn’t want to brag and look like she was full of herself.

A few weeks ago, a student came to talk to me because he was concerned about his grade. When he opened up his notebook to show me how he takes notes, there were beautiful, intricate drawings in the margins. “Those are amazing!” I said to him. He blushed. “Oh, that’s just doodling. Instead of wasting my time on that, I really should pay more attention in class.”

A few months ago, at a party, I met someone who had a lot of tattoos, one of which was especially striking. “Where did you get that done?” I asked. She told me, and then, lowering her voice, she said, “I designed it myself.” She paused. “It’s really not that hard.”

All three of these individuals clearly have unbelievable creativity. And when they told me that they had sewed the outfit, drawn the doodles, designed the tattoo, they each found a way to downplay it – dismiss it, really. But honestly, I think all three of them wanted me to know that they were the creative force behind their awesome works of artistry. And you know what? I am no different from them. I love to sew, and do all things crafty. But when I sew a doll and give it to a child as a gift, I never tell anyone that I made it – even though I’m always in awe of each doll I make, because each one is so cute, and each has its own unique little doll personality. When someone asks me if I made it, I’ll tell them . . . but in a lowered voice, because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging. It’s the same with writing: When a children’s story I write gets published, on Book Release Day I want to jump up and down and share with every single person I see my excitement about this exuberant and celebratory picture book. But a little voice in my head tells me I should be Humble and Reserved. That I shouldn’t share my excitement, or brag a little bit (or a lot), or throw myself a big party – because that’s narcissistic, you know.

Personally, I think that voice is Fear. Because if we don’t share our creativity with others, then nobody can criticize it – or criticize us. However, when we bravely put our creative work out there in the world, we’re revealing our bodies and baring our souls – and opening up our deepest pools of vulnerability.

When I kick Fear to the curb, here’s the truth that’s revealed: I’m more excited about This Day in June than I am about anything else I’ve ever created. The story itself is fun to read. Kristyna Litten‘s illustrations are simply outstanding – they capture perfectly the essence of Pride, and there are lots of intriguing little details embedded in each two-page spread (including an image that bears an uncanny resemblance to me – see if you can find it!). At the end of the story, the cultural and historical elements that are referenced throughout the book are explained more fully, and there’s a section that offers guidance on how to talk to children about gender identity and sexual orientation (because, oddly enough, there are no books out there on this topic).

You know the biggest reason I’m so excited about This Day in June? Because our children deserve a beautifully fabulous book about Pride – and I’m thrilled that I got to do it. It’s long overdue.

So how will I celebrate? I will go to work, as usual – but on my way home, I’ll swing by my local bookstore (The Avid Reader, in my case) and purchase my book – even though I already have several copies. (I’ll buy the Kindle version too, while I’m at it.) Maybe we’ll go out to dinner, but I might just prefer a quiet dinner at home. I’ll have a launch party – just not today. (Stay tuned on that one). And I’ll read This Day in June to my daughter before she goes to bed.

This Day in June is available today from Magination Press, from Amazon, or from your local bookstore.

 

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Filed under children, Uncategorized

The world of LGBTQ children’s books

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.

Heather Has Two Mommies cover.jpg

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.

File:Tangopenguin.jpg

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?

Front Cover

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.

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, children, gender nonconformity, homophobia, LGBT families, LGBTQ youth, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized