blog, books, lgbt

Beyond Gay Penguins: LGBTQ children’s and YA books, past, present and future

Sometimes a book event coincides so exactly with what you need to think harder about right. that. second. that you wonder if you’ve invented it.

arethekidsallrightHappily, ‘Are the Kids All Right? Representations of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and YA Literature’ with B.J. Epstein, Mark Jennett and Letterbox Library at Housman’s Radical Bookshop in King’s Cross on Saturday was not a figment of my hopeful imagination, but a fascinating examination of why LGBTQ kidlit matters, what the books we have already are doing right and wrong, and what needs to happen next – delivered in a passionate, frank and lively manner by the people at the very heart of that conversation.

BJ Epstein is the author of Are the Kids All Right?: the Representation of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Lit, the first book-length study of its kind. Mark Jennett has worked extensively with the NUT and in schools, with a particular focus on challenging gender stereotypes and homophobia. Chairing was Fen Coles of Letterbox Library, which has been selling children’s books which celebrate equality and diversity for 30 years; she also announced the shortlist for the 2014 Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction.

Tangopenguin The question of why these books matter was swiftly dealt with. All kids are entitled to see themselves and their families represented in books, and to discover a world wider than their own; LGBTQ people grow up and want to have children themselves; the Contact Hypothesis – whereby meeting any individual from an ‘othered’ group softens entrenched views and increases tolerance – implies that these books can be powerful tools for change. And as BJ put it, however much people fear that you’ll be telling a 2-year-old about the Kama Sutra, these books are not about sex. They’re about people. (And sometimes penguins.)

Boy Meets Boy coverHow they are actually used in practice is another matter. Mark spoke of educational contexts where the LGBTQ picture books are kept in a box in an office, beside the books about bereavement and divorce, to be taken out ‘if the issue comes up’; how sometimes he is asked to tackle homophobia in a school without mentioning gay people. BJ noted US libraries creating a distinct section for queer YA, labelled ‘Loud and Proud’ with a rainbow sticker; on one hand valuable for demonstrating that such content exists and is welcomed, on the other perhaps making it harder for a questioning teen (or indeed a straight one) to pick those books up, to take them home.

The same visibility question came up regarding ‘casual inclusion’ and ‘normalising’, current buzzwords in inclusive publishing. While all saw value in incidental everyday inclusion, Mark asked whether that same-sex couple holding hands in the background of a picture book is an intelligible symbol, and noted the limited, emphatically inoffensive way those characters tend to appear (in three layers of clothes performing healthy outdoor tasks; in YA as the witty gay best friend). Fen wondered if these modes of inclusion risk blandness, and a departure from the radical battles for visibility that have characterised queer culture.

10,000_DressesIf that all sounds intensely gloomy, the sort-of-a-light at the end of that tunnel is: it isn’t our fault. The LGBTQ books we have are a reflection of the society we live in now. As prevailing attitudes change, so the books we need and the books we write will change too. Since the panel took place on the same day as the first same-sex marriages in England and Wales, there’s reason to be optimistic.

It was a packed and pacy conversation – and doubtless much less dour than this write-up sounds; there were cheerful disagreements over favoured books, and refreshing honesty about well-intentioned stories which miss the mark.  As always, it was a pleasure to see picture books analysed and taken seriously. Although it was an open-ended discussion, keen to talk around the topic and share views rather than forming rigid conclusions, here are a few takeaways about what the panel felt we need from LGBTQ books now:

  • More volume – the way past the ‘issue book’ versus ‘casual inclusion’ dilemma (content and post-pub categorisation) is to have more LGBTQ books of all stripes
  • More credit to the audience – children encounter ‘new’ stuff all the time, and don’t find it frightening or confusing; often it’s the expectation of adults that this will hard for them to talk about which prevents these books being shared, perhaps commissioned in the first place
  • More intersectionality – BJ called for more narratives which stepped outside the safe white Christian able ‘attractive’ pattern; Fen noted that publishers often felt that a book could only have one ‘issue’ at a time
  • More Bi, Trans, Queer narratives – Mark noted that there were now strong PBs which support Trans boys, for example, while books centred on girls tend to focus on challenging gender stereotypes
  • More picture books which are universally inclusive and fun to read – many of the picture books the panel shared as brilliant examples of LGBTQ inclusion failed on other counts, by reiterating other stereotypes, or simply not being books that you might choose to read for pleasure regardless of the content

minimiaandherdarlinguncleThe question I wish I’d asked: what about middle grade/8-12 books? I’ve yet to do more than dip into BJ’s book and I see Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman listed in the index – but the discussion focused firmly on picture books and YA. It made me curious about the numbers; if that quietness is because there’s a perception that audience needs these books less, or because there are so few books to be loud about.

8-12 is where I live right now: I’m writing a book about Sam and Sammie and Mum Gen and Mum K, the Paget-Skidelskys who live next door in the Pea’s Book series. It matters so much to get those two mums right. They aren’t just parents in a little book, somehow. Sometimes as I’m writing it feels as if they have worlds on their shoulders.

But something else I took away from that event came up in the questions. An aspiring author asked if, as a straight ally, she was ‘allowed’ to write an LGBTQ protagonist; if a fantasy YA novel could have an LGBTQ protagonist. I wanted to shout YES, YES PLEASE, YES PLEASE THANK YOU VERY MUCH very loudly. (Decorum prevailed and instead I shared furtive whispers with my neighbour about the examples that sprang to mind; about all the conversations within sci-fantasy circles about that very issue.) I hope she took that message away from the panel, regardless. But it struck me that I’ve absorbed that same desire for ‘permission’ to write about a gay couple with children (I’m the gay bit, but not the couple or the having children bit) – as if all the mums and families and kids I’ve written about before are somehow different. I’m putting my own book in that special box in the school office before I’ve even finished writing it.

It’s not that simple: Mum Gen and Mum K are different from other parents I’ve written, and that matters. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be yelling YES, YES PLEASE, YES PLEASE THANK YOU VERY MUCH in my own ear just as loudly.

Sometimes a book event coincides exactly with what you need to think harder about right. that. second. 


2013’s Little Rebels Award winner

The Alliance of Radical Booksellers’  Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction is for radical fiction for children 0-12: books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns, or those which promote social equality or social justice.

The 2014 judges are Kim Reynolds, Elizabeth Laird, and Wendy Cooling, and this year’s award will be presented May 10th at the London Radical Bookfair.

You can find the complete 2014 shortlist here.


4 thoughts on “Beyond Gay Penguins: LGBTQ children’s and YA books, past, present and future”

  1. Lots and lots of interesting issues raised in this post – I want to respond to all of them! What jumps out though is the writer asking ‘permission’ to write about gay characters when she’s not gay. Although I understand entirely what she’s saying, I guess we may as well ask ‘permission’ to write about boys if we’re female, or black people if we’re white – or even children if we’re adults. Surely the privilege that a writer has is that they can be someone in their writing that they’re not. It’s more important to present that character in a believable way.

    1. Thanks, Lucy! To be fair to the writer who asked the question, it was something the panel discussed – whether we need more LGBTQ authors as well as more books. The answer was complicated: yes, of course we want more LGBTQ voices represented; no, we can’t be prescriptive or exclusive about that (for the reasons you mention and more). There was a conversation about straight authors perhaps being more likely to fall back on stereotypes, and there was frank discussion of disappointing elements in various books (including ones by LGBTQ authors); it was the kind of cheerfully-disagreeing, freewheeling booktalk that kids’ books deserve, but it pointed up that these characters might be scrutinised in the context of a larger body of work, and their usefulness and authenticity to a particular audience.

      ‘Permission’ is such an odd thing in writing anything, isn’t it? Permission to write that crappy first draft, to write a particular genre, permission to sit down and write at all…

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