Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Why We Need LGBTQ+ Children’s Books

In a call for more inclusive literature, we revisit two trailblazing queer children’s books that helped define the genre.  ♦ 
An unfortunate norm for those growing up within the LGBTQ+ community is a significant lack of queer characters in children’s books. While queer subtexts can be found in many famous children’s stories with some digging (Pippi Longstocking, for example), too much of children's lit still lacks any positively confirmed queer subject matter. Only recently have the subjects of sexual and gender identity become more visible in the children’s book genre and begun to change what the purpose of a children's book may be, though many parents might be tentative to approach the topic altogether, for fear of their child’s (supposedly) limited capacity to understand these concepts. But these fears are unfounded; contemporary LGBTQ+ children’s books can offer an introduction to alternative sexualities and various representations of the familial unit in a sensitive, empathetic, and easy-to-understand manner.

Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies and Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland’s King & King are two fantastic examples of classic queer narratives for children to understand and enjoy. The two texts have caused controversy in their publication and become trailblazers in the genre of LGBTQ+ children’s books since their conception. Heather Has Two Mommies was listed 11th of the most challenged books by the American Library Association (ALA). Similarly, King & King has spurred lawsuits across the US. Both have been in fierce conversations on censorship and been forerunners in paving the way for future queer narratives, as they've been banned by schools or book-sellers at some point after their publication. According to the ALA, the complaints on these challenged books include a request that a book be removed from the shelf, or placed in a special section (usually available only to adults).

Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) has been called the first lesbian-themed children’s book and provides the prospective of a young girl entering school for the first time with a family different from her peers'. Interestingly, the narrative is centered around Heather, not necessarily her two mothers; the lesbian parents are introduced as “Mama Jane and Mama Kate” after a few short descriptions of Heather’s interests. The book is unabashed in pointing out the concept of pairs or objects in twos as it states that “Heather’s favorite number is two…she has two arms, two legs, two ears, two hands” concluded by “Heather has two mommies.” This introduction is almost poetic in its tie-in and accentuates the nature of this particular family unit as containing two mothers. Heather is confronted with the fact that her family is unlike the other children’s, in that she has no father, when discussing her family to her class. It is here that the narrative even takes on the concept of "coming out," as she is faced with concern over how her family seems to deviate from the norm. Having a children’s book that includes a character like Heather dealing with such an issue is really quite incredible, as it effortlessly and sweetly introduces a common social challenge that children of gay parents face. Coming out as queer is never completely finished. It is something that people in the LGBTQ+ community must face and do often as they choose to present their genuine selves in public spaces (like schools, for example). Ultimately, Heather draws the picture of her family, and it is placed on an equal plane alongside the other children's. This book does a great job at comparing the differences of a queer family unit while simultaneously pointing to the similarities that this family has with every other family in Mama Kate and Mama Jane’s love-filled raising of Heather. The story brings that together as it concludes with an “every family is special” sentimentality.

King & King (2000) does similar work to normalize queer people but with the focus on a gay main character. This book utilizes the fairy-tale archetype to introduce a whimsical and fun Prince Bertie, searching for a partner at his mother’s command. As the prince is courted by multiple princesses, he is shown to enjoy their company and performances but has no interest in them as a wife. Until the final princess, Princess Madeleine, and her brother, Prince Lee, come to speak to Prince Bertie. Our protagonist sees Prince Lee and they both exclaim, “What a wonderful prince” as a trail of red and pink hearts connects the two princes. The very next page is the scene of their wedding, as it is said that the queen sheds a happy tear as the princes are married (and share a kiss on the final page). Such open displays of same-sex affection is made easier to consume by the colorful and fairy-tale style of art as it shows Prince Bertie falling in love with a man. To this revelation, the queen shows only support and joy at their marriage. As this event could have been shamed or treated negatively by the characters, it is an important distinction to be made to young readers that the protagonist makes an active choice to be himself and marry the one he loves with positive reinforcement behind him. The shared kiss at the conclusion is especially taboo as it is a clear image of homosexual affection, but it's also important for children to see and understand without biases.

This depiction of homosexuality is slightly different than that in Heather Has Two Mommies; unlike in Heather's experiencethere is no suggested challenge to perceived social norms that Prince Bertie has to face. The subject is simply accepted by the narrative. In contrast, Heather expresses her own hesitation and awareness to her family’s difference by comparison to her peers. While both expressions are normalized and effectively serve the same goal, Newman’s story carries a more realistic depiction of queer life which is constructive to slowly understanding the ways LGBTQ+ families may face adversity.

Both works seek to playfully introduce homosexuality in a way that is sensitive and authentic. They normalize queer relationships and families by casting them with their heterosexual alternatives. Reading books like these to young children approaches the subject of queerness in a natural and digestible manner. Children learn many skills and gain understanding just from content that they are presented with. Reading these to a queer child can help their understanding of their own identity later in life or, for the heterosexual youth, build empathy and inclusion as they face the inevitable diversity of the modern world.

  • About the Author
    Patrick Schneider is currently a junior at Miami University studying English Literature and Japanese. He enjoys singing, reading, analyzing films, and laughing with friends. Patrick hopes to practice law in a city he loves after teaching English in Japan for a year.

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