Oh, they’ve worked hard, those serious, sweet, early books that queered up kid’s lit.
Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies provoked conservative backlash from almost the moment it was first published in 1989. And she was just the first. Former US presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, back when she was a councilwoman in Wasilla, Alaska, suggested Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate didn’t belong in a public library, even though she hadn’t even read the book. Here in Canada, it seems like Asha’s Mums, by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse, Belinda’s Bouquet, also by Newman, and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads, by Johnny Valentine and Melody Sareck, the three books infamously banned by the Surrey
Board of Education in British Columbia, spent more time in courtrooms than in classrooms.
Not only did those early titles have to kick against the censorious pricks, they had to do a lot of heavy lifting in letting kids know, well, uh, it may be, sort of, if it’s cool, that some grownups were, maybe, perhaps, gay or lesbian, whatever that was. Mostly, these books provided kid-friendly framing devices for topics previously considered adults-only. Whoever the guy is who’s putting sunscreen on dad’s back, Willhoite’s book suggests, “dad and his friend are very happy together, and that’s why I am happy too.”
Decisively non-provocative, these pioneering books were intended as balm against misunderstanding. And they paved the way for a new generation of LGBT-oriented children’s books that don’t have to work so hard to prove LGBTs exist. These books can have fun. They can be less single-minded. And they can be a jumping-off point to learn about other things, not just that your parents aren’t freaks.
Toronto publisher Flamingo Rampant (flamingorampant.com) undertook a successful kickstarter campaign this summer to raise money for a six-book subscription series of books that will emphasize storyline, mystery and humour, as well as characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and from a variety of sexual identity situations. Focussing on people who might be trans or, for the younger crowd and those who don’t believe in male/female binaries, gender independent, the series is meant to round out children’s book collections by honouring an array of identities.
“We made a big bet there were parents who would be really enthusiastic to own books that had a wide variety of families and kids in them if they were available to them,” says S. Bear Bergman, who runs the press with partner j Wallace and who wrote a book of short poems, Is That for a Boy or a Girl?, for the series. By subscribing to a series written by multiple authors, parents don’t have to worry about matching up a protagonist’s identity with their child’s identity. Perhaps that’s a futile effort, anyway. In his two previous books for kids, The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy, about a trans girl, and Backwards Day, about a trans boy, Bergman says the parents who bought both books were surprised by which one their children preferred.
“It was unpredictable which would be the kid’s favourite. It had very little to do with their own gender situation or identity,” says Bergman. In his book for the series, Bergman tried to get around binary gender, allowing for more fluidity, questioning and independence from male and female identities. Sounds high-minded, but it’s also silly fun.
While some of the books in the Flamingo Rampant series have already been written, some are still in progress. Matching authors with the best illustrator is one of the biggest challenges. With the younger set, less can be much more. “In children’s books, a lot of the detail comes across in the illustrations,” says Bergman.
Meanwhile, Ottawa-based DC Canada Education Publishing (dc-canada.ca) has just finished publishing a series of 14 books called The Charter for Children. Each book, set in a different province or territory, tells a story that grapples with an aspect of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Plight Beneath the Northern Light, set in Nunavut, examines the right to meet and form groups. The Case of the Missing Montreal Bagel, set in Quebec, plays with ideas around the right to privacy and security. Series author Dustin Milligan saved The Two Two-Eyed Potatoes, about “the right to choose a best friend,” for his home province of Prince Edward Island. Which seems a bit audacious. PEI was, along with Alberta, the province most resistant to the legalization of same-sex marriage, though things have settled down in the last few years.
“It’s a struggle being gay in a small community,” says Milligan, about his decision to set the “gay” book on PEI. A commercial lawyer now based in Toronto, he also happens to be the son of a former Prince Edward Island politician. “You grow up not knowing anyone you can identify with. Even today, I underestimate the sense of isolation I felt.”
Milligan first conceived the series in 2006. The writing, which is full of playful references to other books, was a break from the exacting writing required by law. He had gay, lesbian and trans friends provide feedback on The Two Two-Eyed Potatoes, which takes place in a world where, for some arbitrary reason, potatoes who have the same number of eyes can’t be best friends. The eye-number rule stands in for a human characteristic that can’t be changed, while “best friends” can be seen as euphemism for something, um, more conjugal. Milligan workshopped all the books extensively for children in grades three, four and five.
More than a decade after the Supreme Court ruled in Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, the books have been well received by teachers.
“The kids relate mostly to the struggle to have a best friend,” Milligan says about his thwarted spuds. “I am always asking what can be improved and I had one girl in grade one tell me ‘I think it’s just too sad.’”
Sex remains a tricky subject in kids books. Actually, an absent subject. Milligan’s potatoes are purposely gender-free. And who can argue with freedom of friendship amongst spuds? Bergman is more interested in creating worlds where gender identity is upended or irrelevant than in sexual orientation itself. In both cases, the nature of conjugality makes no difference. In that, these new books share the DNA of their predecessors. They are about family and society, about where we fit into things, rather than sorting through desire.
Still, some people have suggested to Bergman that they’d like to see a book where polyamorous parents play a role. It’s an idea he’s pondering. Is the Surrey Board of Education ready for Heather’s Three Mommies or Daddy’s Endless Series of Roommates? Maybe the Supreme Court hasn’t yet read its last children’s book.