Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Writing with Pride: creating LGBTQ kids' books that don't make it an "issue."

Are you proud of who you are?

I hope so.

But as much as I wish I could say that pride was enough to create a great kids' book... it's not.  The last few years have seen a flood of LGBTQ-oriented kids' books rushed into print... not all of which are fantastic.

I want to say this up-front:  I am not LGBTQ, and I write this as a white woman married to a white man.  So some would say that we're uniquely privileged... and that members of a minority should take any opportunity they can get to show families like theirs.

I don't want to argue with that.  I want to believe, instead, that there's a way to do that that doesn't undermine the cause.  And that way is to write a great story, with characters that happen to be... well, whatever type of characters you want to depict.

Why pride isn't enough

Too many of these books, particularly the classic ones, focus on the central "issue" - that there are two mommies, two daddies, that somebody is transgendered, whatever it is.  And those kinds of books are not only generally tedious to read, but also don't appeal to children.

I have a mom and a mom... or a dad and a dad!

The message of these stories is usually pretty simple-minded:  yes, we're different, but we're happy and our lives are full of love.  It's certainly not an offensive message....but neither is it very interesting, or engaging to a child.

I wear a dress, even though I'm a boy!

Children, by nature, take most situations at face value.  It's us grown-ups who have trouble processing things that are new or different.  If a kid has two mommies, she knows it and doesn't usually love it or hate it - it just IS.  If somebody at school has a problem with that (probably not another kid; probably one of us closed-minded grown-ups), there are ways of reassuring kids without making a big deal out of it.

Another thing about "issues" books?  They get dated REALLY fast.

Books centred around the theme of overcoming intolerance and educating the general public are going to seem very, very odd in a decade or two when it's just Not a Thing (as my 18-year-old daughter would say).

Want to know the worst offense when it comes to "issues" books?

It's listing some psychologist, MSW or other professional on the cover of your children's book along with your name.  Even if you, as the writer, happen to have one of those degrees, or an MD, or a PhD, leave it off the cover.

Right or wrong, to me, those credentials on the front page announce that the book is going to be politically correct, well-grounded in research, and utterly BOOOOOOOORING.

Jews are different, too

I may be white and heterosexual, but I have also raised Jewish kids in a mainly non-Jewish world.  I think I know a thing or two about being "different," although, of course, every different is different.

I certainly put in time explaining different beliefs, different practices, different customs, different types of families (we are also a divorced, orphaned, remarried, step-parent family - we don't really fit any particular mold).

There are actually "issues" books about being Jewish.  They show a kid who tells you he's Jewish and what that means in his life.  They may show him touching a Torah, lighting Chanukah candles or going to synagogue.  For the most part, these are totally boring books, because there's not much plot or drama.  It's just an ordinary kid, living his life.

He may be Jewish, but his life's not very interesting.

We've also read about ordinary kids who are Muslim, Hindu etc... and I don't love those much more.

When I read these types of books, I find myself wishing there was something going on, and then we could just see the child's religion playing out naturally as a backdrop, rather than in the foreground.  And I feel the same way about the "two mommies" type of kids' book.

The next trends

Luckily, things are changing.  There are some books out there now where the LGBTQ thing does actually move into the background, leaving room for the story, which is exactly what writing for kids - any kids - is and should be about.

Jennifer Bryan's beautifully-illustrated The Different Dragon does a good job with this, featuring a main character with two mommies.  Patricia Polacco's In Our Mothers' House isn't new, but also well-done and nicely illustrated.

Two mommies can be cool.

I think in both of these cases, my decision was also affected by the art.  I really like the art in the book And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson (I'm a sucker for penguins!), but I haven't read the book myself, and some of the reviews suggest that the writing in the book is stilted and not the best... plus the story is apparently no longer factual; I believe one of the "daddy" penguins has now mated with a "mommy."

Penguins love their babies, too.

No matter how great your story may be, lousy pictures will ruin your message.  As with this self-published book about having two dads, which I discovered on

The rainbows are cute.  The illustrations are not.

Some of it also comes down to personal preference.  I like the art in Mommy, Mama and Me, because it's casual, colourful and appealing, even if the story is in a pretty stock "I have two mommies" style.

Who wouldn't love having those two moms?

However, I didn't love Oh The Things Mommies Do!: What Could Be Better Than Having Two? and found that its weird illustrations hindered my enjoyment.

"These don't look like my mommies."

Similarly, I didn't like Daddy's Roommate for a few reasons, including the fact that the men depicted look rather stereotypical, but did enjoy Lucy Goes to the Country.

Two very different "gay guys" stories.

(In Daddy's Roommate, I found the term "roommate" a bit weird and dated, plus, the child's father has been divorced less than a year, which I think is too short a time to be bringing new people into the kid's life... but that's not really a LGBTQ thing.)

Whatever you end up writing, there's one more breakthrough we need to see with this kind of book, and the responsibility for that lies with book sellers, librarians and teachers... but also with us as writers.

LGBTQ kids' books are often shelved with other "issues" books, and even shelved accordingly, in libraries and bookstores, along with books about death, AIDS and alcoholism.  Sheesh.

If it's a good book, with a terrific story, it belongs in the children's books section, where any parents can find it and pick it up.  Is the book only good for the LGBTQ market?  I should hope not, or what kid is really going to want to read it?

It's hard to imagine something like that happening to The Different Dragon.  It won't get shelved on the "issues" shelf because it's a DRAGONS book, featuring a character who happens to have two moms.  What kid doesn't love a book about dragons?

And that's the secret:  write your book so any kid will love it.

When that happens, the parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, etc will ultimately have to give in, accepting the book and enjoying it, and maybe someday, not even giving a thought to what kind of people or families the characters are at all.

What's your favourite "pride" book?  Did I miss any classics...?


  1. Couldn't agree more, Jennifer.

    By the way, I always look forward to your new entires. You have the best blog of its kind out there.


  2. I couldn't say it was a classic - it's not been out long enough, nor has it made multi millions in sales! And before I say anything, I must also point out that it was written by a friend of mine. So, with all of that out of the way: "Every family is different. Every family is the same" by Poppy Archer is a book looking at a wide range of families in a small, local area, and identifying that they are all different (one family has two mum, one child lives with grandparents, there are mixed race families, step-families, a foster family and so on). It presents these supposedly 'alternative' families in a beautiful, normalising way - these families all have their differences but they all have their similarities, too.


As always, I love to hear from you.