Edited by Toby Sharpe
Art by Priyanka Meenakshi https://www.priyankameenakshi.com/
Recently, I turned in a fiction portfolio for a creative writing course: a queer retelling of a young adult novel. My professor said that, when she heard about my topic, she’d immediately envisioned a story about AIDS. How relieved she was, she said, that it was not, in fact, about that epidemic. Then I turned in an excerpt of a queer-themed* children’s book to a writers’ group. My feedback questioned the very need for diverse books, implying that queer themes are too mature for children to understand. I was unsure how to respond in either situation, never having encountered someone who so blatantly dismissed the value of inclusive literature or expected a queer story to centre on AIDS. Why did they have those views or expectations? Perhaps the answer has to do with misunderstanding queer themes in children’s literature.
Children’s literature is generally ‘defined by its intended audience’ (Nodelman 2003): children. Queer children’s literature includes books focused on themes of belonging and acceptance. Such books, as demonstrated above, are not without controversy. Consider the infamous picture-book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which spurred the passing of Section 28, a British law ordering, in part, that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. Though Section 28 has since been repealed, queer children’s books continue to be challenged and even banned. Some library systems, while stopping short of outright bans, nevertheless place queer books in the same section as ‘drug addiction, sexual abuse and mental illness’ (Avery), making certain prejudices quite clear. However, queer writers persist, no doubt due in part to their own struggles growing up and experiencing first-hand the value of these books.
In 2015, one such writer, Alex Gino, who identifies as genderqueer, published George. The protagonist, Melissa**, is perceived as a boy, but identifies as a girl. She’s in the fourth grade, and her school is producing a play of Charlotte’s Web. Melissa wants the lead role but her teacher will not allow it. Melissa is not long deterred, however, eventually conspiring with her best friend, the show’s star, to switch places and surprise everyone during the final performance. Though she might not realise it, Melissa uses the stage to interrogate heteronormativity. This interrogation or inversion of ‘norms’ relates to the notion of carnival theory.
Mikhail Bakhtin describes medieval carnivals as times when ‘laws, prohibitions, and restrictions’ of ordinary, everyday life were suspended (122-123). In the context of children’s literature, carnival serves as a theory for exploring power structures and the experience of a child protagonist becoming powerful (equal to the adult) instead of powerless (‘oppressed’ by the adult). We see this in George: Melissa is determined to play Charlotte despite her teacher’s prohibition. In doing so, Melissa escapes ‘oppression’ and finds the freedom to express who she really is; at the end of the book, she even wears a dress for an outing to the zoo, taking her expression into the ‘real world’ beyond the stage or her school.
By this point, Melissa is approaching the threshold of self-understanding, a common theme in coming-of-age stories. As George demonstrates, such stories are not limited to chronicling growth into adulthood; rather, they encompass the many ways in which an individual might achieve self-understanding. Identity is a key theme in many children’s books: Melissa has come to know herself better than she did at the beginning of the book, understanding the nuances of her own selfhood.
One might misconstrue queer books as sexual, and thus ‘too mature’ for children. And yet, as Melissa’s journey demonstrates, identity is what defines these books, which itself is not a sexualised concept, instead being concerned with (self) belonging and (self) acceptance. Identity – the core of a person – is distinct from sex, sexuality, and physical desire, which are merely facets of a person, not their identity. In failing to realise this, one inevitably sexualises identity and thus sees books about identity as sexual – a catch-22 of misunderstanding or false equivalence. This does not make such books inappropriate for children but simply indicates why books may be misperceived and challenged.
As if in response to potential critique, Gino attempts to make Melissa’s identity easier to accept by portraying her as stereotypically feminine: Melissa loves the fringe of her skirt (Gino 201) and ‘slippery shiny’ lip gloss (204), for example. This ‘maintain[s] normative, binarist ideas about gender’ (Lester 251) and presents ‘two distinct gender options, rather than allowing for affirmation of identities that are neither traditionally masculine nor traditionally feminine’ (252). This unfortunately signals ‘that if a queer person is to be accepted, they must erase all semblance of difference’ (Lester 254). This is known as ‘passing’: when someone conforms to societal expectations, playing a predefined role to not stand out as a minority. This reveals a contradiction, for ‘passing’ assumes there is something false about a person, that one’s ‘true’ identity is anything but.
Indeed, Melissa deceives her teacher and class to play the starring role. She clings to the knowledge that no one but she and her friend ‘know a thing’ (210) about their plan. The first chapter is even entitled ‘Secrets’. This all underscores the notion of passing as something contradictory: an expression of an identity that is simultaneously a suppression of that same identity. This, in turn, reinforces heteronormativity and its bright-line rules defining ‘acceptable’ roles.
This should not, in and of itself, deter one from seeing value in books like George, for individual negotiation of identity is exactly that – individual. Books that celebrate difference, even if they do not fully realise their potential or explore every unique path to self-understanding, help reduce the isolation some children feel, offering them hope that might otherwise be lost. At a time when bullying and youth suicide are ever more prevalent, the necessity of inclusive books that interrogate dominant norms has never been more evident. And these stories can only authentically be told from the marginalised voices who are suppressed by those norms. As Alex Gino said, ‘There is a layer of depth and truth that comes from people writing from inside their communities that can never be replicated by people outside it’ (Hansen). It is in this understanding that we find the value of inclusive books and stories from marginalised people.
*I use the term ‘queer’ to refer to and encompass a full spectrum of identities beyond cisgendered, heterosexual norms.
**Throughout the novel, George is the name used to refer to the protagonist, who chooses the name Melissa toward the book’s conclusion. I thus refer to her as Melissa instead of George.
Avery, Dan. “The Battle to Keep Lgbt Children’s Books Away from Children Rages On.” NewNowNext, 2016, www.newnownext.com/library-childrens-books-lgbt/10/2016. Accessed January 8, 2017.
Bakhtin, M. M. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Manchester University Press, 1984.
Gino, Alex. George. Scholastic Children’s Books, 2015.
Hansen, John. “Alex Gino: ‘I Knew I Was Different as a Kid’.” The Guardian, 2015, www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/sep/09/alex-gino-george-transgender-protagonist-interview. Accessed January 8, 2017.
Lester, Jasmine C. “Homonormativity in Children’s Literature: An Intersectional Analysis of Queer-Themed Picture Books.” Journal of LGBT Youth, vol. 11, no. 3, 2014, doi:10.1080/19361653.2013.879465.
About the author
Josh Simpson is a PhD researcher at Strathclyde University, focusing on queer themes in children’s literature. Published in fiction and nonfiction, he holds a MSc with Distinction from Edinburgh University and a much-neglected law degree from someplace else. He founded Unicorn, a forum for inclusive children’s literature, and occasionally shares his thoughts.