Why we need queer-inclusive children’s libraries
Adults have an instinctive need to protect children. It is a worthy goal, but when adults begin to sanitise the world children are exposed to, it is analogous to keeping them in a sterile environment. They are deprived of a chance to develop and to understand the world. Sanitising stories of things that are uncomfortable to discuss begs the question: what are we protecting the child from? Is there an appropriate age, for example, at which to let children learn that grown-ups like becoming close friends, dating, falling in love, marrying each other, separating from a partner – not necessarily in that order? Why do we erase realities like abuse and war from children’s stories? Whether we like it or not, children see these things all around them and interpret their place or value in their own lives, and in their own way.
Children are not simple. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim tells us how fairy tales play a crucial role in relieving the subconscious pressures a child faces but is unable to recognise or articulate. The child does this by projecting onto these stories and characters the emotions they feel. Fairy tales of substance are for that very reason not sanitised of the deeper or darker aspects of our lives that are a very real, unavoidable part of growing up. This is true of the world of Harry Potter, which children are able to enter and inhabit with ease, in which unfairness and death are a constant presence. J K Rowling revealed of a complex and well-loved character, that she had always thought of him as being gay, only after a generation of children and parents had grown up accepting all of the characters in the books.
A child – any child – has moments of feeling confused and lonely. Imagine the confusion and fear for those children who do not find characters like themselves reflected in stories they read: Am I the only one who feels this way? And as they read more stories, all of which are of the same kind, the confusion and fear grows: Is there something odd about me? This is true of children who know at a very young age that they are different from others, but this could also be true for a child at a later stage of growing-up.
Here is what is at the heart of this piece – we never know who a child is going to be. Pigeonholing does not work well for people in general and particularly not for children who have plastic minds and personalities that defy the taxonomy of ‘straight’ ‘bi’ or ‘gay’. Here I call ‘queer’ or ‘questioning’ any child who feels the need either to expand definitions of gender (some prefer the term ‘gender-expansive’) or to push against the boundaries of who they are allowed to find attractive. There is a strong need to have queer characters in children’s stories, queer literature in children’s libraries – meant not just for queer kids but for all kids – or even to create children’s queer libraries. Children should be able to find quirky, colourful, even loveable characters who, like themselves, are different in one crucial aspect of who they are. It is important that we make accessible to them books that have such characters in them.
In her 1990 article ‘Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors’ Rudine Sims Bishop says, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” For a child to know, for instance, that it is possible for them to feel deeply for a person of the same gender, whether those feelings go on to be physically expressed or not once they grow up, is a reassurance that is priceless.
Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill and King and King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland queer the usual pairing of different-gender royal couples by having same-gender couples live happily ever after. In two articles on bookriot.com Kelly Jensen has listed 26 English-language lgbtq books for middle-school children while adding that some of these books are either out of print or hard to find in print format. Some with different strands of queerness are The Boy in the Dress by David Williams, about a boy who among various interests like soccer also enjoys wearing dresses; George by Alex Gino and Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky, each about a child who knows she’s a girl inside but is seen by everyone else as a boy. The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey is about a trans boy who is threatened by a classmate with having his secret revealed. In Kiss by Jacqueline Wilson, a girl has a crush on a boy, but he is interested in another boy, and when he kisses him resulting in gay-bashing, she and another friend try to assuage his feelings. These books are a welcome beginning but there are many shelves still to be filled.
Books need not be exclusively or explicitly classified as “lgbtq” either. Ruth Vanita, the author who has extensively researched queer representation draws attention to characters in children’s literature “who are now read as gay and even get censored for that, e.g. Noddy and Big Ears who share a house and a bed got censored in England. George in The Famous Five is fairly clearly ‘different.’ So are characters in the Wizard of Oz, barring Dorothy. The two lead characters in the children’s Hindi comics and videos, Motu Patlu, are single and live together, sometimes sharing a bed. In other words, before the current labels there were plenty of such ‘different’ characters.”
Queerness, in the sense of outside the normative, can also include such realities as alternate family structures or exceptionally deep friendships between children of the same gender. In India, an article by Mridula Chari talks about the challenges facing such books while listing some of them: Shals Mahajan’s Timmi in Tangles touches on families with single parents. Balaji Venkataraman’s Flat Track Bullies has a child who takes off over the summer holiday to spend time with Durai, the son of his family’s domestic help. These books are important milestones in Indian children’s literature but it must be remembered that they are few and far between, and the ones mentioned here are restricted to English language publishing.
Why should a ‘straight’ child read such stories, some may ask. It is because children learn to make value judgments about markers of identities – skin colour, food habits, class, caste, relationships. It is in childhood that we learn the process of ‘othering’ and so it is in childhood that the interventions must begin. By crossing these seemingly insurmountable barriers of talking about same-gender desire or non-normative gender identities, we can normalise them and start to make a difference in the lives of children.
How is a queer-inclusive library to be envisioned? It would mean, for one, a place where adults are more supportive than not. It would be a place where children are allowed to be who they want to be, all judgment reserved. Growing up is a lonely experience for kids who feel they do not fit in. A queer book or library can be a place for confession and validation. It is in there that the child may whisper little secrets, secrets that do not face the danger of being betrayed. In there lie the possibilities of a communion between just the child and the book. A queer library would also make accessible these books to children of parents who cannot afford to buy them but are open to them.
The very act of reading stories written and illustrated especially for children helps the child identify with the characters or creatures in the book and empathise with their experiences. Children will have to live among all sorts of people – queer, disabled or of a different faith. If a child is told the story of two princes who kiss, or two women who together bring up a child, they will be the better for it. The question: Is there something odd about me? may happily disappear in the shelves of a queer-inclusive library.