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? Whether we wish it or not, children see these things all around them and interpret their place or value in their own lives, 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 darker or deeper aspects of our lives that are a very real, unavoidable part of growing up. This also subliminally prepares children for what lies ahead. In the world of Harry Potter, which children are able to enter and inhabit with ease, unfairness and death is a constant presence. JK Rowling also revealed that she had always envisioned a complex and well-loved character in Harry Potter as being gay after a generation of children had grown up surrounded by all of the characters in the books.
We see that often it is adults who read too much into the nature of stories and characters, while children are not given credit for the open-mindedness with which they accept them.
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 sanitised, the confusion and fear grows: 'is there something odd about me? This is certainly 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.
Queer children should be able to find quirky, colourful, even lovable characters who, like themselves, are different in one crucial aspect of who they are.
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'. 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. Queer children should be able to find quirky, colourful, even lovable 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." It is one thing to be able to see queer characters in films or on television as children today can, but in reading children are able to know those characters at their own pace, in a deeper and far more sensitive way. 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 all kids—or even to create children's queer libraries. For a child to know, for instance, that it is possible for them to express their gender as they experience it, or to feel deeply for a person of any gender, whether those feelings go on to be physically expressed or not once they grow up, is a reassurance that is priceless.
Such books do exist. 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 ones live happily ever after. The Boy & the Bindi by the Toronto-based writer Vivek Shraya is about a young Indian boy's fascination with his mother's bindi, who doesn't chastise him for wearing one. One of a Kind, Like Me by Laurin Mayeno is the story of Danny, who knows exactly what he will be in tomorrow's school parade: a princess. He and his mom race to a thrift store to find him a costume.
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. When he kisses him resulting in gay-bashing, she and another friend try to protect his feelings.
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 the main characters in the Wizard of Oz
Books need not be exclusively or explicitly classified as "LGBTQ" either for a queer child to identify with the characters. Such books may still face opposition for addressing or including queerness. 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. For example, 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 the main 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," she concludes, "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 intense friendships between children of the same gender. In Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman, Heather and her classmates draw their respective families - and no two look the same. An article by Mridula Chari talks about the challenges facing such books in India 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. They would be a welcome addition to any library, and there are many shelves to be filled.
A queer book can be a place for confession and validation. In there lie the possibilities of a communion between just the child and the book.
How is a queer-inclusive library to be envisioned? It would mean, for one, a place where adults are more supportive than not. No child is kept from reading a particular age-appropriate book because an adult doesn't approve of the story. Nor are they scolded for reading something related to bodies, gender and sexuality, as happens all too often. Adults don't realise that such attitudes result in an internalised fear in children of talking about these things and they end up becoming more vulnerable to abuse. As it is growing up is a lonely experience for kids who feel they do not fit in. A queer book can be a place for confession and validation. In there lie the possibilities of a communion between just the child and the book. It is in there that the child may whisper little secrets, secrets that do not face the danger of being betrayed or exploited. A queer library would also make accessible these books to children of parents who cannot afford to buy them but are open to them.
Finally, why should a 'straight' child read such stories, some may ask. As Danika Ellis says in her wonderful article Kids Need Queer Books, "Because some kids are queer. And those kids who aren't will be sharing a planet with people who are." It is no secret that 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, in childhood that the interventions must begin. By crossing these seemingly insurmountable barriers of talking about non-normative gender identities or same-gender desire, we can normalise them and start to make a difference in the attitudes and lives of children.
The very act of reading stories written and illustrated especially for children is one of the children identifying with the characters or creatures in the book, empathising 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 the queer-inclusive library.
This post was first published here.
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