Last weekend I picked up a paperback copy of I, Emma Freke by Elizabeth Atkinson at my local used bookstore.
Like any book nut with limited shelf space, I have to differentiate between books I want to read and books I want to own. What elevated this book to the latter category is a relatively minor character, the protagonist’s best friend. She’s a nine year old girl with two moms. And what’s remarkable about that is how unremarkable it is.
Most books, especially children’s books, with LGBTQIA+ characters are about being LGBTQIA+. But for LGBTQIA+ people and their families, that identity is just part of who they are. Like all of us, they are nuanced and have many stories to tell.
The most clearly defining feature of the moms mentioned in this book is that they were on the older side when they adopted their daughter. So she and her friend, being typical kids, call them the Gray Moms because of their gray hair. If you’ve read this book and remember these moms at all, that’s probably what you remember. And it’s highly likely many people who have read this book don’t remember the moms at all…because it it is no big deal. But for the kid reading the book who has two moms, or whose best friend does, it’s a way of simply seeing themselves represented. And that’s both remarkable and entirely ordinary.
The good news about LGBTQIA+ representation in literature is that it exists and has gotten better. The Lambda Literary awards are now in their 29th year of honoring LGBTQIA+ literature and writers. And this post from Barnes and Noble shows that books with LGBTQIA+ books that don’t make sexuality their main theme are available…and great. Even though there aren’t enough of them.
The bad news is that recommendations, reviews, and book lists can still be hard to find. Googling “LGBTQ reads for kids” gets you this list from the San Fransisco Public Library. It’s not a bad list, but the median copyright date is 1996 and the newest published was in 2008. While there are certainly classics in this area (and if any historical fiction writers are reading this, I think the market for good historical fiction covering LGBTQIA+ history is ripe,) having this be the first thing would-be readers encounter is problematic. Even more updated lists have problems. This list from PFLAG has just seven fiction titles on it: four for teens and three picture books, no middle grade titles at all. Two of the teen books are from the 1990s. As a resource list, it’s very good…but where are the stories?
So the need is there. But how do I as a heterosexual cisgender female writer acknowledge it and work on creating a more inclusive literary community?
The number one thing any of us can do to promote diversity in writing is to support diverse writers. My Google adventure made it clear that while these books exist and are fantastic, they are not getting the attention they deserve. You can help by reading them, promoting them, reviewing them, and talking about them. You don’t have to be an LGBTQIA+ reader to appreciate a good story. I was thumbing through VOYA, a trade publication for librarians, yesterday and found an article that sadly is not currently available online about how authentic representations of minorities in children’s literature is in some ways more important for white kids than minority kids. If children of color can easily relate to classic characters like Harry Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the kids in the museum in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, certainly white, middle class, suburban kids can relate to and learn from Amira in The Red Pencil, Maddy in Bayou Magic, or Naomi in Becoming Naomi Leon providing they have access to these characters. Reading about people different than us is one of the great gifts literature gives us…story is story. Not getting pigeonholed as a reader and reading and sharing stories by a diverse and talented group of authors is something I can easily do.
But can we do more? Can I also include some of these characters in my writing?
This gets to be dicey category pretty quickly. I remember the stir Patrick Jones created when he wrote about being a white writer portraying minority characters for Voya last year. Writers are always told, write what you know, and then one beat later that stepping outside of who you are can be very powerful. But you can step too far too fast and drown out the voices we need to hear. The fabulous website Gay YA keeps a master list of young adult titles that feature LGBTQIA+ protagonists, while at the same time acknowledging that some of those characters and books are problematic. I don’t want to be the well-meaning writer that creates problematic characters. But I also know without the groundwork by writers who created these admittedly problematic characters back in the 1980s and 1990s, there is no Will Grayson, and no Tiny Cooper, not to mention the 100s of other characters celebrated over on Gay YA and that would indeed be tragic.
For Episode 82, I wrote a short story of just 100 words and four of those were the writing prompt. My main character has two moms. You don’t get a lot of backstory in 100 words, but it was an important enough point in this character’s life that I included it. I did it without thinking about it. It wasn’t a defining moment in the story, it wasn’t my intent to make this character a token, she is just someone with two moms, just like the best friend in I, Emma Freke.
The instant that episode went live, I found myself worrying. Did I portray this character in a way that was offensive? She gets angry at her moms in the story for what they are doing to her and remarks that they aren’t even the interesting sort of lesbians (or something to that effect, in 100 words you have to cut a lot.) Would that be seen as inherently homophobic? I worried a lot about that little story. But all the feedback to date has been positive. I’m glad I took the risk. I’m glad that at the time I took it I didn’t even think of it that way, just as me trying to create the best character I know how to.
I 100% understand that diverse voices need to come from diverse communities and that as I speak from privilege there’s only so much I can say on this issue. But I don’t want writers to be afraid to include the people around them in all their complex glory for fear of offending. I will never forget when a friend of mine discovered that Ezra Jack Keats was a white man. As a child, the characters in his books were among the few she could find on library shelves who looked like her and lived in a world like hers. Her whole life she had imagined Ezra Jack Keats as a loving grandmotherly black lady. Finding out that he was a white man who was inspired by the children in his neighborhood surprised her, but did not offend her. It made the characters no less real and it made their inclusion in her childhood no less important.
I don’t have answers, but it’s good to poke at literature a bit and see what the barriers and who the gatekeepers are. It’s Pride weekend here in Seattle and there are lots of things to read that challenge and inspire the way I look at the world. There are still problems to solve, but more stories are being told. One of many reasons to celebrate.