Picture This

Based on conversations with friends and acquaintances, it seems that many people think QUILTBAG books must all be for adults or teens. That somehow those themes and characters aren’t appropriate for younger readers, or that there’s no way to tell those stories in a way that works for children.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And if your QUILTBAG picture book knowledge begins and ends with Heather Has Two Mommies, you are in for a treat. Some of my favorite QUILTBAG books of the past year are picture books, written and illustrated for very young readers.

Neither by Airlie Anderson

In a land of yellow birds and blue rabbits, a green creature with bunny ears and a beak shows up. Claiming to be “both,” the green one is instead labelled as “neither” — neither this nor that, neither these nor those — and therefore unsuited for any of the birdy games or rabbity activities. After being banished and looking for Somewhere Else, the protagonist instead finds welcoming friends in The Land of All. Spare text, bright colors, and bold, simple drawings make this book perfect for even the youngest readers, and the message is clear: there are all different kinds of beings, and the best world is where everyone is welcome.

The Adventures of Honey and Leon by Alan Cumming, illustrated by Grant Shaffer

In a book inspired (very loosely) by real life, actor Alan Cumming and his illustrator husband Grant Shaffer tell the story of two sophisticated Manhattan dogs, Honey and Leon, and their two dads. The dogs worry whenever the dads leave on trips, so one day Honey and Leon decide to follow along in secret, just to keep an eye on their family. Jaunty, colorful illustrations perfectly capture the fabulous lifestyle and outsized attitude of these very cosmopolitan dogs and their dads.

A Church for All by Gayle E. Pitman, pictures by Laure Fournier

I’m a Methodist, and the actions of the United Methodist Church at the recent General Conference have been painful and divisive. Thankfully, my local church is much more like the one in this joyous, inclusive book: “Hands receiving / Hands connecting / Hearts believing / Hearts accepting / Feel the Spirit / Can you hear it? / It’s here at our church for all!” The pictures show a broad diversity of age, race, gender, disability, social and economic status, and fashion choice, all attending church together with love and grace.

Phoenix Goes to School by Michelle and Phoenix Finch, illustrated by Sharon Davey

This autobiographical picture book tells the story of Phoenix, a transgender girl who was AMAB (assigned male at birth), as she heads off for her first day at school. She is nervous to wear a dress, and worried that older kids might bully her or make fun of her. In fact, she has a great first day and makes some new friends. Supplemental material at the back of the book offers information and discussion questions for children and adults.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

In this 2019 Stonewall Award winner, Julian and his grandmother see three women on the subway dressed as glamorous mermaids. Julian decides he wants to be a mermaid too, and improvises a costume with items found in his grandmother’s house. Luscious pictures and minimal text tell the sweet story of Julian’s emerging identity and his supportive abuela. Be sure to look up videos of the Coney Island Mermaid Parades that inspired this book.

Sewing the Rainbow by Gayle E. Pitman, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown

Harvey Milk has rightly gotten a lot of attention for his role in the gay rights movement in San Francisco in the 1970s. This book focuses instead on fellow activist and costume designer Gilbert Baker, the man who created the first rainbow flags for a march on City Hall. Gilbert grew up in Kansas where everything was “dull and gray and flat” but Gilbert was a boy “full of color and sparkle and glitter.” A Reader Note at the end of the book provides even more biographical detail and historical context.  

All of these titles and so many more are perfect introductions to QUILTBAG themes for early readers. And while it’s tempting to think of this as a fairly new trend in children’s picture books, the New York Times did a story recently on “The Gay History of America’s Classic Children’s Books”; it’s a fascinating read.

Whether or not you’ve got some little ones in your life to read with, I encourage you to pick up any of these delightful titles and explore the rainbow of stories picture books have to offer.

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Cons, Ships, and Fics

Ah, fandom. The world of cosplay, slashfic, cons, and headcanon ships.

If most of that sounds like a foreign language, you owe it to yourself to dive into some of the latest YA novels that use the universe of fandom to tell compelling stories of identity in the 21st century. (And I’ve included a short glossary at the end of this post, just in case. Look for bolded words in the glossary.)

The Pros of Cons by Alison Cherry, Lindsay Ribar, and Michelle Schusterman

Three authors tell three interconnected stories of three girls, all at the same hotel and convention center for three different events. Callie is assisting her father at the World Taxidermy Championships. Phoebe is with her fellow high school band mates at the Indoor Percussion Association Convention. And Vanessa is at the We Treasure Fandom Convention, aka WTFcon, where she’s excited to finally meet IRL her online co-author and girlfriend Soleil.

Callie and her father are clashing over family dynamics; Phoebe is caught in a web of conflicting crushes and frenemies in her circle of band friends; and Vanessa discovers that Soleil may have misrepresented herself online in a variety of ways to further her own fanfic fanbase. (On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, as they say.)

In rotating chapters, the three girls narrate their individual stories, which increasingly overlap until the different plotlines weave together in one satisfying climax. A podcast project for Creativity Corner, WTFcon’s culminating event, combines the talents and connections of all three girls, and hinges in part on the fact that they are unknown to each other’s con companions and can therefore interview them face to face in relative anonymity. The project also gives Vanessa a chance to further her budding friendship with fellow fanfic writer Merry (who uses they/them pronouns).

Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner

Cameron designs costumes, often gender-flipping characters from comic books and video games as she reimagines their looks. After winning a recent cosplay contest she’s been suffering abuse from Internet trolls who are mad at how she’s altered their favorite characters, or simply can’t believe a girl could know anything about the world of comics and gaming.

Cameron hopes to finish her costume portfolio in peace, and since her family has recently moved to a new town, it’s easy to be a recluse. But as she’s browsing the local comic shop for inspiration, her ire is newly raised by a smug clerk who steers her to the “girl section” and quizzes her on obscure characters to test her cred.

On a suggestion from her gay twin brother Cooper, Cameron borrows some of his clothes and gender-swaps her own identity. She’s surprised to find how easy it is to be taken seriously when she’s back in the comics shop as boy-Cameron; she’s even more surprised when a good-looking guy invites her to join his D&D group that plays regularly at the shop.

Cameron develops a crush on the dashing DM but is in too deep to reveal that she’s a girl. Her brother Cooper is interested in Wyatt, another player, but Wyatt seems to only have eyes for Cam (who he thinks is a boy!). Meanwhile, the Internet bullies are coming after Cameron full-force, and it’s affecting her ability to finish her portfolio in time for her big college interview.

Filled with great social commentary on gender dynamics, Internet trolling, table-top gaming, comics, cosplay, and role-playing of all kinds, Chaotic Good delivers a delightful and timely story.

Ship It by Britta Lundin

Smokey is a demon hunter. Heart is a demon…with a heart. The two are sworn enemies, and yet…. When Claire writes slashfic starring the two main characters of her favorite tv show Demon Heart, the two hunky leads are in love.

Claire travels from her small Idaho town to a Comic-Con in Boise where the stars of Demon Heart are appearing, and she has the opportunity to ask them about the possibility of their smoldering attraction finally playing out on screen. It may not be canon, but it’s Claire’s headcanon. And she’s not alone. Fandom reacts with enthusiastic curiosity, but Forest Reed (who plays Smokey) does NOT like the idea that fans might see his character as gay.

After a clip of the Q&A goes viral, Claire is invited to follow the Con to Portland and Seattle, in part to pander to the show’s online and LGBTQ fans, but also in an attempt at damage control. Forest, and others involved with the show, just want Claire and her uncomfortable questions to go away.

Claire meets fellow Demon Heart fan Tess, a self-proclaimed “homoromantic pansexual,” and Claire begins to realize she may have feelings for Tess beyond fellow fan and potential friend. Meanwhile, Forest and his co-star Rico react differently to the fans who ship their characters, and Forest has to face some of his own issues.

All three of these books are on the American Library Association’s 2019 Rainbow List. All three titles have interesting things to say about the gender spectrum, gender roles, questioning, and attraction as well as the tricky navigation of public and private identities, the power of online communities, and the creativity of fandom. Still, they never feel preachy or teacher-y; each one is a fun adventure with fascinating characters. So whether the world of Cons, Fics, and Ships is familiar territory or completely new to you, dive on in!

Glossary

Canon – The facts of an original story, especially in contrast to what happens in fanfic. For example, plenty of fanfic has Harry and Hermione getting together romantically — even though that’s not canon. Or fanfic might have Harry on Safari in Africa, even though that’s not canon.

Con – Short for convention, often a fan convention of some kind. LeakyCon is a well-known Harry Potter convention.

Cosplay – Short for costume play. Often fans will attend cons or meet-ups in elaborate costumes, which could be careful replicas of well-known characters (storm troopers, Hobbits) or variations such as gender-flipped versions of characters or fanfic characters that are clearly from a certain fandom (“I’m a bisexual Slytherin with a thing for both Tonks and Ron.”)

D&D – Dungeons and Dragons, a popular tabletop role-playing game.

DM – Dungeon Master. The person who plans and runs campaigns for D&D games.

Fandom – This can refer to all the fans of all the things; or a specific fandom, such as the Harry Potter fandom, the Lumberjanes fandom, or the High School Musical fandom.

Fanfic – Fiction written by fans and set in the world of an existing story. Fanfic could be about canon characters, new characters invented by the fanfic writer, or both.

Headcanon – A fact that isn’t canon, but a fan (or many fans) assume to be true, so it is part of their personal headcanon. Supposed queerness is a frequent topic of headcanon: Lady Elaine Fairchild is a lesbian; Ryan Evans (HSM) is gay. (See the brilliant essay in comic form, “Tell Me About Your Trans Headcanons,” by Sfe R. Monster in the anthology The Secret Loves of Geeks.)

IRL – In Real Life.

Ship – Short for relationship, but used as a verb. When a fan wants two characters to get together romantically, they ship them. So many Harry Potter fans ship Harry and Draco, it’s practically become headcanon for many of them.  

Slashfic – Fanfic that puts two characters in a relationship that isn’t canon, usually a queer relationship. For example, fanfic that pairs the Winchester brothers from Supernatural (“Wincest”) or stories about Meredith and Cristina from Gray’s Anatomy.

Trolling – Being intentionally inflammatory in online comments to provoke individuals or groups, incite anger, and disrupt online communication and communities.

The Rainbow List

Last week, thousands of librarians met in Seattle for the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting. Dozens of volunteer committees met for hours and hours all weekend, after reading stacks and stacks of books all year, to decide award winners and create book lists for the benefit of librarians and readers.

One of those committees chooses titles for the Rainbow List, “…a list of recommended books dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trangendered and questioning issues and situations for children up to age 18” (in the words of the ALA website). This year’s committee, a delightful and dedicated group of ten librarians from all across the country, chose a record-setting 107 books for their list.*

The Top Ten includes picture books, middle grade, and YA titles. There’s a fantasy story, a nonfiction picture book, and a graphic novel; sweet stories and thought-provoking plot lines.

The full list is even more wide-ranging. Here are a few of my favorites:

Jerome By Heart by Thomas Scotto / grades Pre-K to 3

Raphael enjoys his friendship with Jerome: they hold hands, share snacks, and do everything together. Not everyone understands their relationship, but Raphael doesn’t mind because he knows how he feels about Jerome.

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake / grades 5 to 8

Twelve-year-old Ivy’s house is destroyed by a tornado and her family life is thrown into turmoil, leaving her feeling neglected. She’s feeling especially unmoored when her notebook filled with pictures of girls holding hands goes missing just as she’s trying to navigate a possible crush on a new friend. By turns tragic and touching, this gentle story is filled with lovely descriptions of Ivy’s artwork and compelling characters who surround and support Ivy during her tender first steps into adolescence.

Nate Expectations by Tim Federle / grades 6 and up

When Nate’s Broadway show closes, he’s forced to go back to his boring hometown for his freshman year of high school. But where Nate goes, drama (by any definition) is never far behind. In this perfect conclusion to a delightful trilogy, Nate discovers new talents, unexpected family history, and a surprising new friend. Readers should start with Better Nate Than Ever (in which 13-year-old Nate runs away from home to audition for the role of Elliott in ET: The Musical) and savor every awkward, painful, joyous moment of Nate’s journey through to the satisfying, happy-tears conclusion in this final volume.

White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig / grades 8 and up

Rufus runs around all night in a race-against-the-clock attempt to solve a mystery that will clear his sister’s name. Twist: his ex-boyfriend is the one with a car, so the ex is along for the ride. As the two boys uncover clues and interrogate classmates, they also have plenty of drive time to dissect their failed relationship and figure out if they have a future together.

Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta / grades 9 and up

Zara moves to New York City, where she has the opportunity to play the role she’s always coveted. Unfortunately, cast and crew members begin to die under mysterious circumstances. It’s a behind-the-scenes theater tale; it’s a slow-burn murder-mystery; it’s a lesbian love story. The literary style and adult-world setting give this book the feel of an adult novel, but one that will appeal to high schoolers, especially those interested in theater arts.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan / grades 9 and up

Elliot is recruited to a magical school in a magical land when he’s 13 years old. He is intelligent, impatient, sarcastic, and not very adept with social cues, which makes him both annoying and unintentionally hilarious. Throughout his teen years, he works to upend the fantasy world’s violent ways while navigating relationships with classmates and negotiating peace with the many fascinating citizens of the Borderlands.  This book, which began as an online story that just kept growing, sends up some familiar fantasy tropes and plays with gender expectations in delightful ways.

I’ll be talking about more of the Rainbow List titles in future blog posts. Visit the full 2019 Rainbow List to find the titles you’ll want to read and fall in love with.

 

*Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to be one of those ten librarians!

Defaults

Reading a book is an internal, personal experience. Even the most descriptive writing leaves so much to a reader’s imagination. It’s been said that reading a novel is a collaboration between the author and the reader; the writer creates what’s on the page while the reader uses personal experience and opinion to conjure mental images and bring meaning to the story.

So unless the author spells it out, every one of us imagines something different when we read a book. “House” might conjure up where you live now, or your childhood home, or a friend’s place — and if the author doesn’t give you more detail, it doesn’t really matter how you picture that character’s bedroom, or their high school, or their neighborhood.

It gets trickier when it comes to the characters themselves. Unless we’re told otherwise, most readers default to an image of characters who are white. And straight. After all, so many fictional characters we watch on tv and see in movies are white and straight and middle class, so it’s easy to assume that characters in books are also white and straight — even if we’re never told that explicitly.

Which brings me to Simon.

Love, Simon, which came out [heh] in March 2018, was the first major-studio teen gay romantic comedy released in the United States. The movie was based on the 2015 book Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, which won the 2016 Morris Award for debut YA literature.

Simon, the title character, is white and middle class and as far as anyone knows when the story starts, straight. But he’s been trading emails with another gay guy at his high school for a while now. Simon doesn’t know who he is — they’ve been using code names — and neither one of them is out. When Simon fails to log off a computer in the school library, a classmate sees the emails and threatens to out Simon if he doesn’t help set him up with a girl he likes.

Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda is a delightful contemporary YA novel: funny, dramatic, and romantic. Filled with great friends, cool sisters, awkward parent conversations, and flirty emails with the mysterious Blue, it’s a feel-good book that anyone can enjoy.

And that’s plenty. But Simon is also bursting with little nuggets of wisdom about friendship, coming out, growing up, and finding your own identity. At one point Simon has an epiphany: “White shouldn’t be the default any more than straight should be the default. There shouldn’t even be a default.”

The cast of characters in Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda is perfect for the #weneeddiversebooks era, with a rainbow of race, gender, and sexuality represented. Albertalli definitely doesn’t give in to the defaults in her books!

But Simon is an amiable, good looking, straight-acting, white, male, middle class, reasonably fit, regular dude. And fair or not, that makes him the default in nearly every way — an accessible character perfectly suited to be the gay lead in an award-winning book or the main character in the first mainstream gay teen romantic comedy movie.

So if you haven’t read many QUILTBAG books, this might be your gateway novel. Or if you want to hand a book to a friend or family member who’s a little wary of QUILTBAG themes and characters, this could be a good one to start with. And if you’ve already read Simon, I recommend Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat (a sort-of sequel, set one year later, and from friend Leah’s point of view), and The Upside of Unrequited (a mega-diverse story with some small connections to the Simon-verse).

The movie, Love, Simon, while different from the book in a number of ways, is equally charming and accessible. The Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast did a great episode discussing the movie, which includes a nice story about a gay man seeing the movie with his mother, her reaction, and their long-overdue conversation that followed.

Just as we’re seeing more racially diverse characters on tv, in movies, and in books, QUILTBAG titles are also breaking down the defaults by putting characters of diverse gender roles and sexualities front and center. I encourage you to fight the defaults in your own reading habits. If you haven’t read Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda, it’s not a bad place to start.

image from tales for teens

Metaphors and Acronyms

Human brains love metaphor. Clever comparisons allow us to see things in a new way. They’re tasty snacks for our senses, and we devour them with delight. When Shakespeare asks, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” our minds shout “Yes!” and we begin generating possibilities even before he continues his love sonnet.

We also gravitate toward acronyms. We love words like SCUBA, RADAR, and SNAFU. Clubs and companies strive to find that perfect combination of initials that will yield acronyms that are easy to pronounce, and if they somehow convey meaning as well, all the better. It’s way easier to talk about the USA PATRIOT Act than the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.”

Which brings us to QUILTBAG. I’m pretty sure I first heard this term from my friend Robin, a brilliant youth librarian in Boston. Then I encountered it in the book The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne. My limited research tells me the term QUILTBAG was coined way back in 2006 by Sadie Lee, writing in Diva magazine.

In any case, it’s a more inclusive, easier-to-say acronym for the LGBT community:

  • Q – queer / questioning
  • U – undecided / undeclared
  • I – intersex
  • L – lesbian
  • T – transgender / transsexual
  • B – bisexual
  • A – asexual (and ally?)
  • G – gay / genderqueer / genderfluid

I like the many metaphors “quiltbag” suggests: a patchwork of identities; a soft and cozy, flexible container with many pockets; a beautiful, multifaceted landscape stitched together from pieces not previously seen to have value. It works well as an acronym, too — easier to say than LGBTQIA+ and certainly less clunky than the latest mega-inclusives like LGBTTQQIAAP or LGBTQQIP2SAA.

I also like that it puts the Q right up front. Queer, a hurtful slur not so long ago, has been reclaimed and functions as an umbrella term in a world where we are increasingly seeing gender and sexuality as a broad spectrum rather than a this-or-that binary. Which means that other Q, questioning, is more important than ever — less “I haven’t come out yet” and more “I’m still figuring it out.”

I don’t know if the term will catch on or not. Perhaps it will get lost in the quagmire of political correctness where no term is ever quite complete or correct enough. Or maybe it will be abandoned because “anything-bag” is almost always an insult.

But I like it. And I’m using it.

Welcome to QUILTBAG Books. Here’s where I’ll talk about books with QUILTBAG characters and themes, and I invite you to join the discussion with your questions and comments. Stay tuned….