Bad for You

Last week the American Library Association put out their annual list of the top ten most challenged books of the previous year (for 2018, it’s actually a top eleven). It’s notable — and not unusual — that more than half of them were challenged because of QUILTBAG content.

The ALA compiles statistics throughout the year whenever a parent or patron questions the appropriateness of a book in a school or public library’s collection and tries to have it removed. If you take a look at the most recent list you can see the rationale given for challenging each book; six of the eleven titles list LGBTQ characters or themes as a reason. The accompanying infographic includes a word cloud that also clearly shows LGBTQIA+ as the biggest concern during challenges, with additional entries for terms like “gender nonconformity,” “transgender characters,” and “same-sex married couple.”

Drama, a graphic novel for tweens by Raina Telgemeier, has shown up on this list for several years now, and comes in this year at #5. Callie, the main character, helps with set design in her middle school’s drama club, and the story focuses on, well, the DRAMA of middle school, including failures, embarrassments, and first crushes. One such romance is between two boys. This tame comic book is perfectly fine for (and very popular with) upper elementary students — but many of its detractors cite the gay content as inappropriate, while finding no issue with the many straight kisses and crushes that arise throughout the story.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E.G. Keller, #2 on this year’s list, got its start as a satirical jab at the Vice President. Mike Pence’s wife and daughter wrote a book about their pet bunny Marlon Bundo. As a response, comedian John Oliver presented this picture book in which Bundo falls in love with another boy bunny, while a villainous stinkbug (who looks suspiciously like the President) tries to thwart their relationship. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is a surprisingly sweet picture book that stands on its own, apart from the political and social satire that spawned it. While some of the complaints about this book arose from its political viewpoint, it received more heat from the same-sex romance between Marlon and his bunny boyfriend.

Why are parents and community members so concerned about QUILTBAG characters and themes in books for children? Why do some citizens attempt to have books removed from libraries and schools, even going so far as to hide or destroy copies of the offending books?

I can’t answer those questions. As a school librarian, I encourage my students to self-select what they want to read, which includes what they don’t want to read. I remind them that their parents can guide what kinds of books they choose, and some families might opt to place certain books off limits. But I emphasize that students and parents don’t get to make those choices for other students and families. I tell my students: If something makes you uncomfortable, simply don’t check it out. Choose the books you like, and leave other books for other readers.

(Several years ago, a mother of one of our students informed me that our library had more “gay books” than other junior highs in our area. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment. At the time we had about 30 such titles amid a fiction collection of over 5,000 books. I’m glad that we have more than that now.)

Sometimes things make us uncomfortable simply because they’re unfamiliar. Perhaps the key then is to read more QUILTBAG books, not banish them from our children’s experience. Science has shown that reading fiction increases emotional intelligence and empathy. Author Sunil Yapa has said, “Empathy is a profound act of imagination and human connection. In fiction, we imagine ourselves into other people’s experiences.” Kids and teens will be more accepting and inclusive if they have read diverse stories about others’ lives.

While some people seek to remove QUILTBAG titles from children’s shelves, lots of people think we don’t have enough QUILTBAG books for youth in libraries — especially stories about people of color, kids with disabilities or mental illness, or youth from other marginalized groups, who also happen to be queer. NBC News recently published a story about the rise of YA books with LGBTQ content. The article features many YA authors, including Amy Rose Capetta and Caleb Roehrig, whose Rainbow List-ed books Echo After Echo and White Rabbit I touted back in QUILTBAG #2 – The Rainbow List. The NBC article also mentions many other worthwhile authors and YA titles.

I’m tired of seeing so many QUILTBAG books on the banned, burned, and challenged lists. We need to move beyond the idea that QUILTBAG books are somehow bad for our kids. In fact, a recent study showed that having a gay friend makes you a better person. So strive to be better, and help the children and teens in your life be better too. Read more QUILTBAG books!

Pronouns and Prefixes

What are your preferred pronouns? This is a very modern question. Not so long ago, everyone was a he/him or a she/her. A character like Pat on the old Saturday Night Live skits who confounded people’s binary assumptions was a source for humor.

In today’s world many people, for many reasons, choose to use they/them pronouns. It can sound awkward at first, using they/them to refer to a single person, paired with a singular antecedent. While it might feel fairly normal to say something general like, “Each student should turn in their paper by Friday,” it’s more jarring to hear, “Chris would like to turn in their paper on Monday, instead.”

(For an excellent explanation of singular “they” and how it’s actually been a part of the English language for hundreds of years, I recommend listening to an episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast called “The Rise of They.” And no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defends the practice with signature wit and style in their blog post “A Brief History of Singular They.”)

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson is exactly what it sounds like. In graphic novel format, comics-artist Archie — who uses they/them pronouns in their real life — helps their cisgender friend Tristan (a storyteller for The Moth, among other things) understand the purposes and potential pitfalls of using people’s preferred pronouns. In comfortable, conversational style, the two authors walk readers through all the questions and confusion that might arise if a friend says they prefer to use they/them pronouns.

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin features Riley, a gender fluid teen who creates a blog in the midst of facing struggles at a new school. Garvin largely avoids pronoun challenges by writing from Riley’s point of view in first person. In Every Day by David Levithan, in which a sixteen-year-old wakes up every day in the body of a different person, the main character known simply as “A” uses masculine or feminine pronouns depending on the body A inhabits that day. The lead character Sal in the fantasy novel Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller is genderfluid and expects people to use the pronouns that match Sal’s presentation from day to day.

These are smart work-arounds for an author, and also represent real pronoun choices for some people. But increasingly, people are choosing to use they/them pronouns for a variety of reasons and it’s important to adjust our ears and expectations accordingly. We shouldn’t have to manipulate our language to avoid pronouns just because someone doesn’t easily fit our standard choices. (If you like, you can explore gender-neutral options like ze/hir or e/em/eir.)  

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is a Stonewall-winning non-fiction book about a horrible event on a city bus in Oakland in 2013. Sasha, a gender-nonconforming teen, had their skirt set on fire while sleeping on the bus and suffered severe burns. In short easy-to-read chapters, the book tells the compelling story of Sasha and also of Richard, the boy with the lighter.

Aside from being a fascinating read, The 57 Bus also provides a thorough education on current terminology. This book helped me adjust to they and them as singular pronouns, while also expanding my understanding of identities such as genderfluid, cisgender, nonbinary (enby), biromantic, genderqueer, pansexual, and so many others.

I’m no expert (and this post is already running long) so I’m not going to attempt to explain or define all of these terms. There are plenty of good resources just an Internet search away — or starting on page 32 of The 57 Bus. And in today’s world, it makes sense to be up on the latest lingo. Here are just a few examples that are in common use today:

  • Cis is a prefix signifying that your gender identity matches your physical gender assigned at birth. You could think of it as the opposite of trans.
  • Some people feel they aren’t sexual at all and use Ace as shorthand for asexual.
  • Younger people, if they find themselves attracted to different genders, are less likely to say they’re bi (because it plays into the notion of gender as binary) and more inclined to say they’re pansexual — attracted to all gender identities.

In the book Ship It by Britta Lundin (see QUILTBAG #3 – Cons, Ships, and Fics), Tess says she’s a homoromantic pansexual. Thanks to my reading of The 57 Bus, I knew just what she was talking about, and it made total sense in the context of the story.

We live in rapidly changing times regarding how society views sexuality and gender, and books for young people are reflecting and leading these changes. I encourage you to delve into any of these books or the many others that shed light on this topic. If you have a gender nonconforming friend, co-worker, or student, they will thank you for it.