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!

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.