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!

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.