“We take a chunk of time before bed to lay together and have a snuggle and read,” says S. Bear Bergman, describing his nightly routine with his 4-year-old son, Stanley. On one particular evening, they were pouring through a new stack of picture books that had arrived. Bergman’s husband and Stanley’s father, j wallace (who spells his name in lowercase letters), works for the Toronto school district. He is somewhat of an expert on children’s books–particularly those featuring LGBTQ2S (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Two Spirit) kids and families. This most recent stack was of that variety. “We were powering through them, diligently,” Bergman recounted, “and a couple of pages into the fourth book [Stanley] just went: ‘I don’t want this anymore. I don’t want anymore bully stories.’ I just started thinking–what are we sending our children to bed with?”
If you’re white, straight, middle-class and able-bodied, you may never have to ask yourself these questions about the literature available to your young children, because your lives are portrayed in a multitude of ways–many of them happy, explorative, inquisitive, joyful. There are literally thousands of books featuring families that approximate yours. If you’re queer or a person of color, the options available to you in the children’s book aisle severely shrink, especially if you’re looking for a story that includes a representation of you or your family. If you’re both queer and a person of color, there literally may only be one or two books that even get close to telling the story of your family.
Bergman, a well-known queer and trans author, is setting out to change that, along with a group of authors and illustrators behind a new book series called the Flamingo Rampant Book Club. It’s currently looking to receive funding through Kickstarter, and the crew is 42 percent of the way to their ambitious $49,000 goal. The series will feature six books, delivered over a year, that feature stories about LGBTQ2S families, kids and characters. There will be a strong emphasis on including characters of color. A number of the authors and illustrators are people of color. (Bergman is white.)
Catherine Hernandez, one of the authors signed up to write a picture book called “M is for Moustache” for the series, talks to me while frying chicken for her daughter’s dinner one evening. Hernandez lives in Toronto, and is a queer Filipina single mom and the artistic director of Sulong Theatre Company. She decided to write a children’s book when her daughter, then 4 years old, came home from school devastated because someone had told her that her face was fat. They immediately rushed out to the local bookstore and brought home a number of titles about self-esteem. “We had a stack of them and we read them every day, three times a day, for a month,” Hernandez recalls. Finally, her daughter said, “Mom I love myself now. Can we read something else?’”
The books may have gotten their point across, but when I ask Catherine whether girls of color were featured in them, she says the numbers were limited. For example, she bought two books that featured non-white characters; both were written by white authors. Less than a third of the characters in another were, in Hernandez’s words, “ambiguously of color.” One book featured a relatively common tactic in children’s literature: characters that are all different colors, none of them realistic, such as green, red, purple and yellow. “Showing people who are different colors is a step,” j wallace reflects. “But it doesn’t allow people reading this book to say, ‘There’s someone who looks like me, or a group of people I can see in the world.’” It’s often considered a safe way to try and depict a world that isn’t exclusively white. Another tactic often used in children’s books is depicting animals. “We can sidestep racism altogether if we can just have animals,” says wallace. “I recognize it sounds ridiculous, and I wish the people who put these books together realize it sounds ridiculous [also]. Many of those books with ducks, dogs, penguins and hamsters are okay, but how many books feature animals, and how many are there that feature South Asian people? Why do we have a market for all these books about animals but not giant groups of people?”
One major factor is how the publishing industry perceives marketability. The shaky business model makes it less likely for mainstream publishers to take on projects that seem risky–and books that don’t feature white male protagonists are seen as risks, according to Bergman and wallace. “There is a conventional wisdom in publishing that parents of white children won’t buy books that feature children or families of color, but children or families of color will buy books like feature white children,” says Bergman. The same goes for girls reading stories featuring boys, but not the other way around.
If we look for even more specific stories featuring LGBTQ families of color, of the few that exist, the narratives themselves often leave much to be desired. Wallace explains that most of the books that feature kids of color in non-heterosexual families are actually transracial and transnational adoption narratives. “The books aren’t centering on the lives of people of color and they are never written by people of color,” he explains. “They are written by white adults about their family narrative.” He goes on to describe one of these books, “King and King and Family,” that tells the story of two married white gay men. “They travel to an unnamed jungle kingdom,” recounts wallace. “[It’s the story of] these two white guys on their honeymoon, but they come back from their trip with a very heavy suitcase [and] oh my! It’s a little girl from the jungle! They fill out paperwork to adopt her.” The child, who wallace says is of color, is “never portrayed as coming from anywhere and never portrayed as having any family other than King and King.” “My Princess Boy” is one notable exception to these limited narratives, featuring a young black child experimenting with gender identity.
When we look for stories that include LGBTQ families or families of color (rather than both), more options abound, but the narratives are still often dominated by stories of struggle, oppression and bullying. So for the new series, Bergman asked that the authors focus on “joyous, celebratory representations.” Venues like Kickstarter and Etsy, as well as print-on-demand technology, are making it easier to sidestep publishing gatekeepers and get these stories into the world. And Bergman is using these options to his advantage, having already successfully funded the publication of two children’s books about trans or gender independent (a term Bergman prefers to “gender non-conforming” or “gender variant,” which he says sound clinical and stigmatized) kids: “The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy” and Backwards Day. The first features a black main character, and the second utilizes characters who are primary colors. But rather than simply self-publish one or two more books, Bergman and his collaborators decided a series would be the best way to offer a truly diverse set of stories.
While it may be conventional wisdom that white kids won’t read books featuring people of color, and that boys won’t read books featuring girls, there isn’t much research actually supporting it–meaning we may be able to turn the tide by introducing kids to a wider range of stories at a young age. Wallace says of his experience reading with young children: “My experience is that children like good stories. One of my favorite books to share with young children is “Spork” by Kyo Maclear. Spork is a little like a spoon, and a little like a fork and has trouble fitting in and being accepted. Kyo wrote it as a story about her own experience of being mixed race, and when I start conversations with children I ask ‘In what other ways are you a bit of one thing, and a bit of another?’ And children always want to talk about gender–many of them feel they are a bit of a boy, and a bit of a girl. I think that much of both of these beliefs is about adult teaching children their biases, and less about the actual desires of children.”