“In kidlit we talk all the time about books being ‘windows and mirrors.’ It's vital that kids see themselves mirrored back on library shelves and in classrooms, because when you never see yourself represented, you start to feel abnormal, excluded, invisible. And it's equally important for kids look through ‘windows’ at characters unlike themselves, because that's a powerful way to develop empathy.”
-Barbara Dee, on representation in Kid’s Lit.
I wanted to include this quote from my interview with Middle Grade author Barbara Dee (Star Crossed , Halfway Normal , and more) to begin, as I feel it most accurately encapsulates the ‘point’ to this whole post. A child’s mind is impressionable- they’re vulnerable, reaching out and exploring life around them. They’re figuring out how to relate, and how to navigate within the great big world. It isn’t just a physical journey though. It takes place just as much within the mind- within the self- as it does with outside reality. And the map? It’s on our TVs, in our music, and on our shelves. It’s, well, the media.
Children’s media provides a safe space for children to examine concepts and discover new ideas. It fosters a conversation between family and child, child and friends/classmates, and within the child themselves. The Child Development Institute (LLC.) notes that children use books and other media to make sense of their experiences and impressions of the world- so it stands to reason, that we want our media to accurately reflect the world and these experiences.
In this post, I will only be cutting into a slice of the kids’ lit representational pie. This is both by virtue of subject, and the things that have shaped me. I’m a product of my environment, and limited in perspective by my own personal identity and experiences. (To disclose- I’m white, AFAB genderqueer [they/them], asexual, panromantic, able bodied, and middle class). On top of that- I am a person of modest time and modest means. I’m a person with spare time and an internet connection- no aids or research dollars or scholarly dedication in sight. I can not address everything with the depth I wish to, and I cannot address everyone. This doesn’t mean you have to abide by my limits though. I invite you, whoever you are, to use this post as a framework for exploring the same concept of representation across media and across different groups. While I may be only talking about one rather specific group in one specific genre, the same thoughts and processes can be applied all over the mediascape. Just as Kids’ Books themselves create a conversational space, I’m here to stir the pot and encourage some critical thought and discussion.
Without further ado- let’s talk about the representation of girls and femme identifying characters within a burgeoning subgenre of Identity media- Queer/LGBT Kids’ Lit. To be clear, not just kids’ books that contain LGBTQIA+ characters- but books that specifically explore LGBTQIA+ identity as the main focus of a story. This subgenre itself is new blood, and it’s because of this I feel it is all the more important to take steps now and analyze how we are approaching it as it becomes a greater part of mainstream culture.
In my research (read: many a google search or afternoons spent pursuing my local store bookshelves), I noticed a couple of distinct patterns as far as the treatment of girls/women/femmes within queer exploratory books. To start- that there simply aren’t a lot of LGBTQIA+ books about girls compared to their male/masculine counterparts. When the focus IS on the more feminine presenting populace, though, a disproportionate amount of Queer Exploratory books are reserved for YA, especially if this exploration is romantic in nature, in comparison to their male/masc identifying counterparts.
A notable exception to the trend of femme exclusion is usually with the ‘T’ in LGBTQIA+ - but even here, most of the exploration you see being done starts with a male assigned character. You’re still beginning from a root of traditional masculinity. To clarify, characters who begin from the assigned male position are still WOMEN/GIRLS/FEMMES/NONBINARY the WHOLE time according to their personal identity, but they still begin from a place that is within the masc/male centric viewpoint (even if this is imposed upon them by outside characters/forces/systems). It still begins from what is considered the safer start of narrative boyhood. Well intentioned as it may be, it leaves out the experiences of other members of the Trans* community. Though likely unintentional, it sends the message that an entire subset of this community is 'too adult' simply because they've begun their journey from a different point. The Queer or Questioning ‘female’ experience is “aged up” and treated as ‘inappropriate’ for children. This mindset is damaging for our AFAB Youth who are currently in the midst of that same questioning. A child should not have knowledge- particularly knowledge reflecting themselves and their experiences placed behind an age restriction. If they are old enough to have these thoughts or feelings, or to ask questions of something- it often means they are ready to learn. So why do we keep it from them?
So what about when we introduce romance? When a feminine queer partnership IS introduced in younger fiction, it is most often from a secondary or tertiary character through the decidedly safe and fairly aromantic lense of traditional motherhood. If we are exposed to women loving women in Middle Grade fiction or below (not to say this means there is equality in YA- just that the scarcity is not nearly as pervasive as it is in younger groups), it is typically by way of the Two Typical Moms. True, while co-motherhood often stems from romantic love, this love isn’t ever explored romantically- but through the relationship of the mothers to their protagonist child. When we DO see a queer relationship between femmes- we seem to feel the need to relate it to something that is culturally ‘safe’. After all, what is safer in the world of kids books than the archetypal caring Mother? Again, while this is all well and good- the scope is rather limiting.
From brief conversations I’ve had with queer identifying women in the industry, this is a problem that doesn’t just rest within the confines of the books written pages, either- but within creative groups themselves. Despite there being a closer-to-even split of Queer Kid’s Lit books being written or illustrated by women/female identifying creatives (determined by looking through Goodreads.com’s list of LGBTQIA+ books) most of the queer voices we hear from are distinctly reflecting the same pattern seen in the books themselves- gay (usually white) men. To back myself up, here’s a quick sample of line ups found on the web ; 2017 Flame Con’s panels on Celebrating Queer Heroes in YA, Nostalgia for an Invisible Youth, and Writing Out Not Down: Speaking Authentically to Teen Audiences were represented by nine men (two MOC) , two non binary persons (one POC) , and three white women (School Library Journal). 2017 Strand Books Young, Queer, and Lit event saw five white men, one man of color, and one white woman helming the conversation (Strand Books).
So, therein is the problem. Then what’s the solution? In honesty, it’s a bit fallacious to assume that there exists a “THE” solution. It’s not just a one pill prescription, but a cocktail. Let me write you the mix- first, elevate the voices of queer femme creators by featuring them more within both indie and mainstream spaces; second, make it known to publishers that these are stories we want to hear by both vocal feedback and monetary feedback ; third, simply create more of these characters. Another quote from Barabara Dee, from our interview encapsulates the feeling quite well, again: “...we need to include LGBTQIA+ characters as part of the everyday world of these characters-- not only as protagonists with crushes, but as teachers and bus drivers and wizards.” I believe this effort should be DOUBLED in regards to Queer POC or Disabled Queers (Femme and in general)- as the trends I mentioned and observed above of exclusion sees rise to a wider gap still. Note, that this doesn’t need to be at the expense of the current main group, either- what I am proposing is not replacement, but supplementation. As they say, variety is the spice of life.
My observations are rather passive in nature- however, I don’t believe that this means they should be discredited. They are backed up by the feelings of those I have spoken with, and those I continue to speak with. There is a resonance.
To encourage more thoughts and conversation, I’ll be including files with some of the interviews I have done for this article- including my full interview with Barbara Dee. I did not get the chance to reference many of my conversations directly in this post- doing so would cross this already lengthy text I believe into Novella/Dissertation territory. This doesn’t reduce their relevance on the topic at hand- I encourage you to look them over and form opinions and answers for yourselves. Mull it over. Do you notice the same trends on the bookshelves around you? Is there a better way to approach the subject, like a straight line- or is it all curves and twists and turns? What does representation mean to you? Where have you found yourself in books? Both pieces you always recognized, and new ones.
The quest for self identity is riddled with dangers and false starts and pitfalls- the world is hard to figure out without a little bit of help. So don’t we owe it to the children of today, tomorrow, and even of yesterday to provide as many tools as we can? To help them chart the stars within themselves, or discover treasure in others? Me, I’ve decided to start here- by helping to open up a few windows and dust off a few mirrors. You’d be amazed what you can see.
Special thanks to Victoria Perez-Segovia (illustrator, vixtopher.com) ; Sam Rosales (illustrator, imsamrosales.com) ; Amber R. (children's library clerk); Lauren Jankowksi (author & activist, laurenjankowski.com/); Lyssa Chiavari ( lyssachiavari.com); and Barbara Dee (author, barbaradeebooks.com) for their time in aiding my research efforts by chatting with me. Thanks, as well, to Matt Barr (illustrator & father to my two cat children, mattbarrillustration.com) for being my guinea pig - and to Kid Lit Women for being my vehicle for this conversation.
Last, but certainly not least, An EXTRA SPECIAL thank you to an anonymous author/illustrator - who gave me endless leads, guidance, feedback, and encouragement through this process. I honestly owe this all coming together to you! I know you said I didn't HAVE to thank you, but it felt right to do so.