I have been involved in the children’s book industry for over 20 years. I joke that they accidentally let me in. Indeed, something must have been going on…stars momentarily aligned, portals briefly opened… because not only did I get “in,” but my first book, Prietita and the Ghost Woman was written, translated and illustrated by all queer Chicanx people. Gloria Anzaldúa, Francisco Alarcón and myself.
AND not just that, it’s a decolonized retelling of a traditional folktale, La Llorona; AND Prietita, the main character is a young genderqueer person; AND they’re apprenticing with a curendera. I mean, oh my gawd, what?! This is amazing! Truly.
I was ushered in on the wings of a multicolored Alebrije singing the song of Xochipilli and Xochiquetzal on the wind, right? YES!
And, not so much.
It was 1996. None of us were closeted, but I know for myself, queerness was not what I talked about when I went on school visits. And on the rare occasion I presented with Francisco I never heard him broach the subject either, with anybody, not once.
Back in the day it was radical enough to be in a school talking about race and ethnicity, belonging and reflection, even equity with kids of color.
A sage queer, I knew how to measure and sense; sidestep, to keep myself safe and solid. I usually had a day’s work to get through and I needed to keep things moving.
Incidental homophobia would slow me down.
I’m tattooed, pierced, my hair is dyed and I dress fabulously! To the kids I was an edgy oddity that wanted to PLAY! But at every turn, I could see how my queerness might erase the work I was doing, work that I loved and was committed to. I had a part of myself that would go on autopilot with the kids, the teachers and principals. I was aware of what I was doing, but it was beyond my control.
I was teaching about First Voice and equitable reflection, but honestly, I only felt safe with a part of myself being heard and seen. I was protecting my heart, my livelihood and my life’s work.
I comforted myself with the fact that queerness was deeply embedded, coded, into the understory of all my books, whether illustrated or both illustrated and written by me. I knew as queers, we always search for ourselves and each other, between the lines.
First Voice, is the idea that a community should speak for itself.
Working with Children’s Book Press changed me. I used the opportunities provided by the press to heal myself, and my own silence and invisibility and still do. Simultaneously, it was CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) that provided a sane-making, touchstone along the way to reference with their statistics on children’s books by and about People of Color and First/Native Nations. I have been sharing them for as long as I’ve been making books.
The journey has been long. Children’s Book Press began moving toward First Voice in 1975. It would be another ten years until CCBC would begin keeping stats for books by and about African American authors, and another 9 years before Native Americans, Latino and Asian Pacific Americans were included. Now another 24 years later, LGBTQ Americans are included in the numbers. 43 years.
Likewise, with 20 years of social justice work in the industry, it wasn’t until 2015 after 31 years as an OUT QUEER, that I “formally came out” as an LGBTQI children’s book author and artist.
Healing takes time that’s why I always call out the heart and the bones of it. We get sick, have kids, dear ones pass. Presidents, politics, social movements. We have to bring our bodies and spirits and emotions through. We must negotiate safety and fury and find peace. It takes time for a paradigm to shift. It has to happen inside and outside. But it is occurring.
I have learned. Voice is a revolution.
The Background Story
VOICE: within a patriarchal, Western society those who can be heard is based on how close one adheres to social standards either by birth or behavior. As a consequence, many queer/trans/intersex authors and artists who create children’s books remain silent about their private lives, especially if they’re Indigenous or POC.
Across communities, the LGBTQI community has been severely marginalized through deep judgment about who we are. Historically, this has been used to create separation between queer/trans/intersex people and kids in society, even our own. Despite recent progress in marriage, parenthood, adoption, civil rights, social justice, California education initiatives and more, judgment and aggression still happen in both big and small ways. It can be social, political, legal, personal, professional, even physical and can weigh heavily on queer/trans/intersex people, often adding to the silence already experienced as Indigenous or POC.
There is a growing trend. Just like with Indigenous and POC communities, many of the people writing about the LGBTQI community are not from the community.
However well-intentioned, their work tends to perpetuate implicit bias and power structures that contribute to the very oppression they hope to mediate. (speaking specifically to children’s books)
Not only do those writing from outside the community generally perpetuate the binary and erase its historical context;
– fix emotions and related gender and queer experience as complicated, sad, scary and overwhelming;
– affirm frames that require queer/trans/intersex children to be exceptional, saviors or self-sacrificing;
– focus nearly exclusively on males, especially ones wearing dresses;
– and consistently include bullying narratives.
They also tend to be almost exclusively white.
When we look at the newly documented LGBTQI statistics, we can clearly see that the vast majority of children’s books are by non-community members. And while authors could stay in First Voice or #ownVoice as parents and professionals, they rarely do. Instead they step in and speak as authorities and/or use their voice as the voice of the LGBTQI community.
It only makes sense that the same Social Justice frameworks developing for equity in children’s books regarding race and ethnicity include the LGBTQI community.
Within a social justice frame it must also be noted that the next to be heard in LGBTQI children’s books are almost exclusively white, cisgender voices of gay or lesbian people. While necessary and important, they tend to perpetuate uneven power dynamics, including implicit bias around race, ethnicity and sometimes gender. It goes without saying that when white voices are the only ones heard, it gives the impression that only white people are queer and trans.
Who’s Controlling the Narrative
It’s fascinating to look at the CCBC stats and literally see who’s telling stories. Except for the Native American community (which I believe is in large part due to the amazing work of Debbie Reese) ALL MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES have the majority of their stories told by authors OUTSIDE OF THEIR COMMUNITIES.
There are countless, amazing stories about Indigenous and POC and queer/trans/intersex people that ALL NEED TO BE TOLD, but it matters who is telling them. Not just because there will be greater meaning and veracity for a first voice/own voice author, but because our presence is needed.
We speak differently, see differently, even feel and think differently and we can and should affect the world. This is our gift and power. Our stories and ideas cannot be co-opted then sifted through white, cis, straight authors and publishers and remain real. Beyond actual plagiarism, the very act of others telling our stories takes our power away, contributing to both real and systemic silence.
These stories about us are not actually about us. Ultimately, they can only ever be frames that show how white, cis, straight authors and society feel about, and see us. Even if they value us, it is still ultimately about them.
What does this communicate and at what level? That our lives are a publishing trend? That we are not adequate to tell our own stories? Or simply that our lives continue to be a source of income for the dominant culture, but not for ourselves?
Sitting at a table of librarians recently, I asked if they thought it was better to have a book that was deeply flawed, or not have a book at all. I thought we might have a lively discussion, and being librarians I thought they’d go for the books, but everyone agreed. It is better to have no books at all than books that are fundamentally flawed. A book out in the world stands as an independent authority. It generally doesn’t come with an informed librarian, parent or teacher to point out where to apply critical thinking to see beyond the limitations of the author or how that author fits into a larger dynamic in society. It is what it is.
Books are power.
Children’s books are raw power.
First Voice/Own Voice and Healing
I’m haunted by my first book. In my imagination, the spirits of Gloria and Francisco have entered the pages and are walking down the road with Prietita. A self-described dyke, a gay man and a genderqueer youth. Prietita is holding a drawing of Ruda. This is the herb that the curendera needs to help heal their mother. They’re committed to finding it even though they must cross into forbidden territory to do so.
Published over 20 years ago, the queerness of this book has become more and more obvious to me recently. It was always there. But healing takes time.
First voice/own voice is an essential turn toward equity. Just like Indigenous and Children of Color, LGBTQIA2S+ kids should have access to stories by and about authors and artists just like them and not have to read between the lines. This open reflection, relevance and empathy contribute to a sense of well being, value and belonging in the world, making it doubly essential for queer/trans/intersex kids from those same communities. The ongoing stigma that separates and silences our community in relation to kids and family is changing, but MUCH more change is necessary.
Has that time come? Now that we’re included in the count?
I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m finally ready.
OUR VOICE is a REVOLUTION.
- Children’s Books as a Radical Act: View more infographics related to the CCBC statistics and the power of children’s books
- Write Now! Make Books: free online resource for kids to learn how to make books
- The Heart of It and Make Books Now! Indie Publisher Training: grown-up support to learn how to write, illustrate & publish books; online learning centering POC, Indigenous and Queer Voices
- CCBC Statistics on Children’s Books by IPOC and the LGBTQI children’s books statistics
- Vetting LGBTQI Children’s Books with Love: worksheet to assist in selecting appropriate LGBTQ children’s books