Showing posts with label Same-Sex Relationships. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Same-Sex Relationships. Show all posts

9.13.2013

A Conversation with Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

"Roland Humphrey is a fictional version of a real boy; a boy having a happy childhood that doesn’t fit into a conventional box of what others may expect of a boy. He’s not constrained by what he wears, what colors he likes, and how he plays with other kids. Watching a beautiful child grow up, we are seeing how our Roland Humphrey is running into other people’s expectations of how he should behave.

I wrote this book for other children who meet the Roland Humphreys of the world to question the rules we seems to operate under that tell us what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl."

-Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

A few months ago, I received a copy of Eileen Kiernan-Johnson's book Roland Humphrey is Wearing a What? published by Huntley Rahara Press. Simply put, it is the story of a boy who feels more comfortable wearing girls’ clothing than he does in boy’s clothing.

She doesn't make it any secret that it is written about her own son, so it is clearly a very personal subject for her.
Shortly after I posted my review of Roland Humphrey, a site that I follow, Mombian, put out a call for LGBT-friendly bloggers to submit links to their recent blog posts. I posted my review of Roland Humphrey. It's on their list at #93.

Afterward, though, I wondered how appropriate that was, just as I was unsure about listing Roland Humphrey in my list of Same-Sex Relationships Picture Books, along with And Tango Makes Three, and King and King.

What do you make of that categorical distinction? Is Roland Humphrey necessarily an LGBTQ book? Is that how you intended it to be read?

I did very much intend for Roland Humphrey to be read - and marketed - as an LGBTQ book. It is decidedly and proudly LGBTQ oriented and friendly. But that gets to the issue of specificity versus universality of the narrative, which is something I struggled to balance.
It is intended to speak to boys who don't conform to gender norms, whether they are - or later identify as - gay, trans, or merely "pink boys." Society seems to be just beginning to recognize that the strictures around boys' dress and play are impossibly narrow, and that the consequences for boys who stray beyond acceptable boundaries can be great. I wanted to make a little more space for all the boys who don't slavishly adhere to these strict norms to be themselves.

At the same time, however, I wanted the message to appeal more broadly, because almost every child can identify with the befuddlement of trying to master an unwritten set of "rules" that govern us all and the unkind treatment from peers that ensues when we fail to follow those rules. The book seeks to embrace its LGBTQ identity while also trying to speak to children about a larger set of shared struggles.

There is a dearth of children's picture books featuring - much less celebrating - gender nonconforming boys.
P
My own son adores sparkly shoes and swishy skirts and beautiful things that our culture generally assigns to girls. He looked for characters like himself in picture books, and didn't find many. While The Princess Boy and 10,000 Dresses were meaningful in his and our family's experience, we couldn't find male analogues to the celebrated tomboy. That initiated a conversation about gender norms that resulted in Roland Humphrey.

How does Roland Humphrey differ from those other books?

My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone is the seminal gender nonconforming/pink boy children's picture book. Written from the perspective of a mother lovingly parenting a boy who adores tiaras and sparkly accessories, it conveys the pain that both the child and his accepting family feel when he is ridiculed for not adhering to gender norms. It gently but pointedly asks questions of the reader about how they'd treat a princess boy that they might encounter in their own experiences. Importantly, it presents the protagonist as a little boy who wears dresses very matter-of-factly. It is powerful in a very soft, approachable way.

The book was tremendously meaningful for my son, who finally saw another little boy who shared some of his affinities, but because it was written from the mother's perspective, it was difficult for him to identify fully with the narrator.

10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewart and Rex Ray is a fabulous book about a transgender child named Bailey who dreams of a magical staircase lined with fantastical dresses. The book is delightful and imaginative and doesn't turn the spotlight on gender issues in the same explicit way that My Princess Boy and Roland Humphrey do.

Both of those books are amazingly strong anchors for kicking off children's picture book conversations about gender nonconformity. There is so much ground to be covered in kid lit, and I think that children are savvy readers, appreciative of crisp prose that challenges their burgeoning vocabularies but also fierce evaluators of narrative, pretty skilled at calling out stories that ring false or are too generic to pique interest.

I wanted to add to that conversation by raising some issues that I hadn't seen addressed about the inequities between the latitude girls have to be tomboys and the incredibly cabined approach our society has taken to how boys may express themselves. I wanted people to pause to notice that imbalance and ask why that is and why we're so slavish to the impossibly narrow parameters that somehow have come to govern who boys can be.

I hear you, but sometimes I fear that books which are designed to have positive lessons can actually inadvertently do an injustice by heightening kid's awareness of the social structures that the book itself is trying to get them to work around.

That strikes at the heart of things I have agonized over most post-publication.

In particular, I have worried about the notion of introducing the "rules" to blissfully unaware - and wonderfully so - children, and thereby tainting in some way their experience of what it means to exist among their peers. I struggled mightily with that piece, and I’m not sure I got it right. But ultimately I concluded that there is so much information that children - and all of us, really - passively receive and digest, and I wanted to name some of it.

It became clear to me that many young children I encountered - not least of all my own - absorb these pre-received narratives about gender and clothing and color and play and the scope that is allowed for all of these things, so I decided that given the messages I was ultimately trying to send, the greater danger lay in not pointing out and laying bare these inequities.

To a degree, that piece was also directed to adult readers, who often unthinkingly reinforce these norms.

But yes, I fear hearing that a child reader who was blissfully floating along in a gender blind way was rudely shocked into some of the ugly realities of the world by reading my book.

pink boy
I'm always morbidly curious about the negative feedback authors of controversial books must receive. Has Roland Humphrey managed to incite any spiteful comments? Was that something you were expecting, perhaps bracing yourself for?

I've been pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback. No doubt there are detractors, but they've been remarkably silent, so far. I wasn't sure that I'd get any feedback, positive or negative, so it wasn't something I thought much about in advance, but once I started getting some response, I did gird myself for negativity.

For whatever reason, this time the lovers have been far more vocal than the haters!

What about with other children?

I've done lots of readings at schools and bookstores, and the experiences have surprised me. I did wonder if I'd encounter kids who'd roll their eyes at the story or make snide remarks. Perhaps because I've been reading to younger kids - elementary age - that hasn't happened.

What has happened, and which floored me at first, was that the floodgates opened.

Usually there are a few shy comments about how "my brother likes pink," or "my brother likes to wear girls' swimsuits," etc.( and it has been kind of amazing to hear about how many of these little "pink boys" are out there) but usually it segues into a very broad conversation about the small and large unkindnesses children endure no matter what they wear and how they present themselves.

Kids pick up on the universality of the acceptance themes and seem to be really hungry to talk about the slings and arrows that have bruised their small hearts. It has been a tremendous honor to be trusted with some of those stories. I was expecting more narrow questions about why Roland liked girls' clothes etc., but these kids have been so savvy and have just honed in on the heart of the story and message and have been really honest in sharing how their own experiences have resembled the character's. It has been an unexpected privilege to hold those stories with the kids.

Were you a writer before you came up with the idea for doing this book?

No, I practiced law for 10 years but always appreciated good writing, whether I was trying to do it as a brief or motions writer or as a reader evaluating petitions and motions for Colorado's state supreme court, which reinforced in me a general commitment to equality and social justice.

Did you or your husband have any experiences as children that help you realte to your son now?

The context is different, but my husband had experiences which allowed him to not really care about how our son wanting to don a dress looks to others, but to focus on how things felt. He himself understands the pain of being different.

He was born with microtia, a congenital deformity where the outer ear is underdeveloped. He went through numerous surgeries to have an ear (non functional) constructed, and he arrived at his first day of kindergarten with his head swathed in bandages. Needless to say, he endured years of incredibly painful taunting. As an adult, he recognizes that he earned much of value through the ordeal, namely tremendous empathy and independence - not caring about what others think. Through a wrenching early experience, a remarkable human being was forged.

As for me, I always felt the weight of others' plights very acutely. I was a very sensitive child and took it very personally when the mean girls of my school would ridicule my clothes, which were inevitably 10 year old hand-me-downs from cousins and sisters since money was tight and we couldn't afford fancy new duds.

I noted that you choose girls as the primary antagonists in the story. Why was that?

That was motivated by what reflected my son's experience at the time I wrote the book. In the end phases of his preschool life and just before he moved into kindergarten, it was striking to note how girls uniformly called him out on whichever ways - small or large - that he didn't conform to gender norms. At the time, the boys he knew either didn't notice or didn't care or perhaps handled their disequilibrium in a way that my son didn't notice.

As I was writing the book, I wondered whether I should change one of the antagonists to be male, because I didn't want to malign all girls. Most of them, frankly, have been fabulously supportive. But as I was writing, I wasn't sure that the book would go any further than my son's nightstand, and so I wanted it to reflect what had been true of his experience at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I would make that change if I had to do it all over again.

Your most recent blog post is bittersweet. You talk about how – due to peer pressure - your son has now decided to not dress as flamboyantly at school, and now desires to fit in. You write:

I’m trying to remind myself that perhaps a gentle awakening into the realities of the world is not an altogether bad thing, because the truth is that while the world is changing, the space that sparkly little dudes can occupy is still so very damn small, in spite of the efforts of so many of us to expand it.

What are your feelings about that as a writer? Does that take away any of the fire behind the Roland Humphrey book?

My own approach as an author isn't altered by my son's experience. At least, I don’t think it is. If anything, it strengthens my resolve to raise questions and crack apart latent assumptions since they reach children so early, and writers have some power to open minds to new ways of thinking. So for me it doesn't take away any of the fire behind Roland Humphrey, but as a writer I haven't figured out where it takes me next - my in-progress works predate the blog post. As both a writer and mother, so much is in flux at the moment.

I think that these feelings of unease and discomfort give rise to interesting questions that I hope I am able to mine for future work. Much of this takes a while to settle, in either role. I guess the question of what direction my future work will take is an open one, and hopefully it'll evolve organically and in response to what I see in the world.

pink boy

5.30.2013

Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? (2012)

Written by Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

Illustrated by Katrina Revenaugh

Cut paper

Huntley Rahara Press

I was happy to receive a complimentary copy of this book in the mail the other day, and I found it to be a fun little tale, lively written, and pretty cool cut paper illustrations which really bound with joy on every page.

It is the story about a boy who wears dresses - and tiaras, and sparkly butterflies - and his parents who try to encourage him, and these fiendish girls who constantly rag him about it. "Your sparkles are really starting to annoy. When you wear clothes for girls, how do we know you're a boy?"

It seemed to me clearly to be a book written for families dealing with this very issue themselves, and how to handle it, so that they know they are not alone. Though I thought the prose bounced along cleverly enough that I could see it having more widespread appeal, such as:

If girls can wear boy clothes, why not the reverse?
Do colors have meaning? Is purple inherently perverse?

All the colors are brought out and disected, some are boyish, some are girlish, the proper things that boys should be interested in and not interested in are listed in detail. The further and further it went, the less it seemed to me to be about one particular boy who just happens to like pretty, pretty things, but a good rumination in general on why it is that such things are so divided by gender. As the parent of a non-cross-dressing boy who loves trucks and fashions anythig into a gun, these issues do come up regardless.

Not surprisingly, the book was written about the author's own son. Looking her up, I found her blog which I felt was pretty interesting, and goes into more detail and emotional honesty than the upbeat ending of the book delivers: "We like you for you, whatever you wear."

After her son had decided that he wanted to start wearing boy clothes because of the comments of some of his classmates, Kiernan-Johnson writes: "I suppose it was inevitable that the weight of peer pressure would reach him at some point. I just imagined that it would be further down the road, that we’d have more time to inhabit our happy little bubble of authenticity, that he could obliviously be who he is without the burden of arbitrary societal dictates intruding on that.  It isn’t that I want my son to waltz through life in a ballgown; it is that I don’t want the world to crush his spirit and stamp out his unique way of being. I don’t want it to burst his bubble."

I don't think she has to worry about the world crushing his spirits just yet (that doesn't happen until you start working), but it did make going back reading the joyful exuberance of "Roland Humphrey" a bit bittersweet, and for me, more meaningful. 



2.23.2013

And Tango Makes Three (2005)



Illustrated by Henry Cole

Watercolor

Text set in Garamond


It was mating season at the Penguin habitat in the New York Central Zoo, love was in the air. Penguins began pairing off, including two especially loving, sweet penguins named Roy and Silo.

Yes, they were both dudes, but that’s not the controversial part.

When the other happy penguin couples found themselves in a family way and began spending their days and nights keeping their eggs warm, Roy and Silo – not to be outdone – found an egg-shaped rock upon which to sit. They took turns sitting on that lifeless rock, determined to keep it warm and safe. In their own way, they loved that little rock.

Then, in a fateful moment of inspiration – in an action which would have profound consequences throughout public schools and libraries the country over and serve as a lightning rod for free speech and civil rights issues – a clever zookeeper got the swell idea to substitute that egg-like rock for the real deal.

One day, the egg hatched, and a baby penguin pup was born. His name was Tango.

And Tango Makes Three was published in 2005, written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. It is the true account of the birth of Tango, and of the attempts made by Roy and Silo to raise the young penguin pup as their own, and of the acceptance this unlikely family finds in the zoo. It is an incredibly sweet story.

The first I’d heard of the book was thanks to my good friends at Wolfgang Books. Distinctly do I remember that Saturday morning, browsing about their second floor bookshop in Phoenixville, Pa, with Arlo and a cup of coffee, when I saw the display table of banned and challenged books which they had set up in honor of Banned Books Week.

Just the words, “Banned Books” hold a certain, sexy allure. On the table were the usual suspects: Huckleberry Finn, The Giver, Animal Farm, all wonderful titles which I’d of course read and loved. But there was one book which did not initially seem to belong, and it was that book to which I immediately gravitated.

There is absolutely nothing about the look of And Tango Makes Three which hints at anything approaching even slightly controversial content. The cover depicts two gender-neutral looking penguins cuddling with their tiny pup, looking about as snug as a bug in a rug as penguinly possible.  There is a golden sticker in the left hand corner showing that this book is a winner for the ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award. On the back are glowing quotes from the likes of Maurice Sendak and John Lithgow. If it had been in any other section of the bookstore, I would have most likely barely given it a second glance, though – as I said – there is a certain undeniable allure to the banned book which I am powerless to resist.

Ten minutes later, I bought it, and was thus able to support not only gay rights, but also free speech and my local independent bookshop all with the same purchase.

Later that afternoon, with Arlo cuddled next to me on the couch at our home, I read it aloud.
“Every year at the very same time, the girl penguins start noticing the boy penguins,” I began. “And they boy penguins start noticing the girls…”
Arlo listened, enjoying the playful illustrations of Henry Cole very much, as the penguins swim together, walk together, sing together... They’re not exactly 100% anthropomorphic. I can tell Cole spent a long time studying actual penguins in order to get their look and their body language just right, but he does give them very expressive eyes and half-crescent eyebrows, a slight upturn of a smile superimposed upon their beaks. He does a great job of being simultaneously realistic and fanciful.

As the story moves towards its resolution, there is a loud CRAAAACK! after which which baby Tango emerges from his egg, to the delight of both Roy and Silo, and to the delight of all the schoolchildren who would come to the zoo forever after and celebrate the penguin family.

“At night the three penguins returned to their nest,” the book concludes. “There they snuggled together and, like all the other penguins in the penguin house, and all the other animals in the zoo, and all the families in the big city around them, they went to sleep.”

I shut the book and set it down.

Arlo silently absorbed what he’d just heard.

“So, what did you think?” I prodded. “Did you like it?”

“Yes,” he said cautiously. He had a bit of a disturbed look on his face. “Except, I didn’t like the part where there was no momma.”

“Oh.” I frowned. “Well… suppose it had been about two moms and there was no daddy? What would you think of it, then?”

In a moment, Arlo’s eyes twinkled, a wide grin spread across his entire face and he exclaimed, “Yeah! That would be great!”

6.13.2011

Donovan's Big Day (2011)

Written by Leslea Newman

Illustrated by Mike Dutton

Gouache with Digital Finish

Typeset in Advert and Franklin Gothic

Tricycle Press

As with many books dealing with same-sex relationships and marriage in recent years, the same-sex aspect of the story does not enter into the narrative in a significant way, but seems more a part of the backdrop. In fact, it is not until the final pages in which we learn that the marriage in question involves "mommy" and "mama."

This is a contrast with Newman's famous take on same-sex relationships in Heather Has Two Mommies - in which the question of gender was the source of some angst. Heather Has Two Mommies was a question. Donovan's Big Day is a celebration.

Every character appears to be heady with excitement and anticipation, not the least of which is Donovan himself, the young child of the two mothers, maneuvering his way through their busy world of grown-up responsibilities and wedding-day preparations, mentally cataloging his epic quest every step of the way in a series of bouncing run-on sentences:

He had to be the first one to hop off his seat, scramble out of the car, scurry up some steps, hurry through a large, sunlit lobby, and dash into a loud, crowded room full of hundreds of grown-ups all dressed up in their very best clothes and he had to say hello to every single one of them while they shook his hand, gave him a hug, kissed his cheek, and told him how very handsome he looked on this very BIG day.

The entire book is composed in this frenetic style, and I love phrases like, "hundreds of grown-ups," which gives the proceedings the feel that this is an alien terrain through which young Donovan - and all children, after a fashion - must journey. The ways of grown-ups are not his ways, and so it is imperative that he memorize and go through such a long list of responsibilities, in the pursuit of this, this happiest of all occasions, "when the tall grown-up in the long, black robe said, 'I now pronounce you wife and wife."

12.12.2010

Uncle Bobby's Wedding (2008)

Written and Illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen

Watercolor and graphite on cold press watercolor paper
Text set in Espirit

Designed by Katrina Damkoehler

G.P. Putnam's Sons

Such a simple tale, told gracefully with warmth and humor, it is perhaps shocking that it remains such a controversial book.

"Bobby was Chloe's favorite uncle. They went for long walks together," Brannen writes, and there they go, the two guinea pigs, hand in hand, strolling nonchalantly through the woods, through which shafts of light pierce.

Later we see them rowing on a lake beneath the moonlit sky, and Uncle Bobby seems to be pointing out constellations to the young girl. They are truly the best of friends. However, this friendship is tested when Chloe discovers that Bobby is getting married to his friend Jamie!

All of their friends and relatives whoop and holler at the news, laughing and crying and feeling generally congratulatory... all except Chloe.

"I still don't think you should get married. You have me! We can keep having fun together, like always."

After awhile, however, Chloe warms to the idea, and to Jamie.

"I wish you were both my uncles," said Chloe.

"You get your wish, sweetheart," said Bobby. "When we get married, you'll have an Uncle Jamie, too."

They have this exchange whilst roasting marshmallows in a fireplace, an unfinished game of Monopoly laying behind them. Brannen has a real eye for these sort of relaxing, pastoral activities. The eponymous wedding is no different.

An afternoon breeze cooled the garden. Daisies and buttercups bloomed in the grass and the air smelled like roses.

All of the guests are barefoot - which isn't so remarkable since going back through the book I see that everyone is always barefoot - but even so, taking in the blooming flowers and the soft grass and the sunshine, I like to think that they're especially barefoot.

That night, all in attendance dance to the light of the moon, holding hands and frolicking, the air filled with fireflies.

"That was the best wedding ever," said Chloe. "I planned it all from the beginning."

This book was first reviewed in Tales and Their Tellers 4: "We're Here, We're Queer, and We're Anthropomorphic!"

12.04.2010

King and King (2000)

Written and illustrated by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland

Tricycle Press


The Crown Kitty and Friends Cordially Invite You to Celebrate a Royal Wedding

Reception to follow in the Royal Gardens

Bring Lots of Presents

There's a manic energy in this picture book. It is a cacophony of collage and jarring color schemes. The first page announces the premise:

On the tallest mountain above the town lived a queen, the young crown prince, and the crown kitty. The queen had ruled for many years and she was tired of it. She made up her mind that the prince would marry and become king before the end of the summer.

Pretty straightforward, as picture book fantasies go. To describe the opening illustration, which offers an overview of the kingdom in question, is not so straightforward. I feel certain that the artists created their own handmade paper to serves as the sky, a peach colored paper in which the bits of shredded newspaper used in making it are still visible. The sun pulsates like a satellite dish, surrounded by stars, clouds, jet planes and hot-air balloons. The earth looks like fingerpainted hills, upon which cutouts of simple houses have been pasted haphazardly.

This is the kingdom of the young crown prince, a balding, sickly, pale-faced fellow wearing brightly colored clothes and a comically oversized two-dimensional crown.

"I don't understand you. When I was your age, I'd been married twice already!" his mother barks at him from the far end of the dinner table. From out of her mouth come flying tiny words, pasted together like cut-up ransom notes. "To care for," "Excellence," "love," "traumhochzeit!" along with an assortment of fish-bones, beetles, ants, airplanes and hearts.

Finally, after calling every "castle, alcazar and palazzo near and far," the queen arranges for a bevy of grotesqueries to parade for her son, with their oddly disjointed limbs and extreme proportions. Not even Princess Rahjmashputtin from Mumbai can charm the seemingly overly-picky Prince.

"Wait! There is one more princess. Presenting Princess Madeline and her brother, Prince Lee!"

Aha! True love at last! Stand aside, young, blond Disney princess, for it is the blue-eyed, devil-goatteed brother of yours who causes a cascade of hearts to come pouring forth from the Prince's chest. And the feeling, as they say, is mutual.

With a flip of the page, the two are wed, and following another turn of the page, they are seen lounging about a giant chess board beneath the peach-colored sky, surrounded by the manic collage and jarring color scheme and everyone, we are told, "lives happily ever after."

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