Monday, April 4, 2011

The Kids are All Right?: Getting Beyond the "My Two Moms" Narrative

So my six year old is playing the board game "Life" with her 8 year old brother, when they get to the point where their little peg-like car-driving avatars have to get married.

"Are you getting married to a boy or a girl?" asks the 6year old, both blue and pink colored pegs (*gag*) in her hand.

Her brother scoffs. "Put in a pink peg! A girl!"

"But Mama said you could marry a boy or a girl - anything you want!"

"A pink peg!"

"But Mama said!"

And then, naturally, I feel the need to pipe up from the kitchen, "You can marry whoever you want. Or not get married. Whatever."

Of course, I'd rather they not play this atrocious game with its insidious capitalism and narrow definitions of "the good life." But, at least they're not fighting with each other, or, playing with knives, or what have you. (Small comfort, that)

I'd also rather my 8year old not be already "heteronormatized." But I don't know at this point what's external social cuing and what's internal orientation. His parents are heterosexual, yes, but in his friends circle are a small but present group of kids with two moms, or two dads. On the other hand, he lives in a heteronormative culture - and he's clearly picking up these cues from the pervasive cultural atmosphere.

(His sister, on the other hand, is still marrying either her brother or me so that she can "live with mama forever" - or alternately, not getting married at all because she'll be a professional "garden gnome fairy." She's also frequently upset that a friend of hers has two moms and she doesn't - in her mind two of a good thing is, well, a good thing.)

But it did get me thinking about the books my son reads - and if there are any gay characters in them. And if I, who is so conscious about introducing certain kinds of diversity into his voracious literary appetites, have neglected to introduce other kids of diversity.

The other day, I was reading a fabulous interview on Color Online of Wendy Wan Long-Shang, author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, in which she said, beautifully,

I believe that writing for children is a form of service. When you give a child a chance to see himself or herself reflected back in a book, whether it is by appearance or circumstance, you are telling that child, you are valued, you are not alone. When you give children the chance to see the world from a different point of view, you are also doing something valuable – you are allowing them to expand their perspective, their knowledge, their imagination and their heart.

So where are the books in which a child of a lesbian or gay couple sees him or herself? What are the books in which a child of a heterosexual couple sees friends with gay parents?

Certainly, there are the classic picture books like Heather Has Two Mommies, Asha's Mums, or Daddy's Roommate. (Here are some more picture books on amazon that are apparantly "beyond" Heather Has Two Mommies.)

But what about MG and chapter books - books that don't make central the "issue" of gay or lesbian parenting, but simply represent diverse couples and a variety of families? Like my taste in what's called 'multicultural' kidlit, I tend to prefer books that don't follow that earnest yet ultimately marginalizing Lifetime Movie of the Week type pattern (the very special gay/of color/disabled episode), but books that simply incorporate gay/of color characters doing regular (or not regular) things. Just like everyone else.

In the world of YA books, there is of course the fabulous work of David Levithan, or Patrick Ryan, exploring the lives of teenagers who happen to be, among other things, gay. In fact, one of the reasons Will Grayson, Will Grayson is one of my favorite all time books is because it's both incredibly witty, smart, and funny and inclusive in its portrayals of kids of all sexualities - without necessarily being ABOUT how inclusive it is.

I watched the (grownup) film The Kids Are All Right last night, and if mainstream Hollywood films are markers of cultural change, certainly the film represents the a type of lesbian family that exists in this country. Although smartly written and acted, it did frustrate me in that it was still 'about' something called 'the lesbian family' and about this weird heteronormative plot conflict (the role of the suddenly appearing sperm donor father-not-father... REALLY? I kept asking myself.), rather than a film in which kids of two moms go on, oh, I don't know, dragon slaying cross country adventures.

(In fact, here's a link to a really great video that was in part a response to those excluded by the "It Gets Better Project" called {This} is Re-Teaching Gender and Sexuality. In it, one of the young people says - paraphrased - "I don't want my community to be just all right, I want us to be thriving!")

So I'm asking for advice from all of you - to make a list of great MG or chapter books incorporating smart portrayals of kids who happen to be from gay or lesbian families. 

I think for kids to be all right, they've got to see representations of a world that is both all and right. All of our kids represented, and all the beautiful variations of what is right.


  1. Oh, I'm definitely going to have to ponder this one. I think most of the books that immediately came to mind don't qualify as MG/YA. (Fried Green Tomatoes immediately but . . .)

    I recently watched, for the first time, My So-Called Life and really appreciated the incorporation of a character struggling with sexual identity. The fact that he was also hispanic added to my appreciation. Not a brilliant show but a very good one and more forward thinking than I would have expected.

    I'm sure there is a book or two out there that I've read that is not immediately coming to mind. I'll have to get back to you on this one.

  2. I think Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List is one example, although it is by the ever-fabulous David Levithan, whom you already mentioned.

    Also...although it isn't spelled out that they are gay specifically (which is sort of your point, I think), in The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness includes a pair of men who adopt the main character and raise him as their son.

    Other than those...I can't think of another example off the top of my head. Maybe we should write one. :)

  3. Thanks Satia and Kari - it's hard, right? And I, Kari, Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List is about kids who are gay -- I was trying to think of books (probably for the younger crowd) in which parents just happen to be lesbian/gay...

  4. I'm pretty sure Ely has two of whom runs off with Naomi's dad? Am I not remembering that right?? are very right -- hard to come up with examples!

  5. Oh, yea, you are right, Kari.... but yes, it is hard. Everything seems either a picture book "heather has two mommies" or a YA about the kids' sexuality. Where's the "The Kids Are All Right" MG equivalent?