Monday, 18 March 2019

This Blog Post Is Gay - Garry Parsons

The title of this post is respectfully borrowed and adjusted from Juno Dawson’s witty and frank manual “This Book Is Gay” first published in 2014, an important book for anyone to read, not just the LGBT* community. This book is not only informative, it is wholly accepting and basically gives the message that, whoever you are or whoever you are not, it is ok to be you. And that is a message I couldn’t agree with more and one I would hope to pass to my kids.

This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson - Hot Key Books 2014

Apparently, the market for young adult fiction featuring characters identifying as LGBT is growing. Authors like Amy Rose Capetta, Amber Smith, Christina Lauren, Tim Federle and  Juno Dawson, who also writes YA fiction, are appreciated by readers who are looking for a broader diversity of protagonists and storylines with positive reflections of who they feel themselves to be.

Representation in books is so important not only for young people who are themselves LGBT, but for everyone finding themselves in a minority community, and also for those who are not, in order to feel empathy and gain understanding. 

The recent wave of diverse characters in young adult fiction appears to be slowly making its way as subject matter for picture books. There are and have been books alluding to gay characters or featuring same-sex parents, but, by comparison to the plethora of picture books out there, these are very few and can sometimes be lacking in subtlety or quality. 
As an illustrator, parent and member of the LGBT community myself, this is an area I feel is overlooked and in need of representation and encouragement.
This could all be about to change.
In February this year CBeebies’ Bedtime Story featured singer Will Young reading Carolyn Robertson’s picture book “Two Dads”, illustrated by Sophie Humphreys, about a boy who has been adopted and brought up happily by two fathers. This episode was shown to coincide with LGBT History Month.

Will Young  reading Two Dads by Carolyn Roberson illustrated by Sophie Humpreys

“Children’s books are one of the first ways we learn about the world around us so I’m overjoyed to be reading a story to mark LGBT History Month,” said Young.

I wholeheartedly agree. Children need to be able to see the world around them, and themselves reflected in it, no matter who they are and picture books have proven to be remarkable vehicles for this. When the subject matter sits on the periphery of our daily lives or the story concerns something we know very little about, picture books are a good way to start a conversation about them for both adults and children. 
Here are a few stunning picture books that I feel deal with complex issues in clever, subtle and thoughtful ways:
The challenges of a refugee family in "The Journey" by Francesca Sanna, tolerance in "Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School" by David Mackintosh, losing a loved one in "Grandad’s Island" by Benji Davies and the dangers of lies skewing reality in "The New Neighbours" by Sarah McIntyre, for example.  
The Journey by Francesca Sanna. Marshall Armstrong Is New To Our School by David Mackintosh. Grandad's Island by Benji Davis and The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre

So what about picture books dealing with the difference a child might feel who might later identify as LGBT? Most LGBT adults can recall the sense of being ‘different’ at a very early age. These books were not around when I was six years old, but they are titles I wish I had seen and ones that offer something else.

Something Else by Kathryn Cave illustrated by Chris Riddell - Puffin 1994

“Something Else” by Kathryn Cave, illustrated by Chris Riddell, first published in 1994 and boasting over a quarter of a million copies sold, is the story of a creature who is told he does not belong and is unjustly excluded, and also about how you can befriend a person who is finding fitting in difficult.

Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival - Bloomsbury 2017

"Perfectly Norman" by Tom Percival, published by Bloomsbury in 2017, is about a little boy who realises that being bold enough to embrace being different is what leads to his happiness.

Hello Sailor by Andre Sollie illustrated by Ingrid Godon - Macmillan 2000

My personal favourite, “Hello Sailor” by Andre Sollie and illustrated by Ingrid Godon, tells the story of Matt, who lives in a lighthouse and spends his time watching the sea for his friend Sailor to return to him. “A beautiful book…it makes – just as it should – the love between two men as natural and as deep as any other,” says the Observer.

Julian Is A Mermaid - Jessica Love - Walker Books 2018

"Julian Is A Mermaid" by Jessica Love, published in 2018 to high acclaim, The Sunday Times calling it “celebratory and ground-breaking”, is the story of a little boy who is mesmerized by the sight of three women in flamboyant dresses he sees while travelling on the subway with his Nana. He leads us, unashamedly, on a journey towards love and acceptance. Who wouldn’t want this freedom of expression for children?

Interior illustration from Julian Is A Mermaid - Jessica Love 

Whilst these four books don’t explicitly speak about same-sex relationships, gender stereotypes or being LGBT, the themes of feeling different, the need for acceptance and the exploration of self-identity can be appreciated without them being preachy. 

This is what Tom Percival says about Perfectly Norman :
the wings are symbolic—of freedom—once you allow yourself to be open and honest about who you really are, you can fly free.”

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell illustrated by Henry Cole  - Simon & Schuster 2007

 And then there is the popular, and at the same time controversially unpopular, “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole.
“And Tango Makes Three” tells the story of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who create a family together, based on the true story of two male penguins that hatched an egg in the New York City Zoo.

Roy and Silo's adopted egg hatches - from And Tango Makes Three - illustrated by Henry Cole

The story explores the universal way families form around love and shows that some families who can't have children of their own adopt, in this case with the help of the zookeeper, Mr. Gramsay, who gives them an extra egg from another penguin couple at the zoo.
“And Tango Makes Three” has been at the centre of many censorship debates on same-sex marriage, adoption, and homosexuality in animals and periodically banned in public libraries in certain states in America. In Singapore, the National Library Board were persuaded to file the book in the adult section.  
At the same time “And Tango Makes Three” has been used in schools as a teaching aid and has won multiple awards, including being on The American Library Association’s Notable Children's Book list in 2006.

Undoubtedly, picture books can be powerful starting points for provoking thought, leading to empathy or letting the reader know that “It’s ok to be me”. 

I know I would have enjoyed and valued the story of "Julian Is A Mermaid" when I was six and I certainly would have benefitted from the frankness of Juno Dawson’s "This Book Is Gay" as a young adult. 

Illustration by Spike Gerrell from This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson

For me, these books give hope, especially in a time when the world is struggling to tackle discrimination and hatred in all its myriad forms. We need to be able to give our children a moment where they can feel confident and safe to explore the people they feel themselves to be, whatever that might be, whoever and whatever they grow up to be, even if it is to be a mermaid.

Garry is proud to have recently been asked to illustrate a picture book with an 
It’s ok to be you” theme and which was the prompt for this post.

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* LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.


Garry Parsons said...

Please share any picture books with themes of “It’s ok to be you”

Natascha Biebow said...

Thank you, Garry, for this important and inspiring post! Here are two to add to the list: THE FAMILY BOOK by Todd Parr and HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES by Leslea Newman and Laura Cornell. I look forward to seeing your book when it comes out!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Hi Garry, Thanks for this. Some of the ones my children and I have at home and have enjoyed include Introducing Teddy (Jessica Walton and Dougal MacPherson), Morris Mickelwhite and the Tangerine Dress (Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant), King and King (Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland), My Princess Boy (Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone), I Am Jazz (Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings and Shelagh McNicholas), And Tango Makes Three (as you've mentioned above) and a beautiful one that we've just bought and love: When We Love Someone we Sing to Them (Ernesto Javier Martinez and Maya Gonzalez). Thank you for the reminder to read Perfectly Norman and I'm really looking forward to reading Sarah's fake news-y book The New Neighbours. I wrote a Picture Book Den Blogpost on instilling empathy in young readers through picture books and it's got lots of recommendations (in the post and the comments that fit with being yourself: Clare x

Garry Parsons said...

Thank you Clare. I am aware of some of the books you mentioned but not all. I will take a look at the them. In my research for this post I looked at as many titles as I could find (in a fairly short space of time) and in my opinion, the more successful books at speaking to this “It’s ok to be you” theme took a more story telling - mythic approach, alluding to a feeling rather than deliberately stating the obvious. I felt these interpretations were broader and gave the reader space to consider themselves in the character. Perfectly Norman does this. Thank you for taking the time to list these books. Garry

Garry Parsons said...

Thank you Natascha. I'm familiar with the Todd Parr Family Book yes, fine I think for the very young. I don't know the Heather book, I will have a look at this.

Rob Bounds said...

Hi Gary, its great to see more books on this topic. I hope you don't mind my cheeky self promotion but a few years ago a created a series of story books for my nieces & nephews and I'm proud to say one of these stories is now being used by Educate & Celebrate who have a reading list of other similar themed story books & do great work in schools to celebrate that "it's ok to be you"

tike mik said...

If people were really comfortable with gender differences would there be a need to constantly announce that so and so is a Ladyboy? After all, how often do people introduce heterosexuals as a friend who is straight?

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