Lee Wind is a writer whose blogsite, “I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell do I Read?” has daily reviews of LGBTQ books for teens.
In an online chat with the Kids’ Right to Read Project, Lee Wind lends his perspecitve to the frequent challenges to LGBTQ kids’ and YA literature across the country. We talk about how these books are essential for building a new cultural “myth,” the conflation of homosexuality and sex, and the pros and cons of having a separate genre for LGBTQ.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kids’ Right to Read Project: It’s great to finally be able to talk to you about LGBTQ kids’ and YA books!
Lee Wind: I LOVE the fact that these books exist today! They didn’t when I was growing up. And pretty much, that’s why I became a writer. And why I launched my blog.
KRRP: How was the SCBWI Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators conference in August? It sounded amazing from the blog.
LW: The SCBWI conference was heady – there was so much information, and it was very exciting to be part of the team of bloggers doing live posts from the conference sessions!
KRRP: Was there much talk about books for/about gay kids? Before reading your blog, I had no idea SO MANY books are being written for gay teens today.
LW: One of the best things about the conference was that we had an amazing turnout for our GLBTQ character and themes in YA and children’s books poolside chat!
Interestingly, there was some noise on the chat boards about a few people being horrified that we were discussing Gay content for children’s books. Which is so odd, because we’re not talking about including SEX in picturebooks.
KRRP: That’s a complaint we see over and over again in book challenges–the conflation of homosexuality and sexual content.
LW: You’re right, it is the conflation of “homosexuality” with SEXual content. Part of the problem is our using the word “homoSEXuality.” I write it that way because really, that’s how it’s heard.
We’re talking about same-gender love, and yet the banners are only thinking about the “SEX” part!
You know, there are picture books that show male/female couples sitting on couches, and that’s not about SEX. “Chowder” by Peter Brown, has a scene where the dog’s owners are sitting on the couch. They’re Madge and Bernie Wubbington, and they’re sitting on the couch. They’re not having SEX on the couch.
It’s the same with Gay content in Picture books. Nobody’s advocating showing any kind of SEX in picturebooks. But why can’t we have a book with a two daddy couple sitting on the couch, while the story revolves around the child character?
And the great this is that now, we do have a handful of great picturebooks! I even started a category on my website “picturebooks I wish had been read to me when I was a kid!”
KRRP: Why do you wish these books had been around for you at that age?
LW: I believe strongly that books are myths. And that, more than movies, the kind of storytelling that happens when you read a book is really internal – it happens on a deep, mythic level. After all, you’re creating the whole thing in your mind as you read. You’re casting. You’re directing. You’re forming the images and emotions from the words on the page.
So books get in deep, and allow us to create pathways of possibilities. Like all those Disney Princess stories. We are inculcated, in our culture with the MYTHS of what is “Happily Ever After.” And how to get there.
It’s why a book like “Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch, Illustrated by Michael Martchenko, is so important. There’s a princess who ends up realizing she doesn’t need a prince for her happily ever after.
And we’re not the only one who knows the power of children’s books to create new mental models, new myths, for children who read them.
That’s why “And Tango Makes Three” this adorable picture book based on a true story of two male penguins who fall in love and try to hatch a stone, and then the zookeeper gives them an egg that needs a family, and they hatch it and the baby penguin is raised by them – THAT’s the book that’s the most challenged book in our country for the last 3 years!
And it makes sense, because Tango creates a NEW myth, that two boys can grow up, fall in love, and have a child, and that child can grow up strong and healthy and happy!
Books are POWERFUL myth creators, and we need to fight to keep them available!
KRRP: It sounds like you’re talking about education in the best sense, the shaping of how we see the world. The message of our LGBTQ Right to Read Resource is that an education without gay perspectives in not much of an education AT ALL.
I love this idea of myth-building–if there’s one thing I’ve learned in college it’s that we create stories to make sense of the world
LW: Yes, we are story tellers. And the stories help us “make sense of the world” that’s very well articulated!
“an education without gay perspectives” is not really an education, I agree.
I guess it would be more an indoctrination. It’s that odd fear that your position is so fragile that any information that conflicts with your take on the world needs to be kept from your children, and from others. That’s a sad and very telling exposure of the weakness of your position in the first place.
KRRP: Very true–and it often backfires to try and ban a book. You said in your interview with Ellen Hopkins that book challenges are the perfect opportunity to PROMOTE these ‘offensive’ books.
LW: Yeah. David Gale, the awesome editor of “And Tango Makes Three,” has spoken about how the challenges have dramatically HELPED sales of the book! And really, it’s a beautiful book…It’s so important to be able, as a kid, to see that there is a place in the world for you, even if you’re different. Books can do that.
At SCBWI’s conference in August I met this author, Jacqui Robbins, who did this great project with her own kid – she read a banned book with her kid, and tried to have her kid figure out what people didn’t want her to read in it.
…I love the idea, as a parent, of reading “banned books” with my kid!
KRRP: Wow, that’s a great way to learn how to read!
LW: Yeah, I loved that idea. I think that’s how we need to read with our kids, helping them filter and understand the books…
Today on my site, I have a really cool dilemma post up – it’s about how this racist book is being basically hidden by librarians in a library in brooklyn, so they don’t accidentally offend anyone. But then the book isn’t really available.
KRRP: I always think, when a book is shut away like that, we need MORE free speech here, not less.
LW: We need adults to filter for kids, and contexualize it. All those book banners, instead of trying to keep the books from their own kids and other’s kids, should spend their time talking to their kids (after they’ve READ the books with their kids) about What and Why they agree or disagree with it.
THAT’s an education.
But instead, the book banners want to keep the discussion away, keep the books away, and only keep their OWN myth of what is proper and possible in the minds of their kids and everyone else’s kids.
THAT’s NOT an education. As we said before, that’s an indoctrination.
I’m all for EDUCATION! But that requires effort and participation on the part of adults, reading with kids!
KRRP: That’s right, but the two sure get blurred in these book banning cases.
LW: Yes! Because I guess it would come down to having to justify your prejudice to your kids, based on little more than “we don’t like Gay people” or something like that.
Having to EXPLAIN it would expose just how flimsy a foundation the prejudice is based on – and that’s too uncomfortable so they just want the books banned. hidden. unavailable.
So they can continue to indoctrinate their kids in their prejudices.
KRRP: But sometimes I do read or see something I hate to think about kids reading, especially without supervision–so I wanted to ask you, is it important to have a distinction between Adult and YA, and where do you draw the line? Especially re: books for gay teens.
LW: Yeah, when I hear about 3rd graders reading Twilight, I kinda cringe. I think that’s where an adult can help a kid figure out what’s the appropriate level to be reading at.
I guess the public’s perception of the line between YA and Adult is the amount of sex and profanity – kind of like what makes a movie R versus PG or PG-13.
For me, I think the REAL distinction between YA and Adult is in the sense of HOPE that you find in YA novels. I love that, and that’s why I write for Teens. Because ultimately, I’m an optimist. I’m not saying it always has a happy ending, but a hopeful ending, in some way, yeah.
KRRP: I like that about YA books.
LW: I think in distinguishing GAY YA from HeteroSEXual YA (see how the word “sex” pops -even there?), there’s a lower bar on sex in Gay YA.
Just like in movies – in our culture, a boy-boy kiss would make a movie “racier” and allegedly for “older audiences” than a boy-girl kiss.
It’s that MYTH thing again.
See, a boy-boy kiss can be just as romantic, and just as much about chaste love, as a boy-girl kiss. But we’re not seeing Camp Rock or High School Musical having any boy-boy kisses, are we?
Books, we NEED you!
There are some new MYTHS we need to get out there in the public consciousness!
KRRP: You mention this lower bar for sex as one difference between Gay and Heterosexual teen books–do you see any other differences in genre?
And do you think it’s a good or not-so-great thing to separate the two into separate categories?
LW: I think we’re just starting to get “genre” gay books – where the books aren’t ONLY about coming out, but there’s a gay (GLBTQ) character who is having an adventure of one kind or another.
As far as separating them out, I think if I had a bookstore, I’d want them mixed in AND highlighted on their own shelf, too. But in the real world bookstores only put the books in ONE place. So if I had to choose, I’d want them mixed in, with ALL the other great books, and there wouldn’t be any separate shelves for Black YA, or any other minority YA experiences or stories.
And blogs like mine could serve as information hubs so people could see everything they were interested in subject and character-wise, in one place. But in the bookstores, I wouldn’t want the books ghettoized.
KRRP: The concept of a ghetto is the problem, right? Because being separate isn’t equal, and then gay teens are further from being “mainstream” in a good sense. But we also want special space for gay teens
LW: Yeah. Safe Space, but not segregated like there’s something wrong with us. It’s like a high school having a GSA, rather than having a separate high school JUST for Gay students. We need EVERY high school to be a safe space for EVERY kid!