Why do you write books for children?
I have a friend who is a children’s book author and illustrator, and several years ago she decided to quit her job as a tenured professor in order to pursue a more creative life. She started teaching classes about writing and illustrating children’s books, and she encouraged (well, pressured, really) me to sign up. I said I would – I have a hard time saying “no” – and then thought “oh wow, what did I just get myself into?” But it turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. I also had no idea how hard it is to write a high-quality story for children! It’s much harder than it looks. Taking that class showed me how to be creative in an entirely new way, and writing for children fuels me in ways that I can’t really put into words.
There’s another reason why I do this, though. Not long after I took that class, I started playing with the idea of writing a story about an LGBTQ+ Pride celebration. When I was researching comps, I was stunned to find that not only were there very few picture books featuring LGBTQ+ themes, but only one had ever been written about a Pride parade (and it was published almost thirty years ago). That was so disturbing to me – that LGBTQ+ people were virtually invisible in children’s books. And I see on a daily basis what that invisibility does to a community. Most of my college students (including those who are LGBTQ+ identified) have never heard of the Pink Scare, or the Stonewall Riots, or the AIDS crisis, for that matter. They know about HIV, but they don’t know how the gay community was decimated by it. That lack of knowledge is terrifying to me, and I want children AND adults to know about our history, our culture, and how we got here. That’s why I wrote books like This Day in June, When You Look Out the Window (a book about Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin), and Sewing the Rainbow (my latest book about Gilbert Baker and the creation of the rainbow flag).
As you were writing Sewing the Rainbow, did you learn anything that surprised you?
I found it so interesting that Gilbert Baker grew up in Kansas – just like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. And I thought it was fascinating that he ended up sewing the first rainbow flags as a symbol for the gay community. Judy Garland has been a gay icon for decades – some even think that her death in June of 1969 was a contributing factor in the Stonewall Riots. This symbolism wasn’t lost on Gilbert, and he had a very quirky sense of humor. For the 40th “ruby” anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Gilbert wore a pair of ruby slippers – and I’m sure that was a nod to Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz, his Kansas roots, and the fact that he created the rainbow that so many LGBTQ+ people dreamed of going over.
With respect to the availability of LGBTQ+ books for children, do you think things have changed?
There are so many ways to answer that question! I have seen a shift in the LGBTQ+ children’s picture book landscape. When I was looking for a publisher for This Day in June, I had trouble finding anyone who had ever published an LGBTQ+ children’s picture book. Now, every major publishing house and a number of small presses have LGBTQ+ children’s books on their lists. So that’s very exciting. However, there’s still a lot of room for this genre to grow. Very few LGBTQ+ children’s books feature people of color. What’s also disturbing – and I’m saying this with intention - is that the vast majority of LGBTQ+ children’s books are not written by LGBTQ+ people. It’s not that cisgender and heterosexual people can’t write about the LGBTQ+ community – they certainly can, and many do it exceptionally well. But I do think we have to examine why LGBTQ+ voices aren’t making it through the publishing pipeline. And we also need to ask ourselves why so few LGBTQ+ people of color get published. It’s part of a larger conversation about diversity and representation in the children’s book industry.
This Q&A appeared in the June 2018 issue of the
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Gayle E. Pitman, PhD, is a professor of psychology and women’s studies at Sacramento City College. Her teaching and writing focuses on gender and sexual orientation, and she has worked extensively with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community. She is the author of This Day In June, which won the 2015 Stonewall Book Award—Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award. She is also the author of When You Look Out the Window, a picture book biography of lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, and Feminism From A to Z, a book for teens of all genders.