Make Children’s Stories as Diverse as the Families Who Read Them
Flamingo Rampant publisher S. Bear Bergman on the power of representation.
S. Bear Bergman is an educator, storyteller, and the creator of Flamingo Rampant, a children’s book publisher depicting celebratory representations of feminist, multi-ethnic, LGBT2Q families. Since 2012, Flamingo Rampant has run four Kickstarter campaigns to publish its books. Here, Bergman shares more about the philosophy behind Flamingo Rampant and its worth to the families that read its books.
In December 2018, I had the opportunity to speak to a children’s and YA literature class at a large, public university. The students asked me if I made good money as a publisher of Flamingo Rampant. Once I quit giggling, I said no, I definitely did not.
They asked a follow-up question: Then why did I do it?
For two reasons, I told them.
Children like to be read to — and to see their families in the books they read
As a father I know what reading to children is like, and how much they enjoy inventive stories, amazing illustrations, excitement, fun, silliness, and even a little sassiness. I know how much reading together bonds us, because they ask so many questions. And as a gay and transgender dad, I really wanted the books I read to them with LGBT2Q people in them to have the same sense of pure pleasure in reading mainstream books. I wanted the books to reflect our actual community, which is multi-ethnic and gender-diverse, and has as many family structures as it does potluck dinners.
I wanted the books to reflect our actual community, which is multi-ethnic and gender-diverse, and has as many family structures as it does potluck dinners.
I did not want to see our kids being the object of a morality play about “tolerance” on the “Special Issues” shelf while abled, white, heterosexually-parented kids got to have exciting fun in the general section. I wanted my kids to enjoy the books with families that looked like ours, to ask for them again and again and again. Since those books were very few in the world, I started Flamingo Rampant.
Representation can reverse the grief of erasure
But there’s another reason, too, which has developed over time. I stand behind the book table at conferences and I see people react to our books with such joy and love. In doing that I have realized something. We all know that love and grief are two sides of the same coin. We’re used to the experience of loving something, losing it, then feeling that love give way to grief. I am here to tell you that to also works the other way.
I meet kids and families that have never had books that look like their family and watch them see for the first time something that feels like them. I have seen the grief of that erasure turn into love and come pouring out, often in the form of happy tears. It’s truly an extraordinary moment, and it keeps me working hard at Flamingo Rampant when I’m tired.
I have seen the grief of that erasure turn into love and come pouring out, often in the form of happy tears.
To populate the imagination of children is an awesome responsibility, and I love it. I think about the kids who rarely see themselves reflected positively anywhere basking in that wash of love and validation with a Flamingo Rampant book in their hand. I think about the kids whose world doesn’t include many people with different experiences from theirs understanding; in the words of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, that “they can be the hero of the story…and that other kinds of kids are also the hero of the story.”
The rewards of representation reach far beyond the page
When you add all that to the fun stories I get to make, like one about a magical dragon shrinking kids to the size of ants to show them how littering seems to tiny creatures, or a kid who goes on an apartment-building–wide hunt for pirates, or a child being soothed to sleep with family stories represented through the objects in her uncles’ dreadlocks? It’s an amazing way to participate in moving toward a more just—and more fun!—world.
Our stories would be incredibly difficult to make through traditional publishing right now, though — and that’s where Kickstarter comes in. If I called ten book distributors and said “Hello, we are making a book about the multiracial children of divorced queer disabled mamas who team up build a wheelchair-accessible bridge that grows and blooms. How many copies would you like?” they would be very likely to say, “Uh…we’ll get back to you if someone asks for that.” If a concept is too new or too difficult to categorize, they often don’t have confidence in it.
Kickstarter allows our customers to pre-order books, which means Flamingo Rampant can make work that doesn’t have to pass the complex gatekeeping of what someone thinks will “sell off the shelf.” We can focus on authentic stories, made by LGBT2Q people without flattening our complexities or dimming our brilliance.
To be sure, it’s a lot of work. But when I think about seeding kids with the idea that LGBT2Q people are fine and in the world and it’s just not a big deal, it’s worth it. When I think about putting kids to bed and reading them stories populated with peaceful, loved kids whose families are like theirs and who also got to have great days and then saying “sweet dreams, sweetheart,” and really feeling like I can mean it — it’s worth it.