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Book covers from Flamingo Rampant’s 2017 titles. Images courtesy of S. Bear Bergman.

Yes, There Are Queer-Positive Children’s Books That Are Actually Good and Not Horribly Depressing

Faced with a sea of whitewashed children’s books, S. Bear Bergman took matters into his own hands.

Shea Fitzpatrick
Oct 25, 2017 · 12 min read

The Queue: Can you talk a little bit about the origin of Flamingo Rampant?

S. Bear Bergman: Flamingo Rampant got started in large part because I and all of my friends needed books to read to our trans and gender-independent children and to our little queer spawn that were neither grim nor boring. A lot of the books that are about gender-independence or gender nonconformity that existed at the time were all about bullying and harassment and violence. The ones that weren’t too terrible were mostly very boring. They were sort of like, “Some people have two dads and that’s not terrible. The end!” We refer to them sometimes as “very special episodes.” Like from Family Ties when Alex P. Keaton is caught cheating, right? There’s an issue, and it’s very serious. And the book is kept with other serious ones, like Even Dinosaurs Get Divorced.

TQ: That’s just awful!

SBB: And I said, “Okay, thank you for your time.” But really it was like, “How dare you? Who do you think you are?” Really.

TQ: You’re both a parent and have written some of these books yourself. When you write for children, are you influenced at all by the ways in which you see your own children relate to books?

SBB: Yes, but not necessarily in the way that you’d think. It’s making me aware of what children do and don’t enjoy in a book. Part of why we started doing them in sets of six is that it started to become clear to me that a lot of parents were not great at choosing books for their children, or they would just choose a book that had a character that looked like their kid to whatever degree possible. For people who are historically underrepresented, that makes sense, obviously, but for people who are not, for white families especially, they would just buy whatever book had a white kid on the cover and call it a day.

TQ: Something that I find frustrating is the idea of “age-appropriateness” with children’s literature, which is so often just puritanical or in the interest of reinforcing harmful norms. I’m curious about your thoughts on that.

SBB: Age-appropriateness is a code for “I don’t want my children to know about a specific thing,” usually queer stuff or trans stuff. It’s also a really intense expression of privilege. This whole idea that children are innocent of all badness in the world is derived from the idea that children can reach an age and not experience any badness. People who say, “My child’s too young to learn about racism” are not black or brown children. These are white children who don’t have to learn about racism yet because it’s not directed at them! Children who don’t need to learn about homophobia yet are the gender conforming children of straight cis people for whom homophobia is not a reality. The same is true in a lot of ways. This idealized notion of “the child” in which people are protecting their innocent little children from the harsh realities of the world is predicated on the idea that children can get to be five or ten or whatever age without experiencing the harsh realities of the world. Do you think there are a lot of little black and brown children that don’t know about racism? That’s not a thing. Do you think there are a lot of queer spawn that don’t know about homophobia? Not a thing!

TQ: You talked a little bit about preserving mystery and tomfoolery, etc, but is there anything else that you like to maintain from the children’s books that you have seen?

SBB: I like it when the kids are clearly well. We show a lot of different kinds of family: single parents, married parents, chosen family, multiple parents, kids being raised by other relatives than their parents, but the important part to me is always that the kids are well, that they’re proud, and peaceful, that the story does not include them feeling oppressed by their circumstances. We have enough of that, we have enough of those books. Some people will say, “Don’t you think the books should be realistic? Some people are really against queers.” And there’s a part of me that [agrees], I do think it’s important that things be realistic. What I don’t understand is why we always have to make the realistic as the worst and most unpleasant parts. There are a lot of realities of queer and trans lives, and many of them are fine. I’m queer and trans, I have children, they’re delightful humans, they are healthy and happy and joyful, and full of enthusiasm, and chaos, and questions, and nonsense, and so are the children of nearly everyone I know. Also, I’m not sure that children’s picture books need to represent every way in which lives can be difficult. Is it not okay that queer spawn and trans kids can have books that are just full of pirates and fairies and superheroes? Does every book need to be about an important issue of our time? Can’t our kids just have a fun story and colorful pictures, and also gay dads and not have that be the whole point of the thing? Can kids in wheelchairs see other kids in wheelchairs and not have that be the one thing you know about that person? Can’t they be shy or bold?

TQ: I have one last question. Is there a book from your childhood that you still carry with you, or saw yourself in, or that you still look back to?

SBB: There were not a lot of books that I saw myself in, but I definitely had favorites when I was an older kid, like ten or eleven, and they were mostly books about kids who came from families in which they were not valued who went to a different location or a different context and were valued, because that was really the experience that I was having. I did not feel valued in my family of origin, I knew that I was different in a variety of ways, and people’s expectations of me were always really geared towards “Don’t do this,” “Don’t do that,” “Calm down,” “Be more like a girl,” etc. etc., so the books that felt really satisfying to me were the ones where a kid went to a different place in some way. Whether they were exiled because of war, or went off to school, or literally anything, and found themselves in a place where they were recognized, where they felt like they were worth something. I think in some ways that’s the emotional experience that I was Flamingo Rampant to replicate — not that I want kids [to not] feel valued within their own families, but for kids who don’t feel valued within their community, I want them to be able to imagine that there are places where they will feel valued.

The Queue

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