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.
I came across the work of S. Bear Bergman when he was featured on an episode of Dadfeelings (which, if you don’t already, you should be listening to regularly — I talk to merritt k about that podcast here). Bergman is a writer, an advice columnist for Bitch Media, and founder of the micropress, Flamingo Rampant, which publishes children’s books that center queer and trans kids, kids of color, disabled kids, and non-heteronormative families. Most importantly, Flamingo Rampant publishes books that don’t make the portrayal of underrepresented kids and families the whole point — in these stories, kids independently problem-solve, go on adventures, think critically, make jokes, are silly, rambunctious, quiet, nuanced, and not exhaustingly doomed by the oppression of their identities. They’re just kids.
The Queue sat down with S. Bear Bergman to talk about feeding the imaginations of queer children, why “age-appropriateness” is a garbage concept, and the power of portraying underrepresented children as joyful, adventurous, and proud. You can follow S. Bear Bergman on Twitter, ask him a question on his website, and peek at Flamingo Rampant’s 2017 titles here.
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.
So one of the pieces of the question was we needed better books. Another piece of the problem was that children’s books in general are super straight, and they’re overwhelmingly white. 93% of children’s picture books feature or center white kids, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. 70% or 71% of them feature or center boys and men. And I was like, “Hm. I’m actually not interested in any part of that.” That doesn’t represent my community, it doesn’t fit my politics, that’s not what I’m looking for in children’s books generally.
[Another piece] was when people started really tracking violence against queer and trans people and publicizing it, particularly violence against trans women. Once that happened, there’s kind of nothing to do. All you can do is send money and pray, and I did those things. But I started to think, what would it take to intervene in this cycle? What would it take to do something proactive and generative to validate and normalize the idea of queer and trans people? At some point it really became clear to me that all these things were related, and that the answer was that I was going to need to try and figure it out.
I had already written a couple of little trans-positive picture books, and I had been trying to get them published to no avail. Mainstream publishers weren’t interested in them, and even smaller alternative publisher’s weren’t interested in them, though they were mostly not interested because they didn’t publish children’s books, and the mainstream publishers wouldn’t publish them because they thought it was just a niche market. One publisher, and I will never forget this as long as I live, said to me, out loud, “I don’t think there’s enough of a market for this, but if you ever write books about normal children, I would love to look at them.”
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.
So I decided, okay, I’m just going to have to do this myself, clearly. None of these things are happening in the way that I want them too, so I’m just going to address this question on my own. I had a reasonably good fan base at the time, and Kickstarter had just really become a thing that people knew about, so I thought, you know what, I’m just going to try to raise money and publish some children’s books. And we did it, we did the first two, and I felt that I’d done the thing and now people will understand there’s a market, and I wouldn’t have to continue to be a publisher. But that didn’t turn out to be true, and I finally said, alright, we’re going to keep going.
Now we make children’s picture books and publish them in sets of six, because I am really committed to diversity, not as a code word for “occasionally there is a brown person,” but as an actual form of social justice in which it is clear that there are all different kinds of people in the world and they can be represented not only lovingly but powerfully. Six books really gives enough room for meaningful diversity, in my experience. We have 16 books out now, 14 in English, plus a Spanish book and a French book, both of which are also published in English. We’re just now in the process of doing a fulfillment; our 2017 packages are being delivered as we speak. After that I’ll take a little break and then we’ll start thinking about the 2019 features.
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.
I also started to think about what it means to read books to children before bed. You get into bed with them and you cuddle up and read them a story and then give them a kiss on the head and say goodnight, sweet dreams. I started to think, what does this do to someone’s dreamscape? What does it mean to populate their imagination with stories? I also became very aware of my worldbuilding. I didn’t want to create an alternate reality in which children would feel alienated, or that they wouldn’t be able to access.
I wanted diverse stories, fun stories, stories with adventure and shenanigans and tomfoolery. I figured out that actual children love it when the children in books problem-solve, and they love it when the children in books save the day. They like it when kids are actors, when they work towards their own goals, which is part of why the Peanuts comics and movies have always been so popular, I think. If you’ve ever seen a Peanuts cartoon or movie, it’s all kids, there’s no adults, and in the movies you don’t even hear adults talking, all you hear is “Wah wah wah, wah wah.” I find myself, when picking books or when talking about options, [really wanting] to make sure that the kids are the ones doing the things, fixing things, solving things, making things.
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!
Frequently people will ask me, “Don’t you think children are too young to know about gay relationships?” I have children…I am gay…I’m not the only one who is both gay and has children…do you think we should all be trying to pretend to our children and to all of their friends that we are not gay? How exactly do you imagine the disadvantage of a world that is not as insular as yours apparently is? As soon as you start really looking at how these arguments are constructed, it becomes more ridiculous. Those are straw men arguments, really. They’re just excuses to be trans antagonists or homo-antagonists, just to say, “Oh, I don’t think anything’s wrong with it, I just don’t think children should be exposed to it,” and when it gets down to it, they really do think that queer and trans people should not have children. Not only are they dumb and bigoted, they’re also too cowardly to admit it.
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?
When you never see yourself represented, it’s really invalidating, and then when you finally do see yourself, and the one representation is exhaustingly downtrodden, I’m not a hundred percent sure that that’s actually better in any meaningful way. I also don’t know that it’s better for any kid, not just for the queer kids and the queer spawn and the gender-independent kids, but I also think it’s not good for the straight children of straight parents. I think that it doesn’t help them move towards a just and inclusive world. I don’t think it helps them to expand their ability to recognize all of the ways that people and families exist. And I don’t think it helps them to get this idea that the natural result of people coming out as something is that they become the subject of violence. If you read enough books that are about gender-independent kids being bullied, do you not eventually normalize the bullying as much, if not more than, gender-independent kids? At a certain point that’s what I really worry about, that all those books with a gender-independent or trans kid being made to feel like shit just teach straight kids from straight families that that’s how they’re supposed to respond to trans kids, by bullying and harassing them and doing violence to them.
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.
It’s a very feelings-y business, that’s one of the things about children’s publishing generally and about Flamingo Rampant in particular. We make books that often provide the first time a kid has ever seen their family or their experience positively represented. It’s queer families, trans kids, kids of color, Muslim kids, two-spirit kids. If you go to our website, you’ll see our mission statement, and it’s really about the right of children to be represented lovingly. That’s always what we are pushing towards, and all of the parts of that are very emotional. Luckily people have a lot of faith in me as a curator, and I don’t have to worry as much about what will sell. We put the set of books on kickstarter often before they’re very far underway, and people pre-order them and trust that I will put together a set of books that will meet their politics and their values, and that frees me up to do all of this other stuff that I would never be able to do if I had to worry that I needed to convince bookstore owners to buy a book about two Muslim families where one of the kids has two dads and the other has twins, one of them being genderqueer. Bookstores would maybe order one, thinking maybe someday someone will want that book, but our customers who have come to have faith in our work, will order a set of books just because they liked the other ones and trusting that I will make more good ones. That gives me a lot of freedom to make innovative things that I don’t know that i would be able to make otherwise.