This isn’t Green Eggs and Ham . . . nor is it Pat the Bunny, not unless those classics have gender-non-conforming messages that bypassed me. Happily, Jesús Canchola Sánchez’s first children’s book, the bilingual Pepito Has a Doll/Pepito Tiene una Muñeca, is in your face on that matter.
This charming little tome is the latest offering in the ever-growing LGBTQI+ genre that includes such predecessors as Leslea Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, Perez Hilton’s The Boy with Pink Hair, and Harvey Fierstein’s The Sissy Duckling.
As Fierstein noted the other day, kindly taking a minute away from writing his highly awaited memoirs: “Reaction to The Sissy Duckling was fabulous. I think it’s in its 8th printing. I hear from teachers and parents all the time about reading it with their kids. And the HBO film of it won the Humanitas Prize. I can tell you more if you need, but I have a manuscript due by the end of this week.” Who are we to interrupt comic genius?
Quickly returning to Pepito, the storyline is a simple one. A lonely young boy adores his doll Lola, a toy he brings to class every day hidden within his knapsack so “she” can learn to read along with him. “Shhh! Don’t make any noise, Lola,” the lad warns. (¡Shhh! No vayas hacer ruido, Lola¡”)
His kind grandmother, his abuela, is supportive of his carryings-on but warns him others may not be so kind. So “every night, Pepito prays for the health of his abuela, that nothing happens to Lola, and that he may find un amigo at school to play with him.”
Well, sometimes God listens. A new, extremely cute lad, Miguel, arrives in town, befriends Pepito, and is Lola-positive. Soon the duo is running through the fields hand-in-hand and even dancing together, sometimes with grandma.
But then that dreaded moment comes about. Miguel’s knapsack falls to the ground, and Lola pops out. Oh, no! His classmates immediately start shouting: “Pepito has a doll!” “Pepito is a girl!” “Pepito is going to cry!”
Instead of weeping a whole lot and trying to butch it up, Pepito holds his ground: “Lola is my doll. She’s my friend. I love her and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Of course, who can argue with Love? The classmates see their close-mindedness, his new pal is proud of him, and Lola gets her own chair next to Pepito’s in the classroom.
As someone who once yearned for his own Barbie Dream House, I can identify, but is this a rendition of the author’s childhood, too?
The Chicago-based and momentarily single Sánchez admits: “I knew that I wanted to share the experience in some format of me growing up playing with dolls, and I’ve been a fan of children’s stories since forever. As an adult, I have continued to be a consumer of these books but especially those that touch upon diversity.
“Doing my research, I came across Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll from 1972. She was a really prolific children’s writer. That book really kind of sparked in me a connection . . . It touches on the boy, William, having a doll in the framework of him wanting to be a father, so not really exploring gender norms. But the fact that it was published in 1972 was really like inspiring to me, and I really loved the story.” Thus began the drafting of Pepito with the illustrator, Armando Minjarez.
The finale of Pepito’s journey as depicted is definitely cheerful. Is real life ever so kind?
“Pepito has enough courage in himself despite what some of the other kids are thinking of him because he has the love of his abuela and his new friend,” Sánchez notes. “Clearly, Pepito has enough of a base to be able to handle any kind of prejudice that comes towards him after that. This is a testament to that self-discovery of the character within himself. But for some children, it will be much more difficult. They may not have the support Pepito does to be able to stand up and play with his doll or to be different from whatever is expected of him because he’s identified as a boy within his community.”
As for making the book bilingual, would Sánchez say that Pepito is needed even more in Spanish-speaking countries because of their engrained machismo attitudes, or is that just a faulty stereotype of the past?
“There’s been a lot of evolution in Latin America around the LGBTQ movement,” he explains. “Each country is different in terms of where they are at. My family is from Mexico, and I’ve grown up consistently visiting the country. In Mexico, there’s been a huge evolution in terms of the LGBTQ+ movement. There are places now that have marriage equality, for example like Mexico City. And in the other larger cities, there’s been a kind of comparable growth with places like the United States, Canada, and Europe.
“In the rural areas, it’s a different story for the most part. It’s still very heavily dominant Catholic in that very kind of traditional way. So I would say rural areas in Mexico can be pretty similar to rural areas here in the States where you still find very kind of closed communities that don’t necessarily embrace difference whether that’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Clearly, there’s definitely a lot of spaces in Latin America where it’s really challenging, and people who are different, especially gay people and transgender folks, do not have the avenues to be able to be themselves freely.”
Sánchez hopes his book can change that a little: “I feel like if I had been exposed to a story like Pepito’s when I was little, it would have helped me a quite a bit. As I said I also played with dolls, but it was only within the confines of my grandmother’s house and with her around because some of my family members did not agree with me playing with dolls. They would literally make them disappear. Then my grandmother would either find them and give them back to me or buy me new ones. But if there had been stories like this that I had been exposed to, I wouldn’t have felt as much fear of playing outside of that comfort zone. That’s important, and I think the support and the advocacy that I had had from my grandmother was essential in helping me, which is why the grandmother character in story is so great. She represents that kind of support system of unconditional love, that love without prejudice. That love that is essential in families, especially for children who express themselves in ways that aren’t necessarily the norm in their communities.”
[Jesús Canchola Sánchez, whose Mexican gay love story, Bittersweet Waters (2019), was a film festival favorite, is readying his next feature about a Hispanic man and his Black lover deciding whether or not to adopt a child. His 2014 documentary short on the LGBTQI+ community in Cuba, “Cuban Colors” (2014), is available online, and his short story, “The Pregnant Boy,” is anthologized in From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction.]