So far in our week of queer-friendly picture books we’ve talked about inclusive family lists, books explaining same-sex parents, and books about trans or genderqueer toddlers. As discussed yesterday, there are hardly any queer kids depicted in picture books. Gender seems to be easier for authors to address because we have so many gendered objects and behaviors, so they can talk about it without bringing up anything overtly sexual. However! Another way authors try to get around this is by using anthropomorphic animals, a mainstay of any picture book genre.
There aren’t a lot of these, but a few, and most of them are really good — maybe because the protagonists are the ones who get to do stuff and feel feelings. The most famous is And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, which I’ve talked about before in relation to Banned Books Week. It’s based on the true story of two male penguins raising a baby penguin, and a perfect example of how even a story about romance and having a baby doesn’t have to mention sex at all. Straight picture books about mommies and daddies and baby siblings don’t talk about sex, these don’t have to either.
Two more are huge favorites of mine, The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein and Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian. I’ve talked about The Sissy Duckling before in a guest post , but basically it’s a story about bullying. It was a lot more intense than I expected, but still appropriate for young audiences if that’s already an issue for them. Worm Loves Worm is about two worms who want to get married, and the other bugs tell them one has to be a bride, and they both volunteer. Neither of the worms is ever gendered, so it’s one of the most queer-friendly books I’ll talk about this whole week, and I LOVE it.
Finally, there are some books like Zinnia & Dot by Lisa Campbell Ernst that are older, but have some potentially-queer themes. That one is about two mother hens sharing an egg, and a quick Google doesn’t clear up whether it was meant to be a lesbian analogy or if the author just saw it as an “innocent” story about chickens, but either way it can still be a queer-friendly book.
There can be a representation problem when othered groups are consistently hidden behind animal analogies (or alien makeup in movies…). About 75% of children’s books (including easy readers etc.) have white protagonists, and about half the picture books published are about animals or trucks or whatever, as shown in the graphic below. But on this particular topic, drawing characters as animals doesn’t have to disguise their difference. I’d be more than happy to see more of these animal books if it means queer themes can be more open and kids can make a connection.
Tomorrow, a few of the unique books that didn’t quite fit in any of these categories!