Friday, May 4, 2007

From There to Here: Gay and Lesbian Kids' Books in Transition

This is the session I've been waiting for. A chance to see Nancy Garden in person and a workshop on the experience of teens who don't necessarily fit the mold that still seems to be the only one promoted widely. Even (or especially) in Massachusetts, the controversy about gay marriage and gay issues in schools continues to divide people and communities. And bullying kids who are different than "the norm" is still prevalent in our schools, even in the most liberal or gay-friendly of towns. I see and hear it daily in the middle/high school where I work. So, even though we have come a long way, it will be interesting to see where we go from here. Nancy Garden has been leading the journey, and now we get to hear what she has to say about it.

It's the 25th anniversary of Annie on My Mind, a classic lesbian YA book that remains one of the best (in my opinion of course).

In the 50's, when she was growing up, gays and lesbians lived underground, closeted lives. No GSA's for kids. People didn't even think kids could be gay.

She and her partner of 38 years were able to be married here in Massachusetts.
What a difference 50 years makes! But it doesn't mean that everything is perfect. It's still hard to be a queer or questioning teen in most places in the US today. Just imagine being confused about your sexual orientation if you live Lexington, MA during the recent challenge about Who's in a Family, which even got the notorious and hateful Fred Phelps involved.

But books can help these kids and they are important in figuring out who they are. If there was even a mention of homosexuality in a book 50 years ago, it was not typically a positive view, to say the least.

In the 80's things really started to change -with the advent of GSA's in schools, but also of course, AIDS showed up but was absent in books with gay characters. Only in the 90's did main characters really appear regularly in literature. Marketers probably thought straight kids couldn't/wouldn't identify with those characters. And the fear of challenges probably had some hand in that omission as well.

Bullying is endemic in our schools. It affects GLBTQ kids tremendously, but it is not exclusive to them. It's been considered a rite of passage for a long time. To ignore it or "don't let them get to you." We blame the victims and tell them to do things that will make them fit in better. Teachers don't see or hear it all. And now it has branched out to the online world - as cyberbullying.

Garden's new book Endgame deals with bullying and school violence. She was bullied herself as kid. It is an often neglected problem, although James Howe's book The Misfits addresses it and led to the creation of the national "No Name Calling Day."

Just had to mention one of the other many books she mentioned - with a gay character, but the story is really about a future election of the first gay, Jewish president of the US; David Levithan's Wide Awake. But there are still struggles and as many steps forward there have been in the past years, there has also been a serious backlash against GLBTQ people as well. There are still kids who are scared, confused, bullied and completely on their own in dealing with the issues surrounding figuring out how to be who they are in that world of backlash.

LGBTQ kids are 5 times more likely to skip school because of harassment and bullying. But those at schools with GSA's and anti-bullying programs were not as likely to skip school and felt safer. There are so many more statistics that I won't list here.

Aside from the small turnout for this session (hopefully due to it's late time slot, not its content), I was so pleased to be here for this session. I think it should have been scheduled at a different time so that it would have garnered a larger audience. I fear that today's audience was there because they already know and believe that we need to provide GLBTQ kids/teens (and adults, too) with a range of materials that reflect their lives and a safe place to explore what it means to be gay, free from bias, prejudice and harassment.

Our books are stories first. Avoid thinking and using them only as bibliotherapy. Use the same criteria you employ to decide what is quality literature, or what belongs in your collection. Two books to assist with that, which Nancy suggests are
  • The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004 by Michael Cart and Christine A. Jenkins
  • Lesbian and Gay Voices: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide to Literature for Children and Young Adults by Frances Ann Day (Foreword by Nancy Garden)


Beth Gallaway said...

I heard Nancy speak at the MSLA conference 2 years ago, and she was fabulous. I had a conflicting session and was sorry to miss her!

Susan Caulfield said...

Thanks so much for blogging this session! I really enjoyed meeting Nancy Garden this morning and was sorry to miss her talk.

Jen Inglis said...

I had the great opportunity to have dinner with Nancy and her partner before trivia, and I left the conference feeling like we're old friends!

I'm reminded again and again how lucky people are to find their mates, and then I'm reminded again and again how horrific people can be about other's lives. It's something I wish I could fix; I hope that more access to literature will help kids find their ways, but there has to be something more, a broader, general shift in perspective. We've come a long way since 1950, but we still have so long to go.