LGBT representation in children's and YA Books
Published on: 07 April 2015 Author: Sita Brahmachari
The brilliant award winning author and campaigner Sita Brahmachari, who's work includes the Car Wash Wish and Kite Spirit, became our twelfth Writer in Residence back in 2015. In this blog Sita wrote about LGBT representation in children's books, and gave the blog over to a young man for whom such representation is very important.
In the past I have spoken about the feeling of not finding yourself or someone anything like yourself or your family in a book, and what impact that can have on a young reader's sense of belonging in stories.
That is not to say that we want books to offer us some kind of autobiographical journey but simply that we want to see that books reflect the world we live in.
When I write and when I read I want to meet some people whose stories I am familiar with and some people that I am unfamiliar with. I want to step inside their shoes and find out about them... but if no one in the books that I read were to walk in shoes like mine I might begin to feel that my shoes don't fit... the paths that I want to walk may not be shared by others... I might begin to feel that books are not a place for me to inhabit.
Last Saturday I attended my friend's wedding. It took place in a chapel. It was a beautiful ceremony and there was a lot of emotion in the room as there always is at weddings. But for many of the loving gay couples there it was the first legally binding church wedding that we had all been granted the right to attend. Here were two women who love each other and wanted to have that love witnessed in the eyes of the church and in the company of their friends and family. That right was only granted in 2014.
Every person I talk to on this Book Trust blog journey is intended to open up a conversation about diversity in children's books. Through looking at the diversity charters set out by Inclusive Minds and reading the following blog posts from James Dawson and Liz Kessler I have been thinking more closely about the representation of gender and romance in my own stories.
I was delighted recently when a girl on a school visit hung back until the last minute to chat. She said, 'I love Pat Print' (the writing tutor in Artichoke Hearts) she's gay isn't she? She reminds me of one of my mums.'
When I confirmed that she is - the girl high fived me! 'I knew it! I look for those characters' she said 'Cos there aren't that many of them. Why don't you write a story about a girl with two Mums like me?' This is how the seeds of stories grow...
So far I have written 'Rites of Passage' stories. Discovering how we love and who we love has got to be one of the biggest rites of passage moments for all of us.
My process as a writer is that once a story-seed is planted I go on my own ad-hoc research journey seeking out people I think might be able to illuminate a story or characters. I could think of no better way to begin than speaking to a young man who has so recently been through the huge rites of passage moment of coming out to his friends and family.
Joseph is a prolific reader and will go on to study English and American Literature at university later on this year so I was especially interested to know about his life in books so far... to what extent has he been able to find elements of himself reflected in the many stories he has read from childhood, and if this has been important to him.
My life in books by Joseph Levenson aged 18
'Mostly when I approach books and films I have to engage with a generic heterosexual love story. When I'm looking to read a book I sift through the blurb to check that it has a level of diversity, not just sexuality but I'm usually looking for a story I haven't seen before.
'Recently I read I know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and that was a perspective of a first person narrative by a black woman from a time I hadn't read much about before. I'm looking for a different experience in books.
I loved The Curious Incident of a Dog In The Night Time because it presented a character that was different, but his autism wasn't what was talked about. It was just his story. I love Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses because it makes a nonsense of racism. This search for books exploring difference has happened to me over the last few years since I knew I was gay and was preparing to come out.
'Before that I really just accepted the books that were given to me or were on offer. In literature you're given classic stories and told that they're great literature and they are but that's weird too because you know that someone like me, who's attracted to men didn't have an outlet to express that kind of love in stories in those times.
'In fact they would be drugged or locked up like criminals like Alan Turin in The Imitation Game. So when I read the classics I also think of how many 'lost works' there might be of people who felt like me in that time but were not able to write about it, or read about it. In a way it makes me not feel part of this cannon of literature that I'm studying so it seems all the more important to be able to find books today where I am present.
'You can say the same about women in history, black people and disabled people too - It's like they hardly exist in literature of the past. And reading all those classics also makes me think how weird it is that gay marriage wasn't legal until last year. And in other societies and cultures today being gay is still illegal.
'So even picturing myself forward into a future story of my own life I still live in a generation that feels like for me to have a normal life, get married and have kids is only recently my right. I think it would be great to see more of the kind of families that I might be part of one day represented in stories for children.
'Obviously we're living in different times now but I very rarely read anything that's a fully fleshed out gay character that isn't about being gay. That's what I want. I want a 3D central character. I don't want 40 per cent of the story to be about that character being gay. I want it to be a story about something else. I want it to be just normal to find a romance story that's between boys or girls ... and the story is about the story not only about who they're attracted to, though a bit of that can be good!
'These sorts of things would have really helped me growing up. As a child in primary school I knew I was different because I didn't fit with what I had already learned were 'masculine' qualities. I have an identical twin brother who is heterosexual and fits much more into this picture so I was always hyper aware of how we were twins but not twins.
'At Primary school the characters I found who were most like me in books were girls. They weren't me but they were more into the kinds of things that I was into. It seems funny and stereotypical now but I was really into those series of fairy books that the girls were into too. They looked nice, they had magical powers... but these books didn't really challenge anything for any one.
'The books that my brother was reading were more about 'normal boys' who liked sport and girls. I guess they didn't challenge much either! I liked to dance. I remember loving Anthony Brown's illustrations and stories because his books had boy characters but they weren't run of the mill boys.
'In creative writing I would always find myself representing girls. I would often put an angle on them to make the girls be action heroes because I think I was aware that girls were being confined in this pretty, fairy world too. I especially remember one teacher suggesting that I write some boy characters in my stories as well, but I hadn't seen many boys like me in books and didn't know what to write and what the teacher would think of me if I did.... so I sort of stopped writing for a while.
'My little sister is in the year I was in then at school and I sometimes think how different it will be for her because of what she understands about my journey. Because when I came out in the first year of 6th form we talked about it all quite openly as a family and we keep talking when we watch films together or read stories.
'I tell her what it's like for me to always have to watch these heterosexual romances in films and she understands. I was thinking it would be really good if there was a story about a girl whose just on the verge of going to secondary school and one of her twin brothers comes out! That would be a good story to write. Maybe I will!
'The other thing I want to say about coming out is that I have this friend and her family are religious and she's told me that some of her family hold homophobic views but she is one of the most accepting people to talk to about boys that I like with. She chose not to listen to what her family might think is a 'sin'. That also made me think how important stories are to help young people 'meet' characters so that they can make their own minds up.
'It also made me think that I would like to read a story about a diverse group of six formers who have to be constantly going between home, college and friends and saying 'this is my culture' and somewhere in all this you just have to find a way of making sense of what is told to you, and what you discover is true. I think there are a lot more stories to write about this. Now that I've found a voice to tell my stories I've started writing again so perhaps these are stories I should one day write myself.
'This poem is about my current self, reaching out to a younger me struggling to find his identity, feeling torn between two worlds, and how I hope that somehow and somewhere, my message got through.'
'Hands Crack the Sky'
'Slowly, we sink.
And the polarity pulls us apart
We stretch and break
Bend and mould.
What once was our sky
It has purpled, ripened with
Flaming orange licks of farewell
The planets align, diligently we cross them
So the vibrations of our interstellar
Beading eyes combust in
Soon we will emerge again.
And so gracefully we will intertwine
In to the eloquent body of youth.
We will stiffen our spines again
Until one day
You look up, and see
The blazing figure connected by pearls
Of night, is me.
You will know.
You will feel.'
By Joseph Levenson
Meet our latest Writer in Residence
Every six months, BookTrust appoints a new Writer in Residence (or Writer-Illustrator in Residence) to write blogs, run competitions and give us their own unique perspective on the world of children's books.