The Gay History of America’s Classic Children’s Books (NYT)
February 7, 2019 6:16 AM   Subscribe

But it remains the case that the authors of many of the most successful and influential works of children’s literature in the middle years of the last century — works that were formative for baby boomers, Gen-Xers, millennials and beyond — were gay.

At a time when those writers wouldn’t dare (as dePaola recently told me) walk hand in hand with a lover, when only a straight children’s author like Silverstein could get away with publishing a story in Playboy about life in the homophile Eden that is Fire Island Pines, they won Caldecott and Newbery Medals for books that, without ever directly speaking their truth, sent it out in a secret language that was somehow accessible to those who needed to receive it. And not just to them. These works comforted the proto-gay but also tenderized the proto-straight in a way no other literature could.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl (39 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
I posted this because I like it very much, as someone who loves books and children's books and isn't straight and used books to help me understand how to handle being different in a way I maybe couldn't explain, but I do want to go on record as disagreeing with this:

In “Where the Wild Things Are,” a mother who sends a roughhousing son to bed without supper becomes, in his dream, a monster to be subjugated.

I do not think Max's mother becomes a monster. Max is clearly the Wild Thing, and goes to a world full of Wild Things where he can revel in being a Wild Thing, which is initially satisfying, but after he bosses the Wild Things around he is lonely, and wants to be where someone loves him best of all. It's not about subjugating his mother as a monster, it's about recognizing that the monster part of himself, while fun, is not ultimately satisfying. It's about a need to be loved and appreciated. Even if you are full of anger and mischief, you need somewhere where you belong.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:21 AM on February 7 [112 favorites]


Yay! Thank you for posting this. I just bought my daughter an armload of Arnold Lobel books yesterday. Frog and Toad were always my favorite (even though Frog was a dick that time he laughed at Toad in his swimwear) and having read the backstory on Lobel somewhat recently, I'd been meaning to get those books for the kiddo.
posted by duffell at 6:22 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


I couldn't favorite your comment (or this post) harder, Mrs. Pterodactyl.

And I've read at least a dozen articles about Nordstrom's role in bringing about so many of the books I loved as a kid, but hadn't know she was a lesbian. And I physically need a copy of The Secret Language now.
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:33 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


It wasn't just the U.S. -- P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, springs to mind immediately.
posted by kyrademon at 6:37 AM on February 7


I remember The Secret Language! I loved that book as a kid.
posted by elizilla at 6:38 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Talking about this one on Twitter led me to the discovery that there was a 2017 biography of Margaret Wise Brown that I didn't know about, and have now immediately downloaded. I read the Leonard Marcus one several years ago, but I am always down for more information about Margaret Wise Brown, Noted Bisexual.

Also I may have gotten a little tearful on my bus commute this morning upon reading "a secret language of queer compassion" BEFORE I EVEN GOT TO THE BODY OF THE ARTICLE, so that's where I am today, I guess.
posted by Stacey at 6:39 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


And don't forget Tove Jansson.
posted by bibliogrrl at 6:43 AM on February 7 [15 favorites]


And don't forget Tove Jansson.

I was just coming here to post this!

The Gay Love Stories of Moomin and the Queer Radicality of Tove Jansson
Society dissolves queer realities: erases the two bodies sharing a bed, wrapped around each other, the two bodies fucking, the moments and hours and days, the holding hands and arguing and kissing and small talk. As seen throughout history, gayness is coded as dangerous for children. It is portrayed something purely sexual or purely chaste, rarely afforded the complexity and nuance afforded to heterosexual relationships. For Jansson to be a successful children’s writer she was portrayed as sexless, loveless. It’s particularly egregious when queerness informs the work of a writer to that extent that it did for Jansson. Not only do the themes of loneliness, family and love shape her work for adults and children, but she included characters based on her female lovers in many of her works.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:45 AM on February 7 [12 favorites]


I just love Frog and Toad so much. When they mentioned Toad's bathing costume, I could still remember it before seeing the sketch, even though I haven't seen it in probably 20 years. There's something so genuine about those books. "Now we will not eat any more cookies." "But we can open the box."

Am a Frog or a Toad? Probably a bit of both.

I think Bert and Ernie fit in well here, too, if we expand to children's media in general. Another one of my favorite-favorite pairings.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:24 AM on February 7 [9 favorites]


Come Out Squirtle!
posted by The Bellman at 7:30 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I do not think Max's mother becomes a monster. Max is clearly the Wild Thing, and goes to a world full of Wild Things where he can revel in being a Wild Thing, which is initially satisfying, but after he bosses the Wild Things around he is lonely, and wants to be where someone loves him best of all. It's not about subjugating his mother as a monster, it's about recognizing that the monster part of himself, while fun, is not ultimately satisfying. It's about a need to be loved and appreciated. Even if you are full of anger and mischief, you need somewhere where you belong.

What an utterly wonderful book. Even sitting here now, in my 40s at my desk job, just thinking the phrase "and it was still hot" makes me tear up.

And it wasn't until I had children of my own that I truly understood that you could love someone or something so much that the only reasonable expression of that love is "we'll eat you up!"

One of those children (so far) is gay, and I can't wait to share this article with him. Thank you.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 7:30 AM on February 7 [7 favorites]


Even sitting here now, in my 40s at my desk job, just thinking the phrase "and it was still hot" makes me tear up.

Our daughter (2.5) loves "Where the Wild Things Are." She shouts along with most of Max's lines: "Max said NO" and "BE STILL" and "I EAT YOU UP." At the end, if you ask her where's somewhere that someone loves her best of all, she'll say "Mommy." It's wonderful and devastating.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:37 AM on February 7 [23 favorites]


Those are basically all the same lines that our kiddo shouts (she likes to thrust her hands out at BE STILL). Our kiddos have good taste.
posted by duffell at 7:40 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


the Queer Radicality of Tove Jansson

Jansson was a radical in many ways - especially in her views of family dynamics, power relationships between individuals, child rearing, and collective life. Several parts of her beautiful and unsettling Moomin story "The Invisible Child"* are more or less permanently embedded in my head, and play on a loop whenever I start to be the kind of "icily ironical" parent that makes Ninny so frightened she felt she had to disappear.

They're strong tonic in a time so defined by miserly, ugly nihilism.

* Link is to a note-perfect reading by Bill Nighy.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:47 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


This makes me so happy. I am childless, but I have given "Where the Wild Things Are" to many friends and acquaintances with children. I'm now thinking about the super-straight, Christian, strict family - later reported their kids LOVED the book, and would yell along. hee hee
posted by dbmcd at 7:49 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


> "For Jansson to be a successful children’s writer she was portrayed as sexless, loveless."

There is a long and depressing history of all lesbian writers (not just children's writers) having their biographies basically say, "She never married and was therefore single all her life and must have been terribly lonely and poured all her passion into her writing, poor thing." Whether or not they had dozens of partners, or lived with a single partner for decades.
posted by kyrademon at 7:56 AM on February 7 [18 favorites]


Which is not to say Frog and Toad could turn you gay.

Counterpoint: Reading the Frog and Toad books as a kid definitely made me gay, and I am very grateful for it.

In more seriousness, the next line of the article is so beautiful and resonant:
But in their gentleness, their sensitivity to small gestures and their haze of slowly dispersing sadness, the stories were part of the literature of otherness that had been a central theme of adult fiction forever, if only more recently of children’s.

This is such a lovely article, thanks for posting.
posted by ITheCosmos at 8:11 AM on February 7 [8 favorites]


Margaret Wise Brown, previously
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:29 AM on February 7


So what of Mike Mulligan and his Steamy Shovel?
posted by Ideefixe at 8:29 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


ah hah, this is where I can tell you all my theory, that Home for a Bunny is actually a prequel for A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. The colors to the bunnies even match up! (I had forgotten that Brown wrote Home for a Bunny, so it's doubly suitable!)

I also often read "Runaway Bunny" as a little girl bunny, who may chose to turn into a little Boy if they want to, and try to frame the story so the mother is supporting the bunny on adventures, not participating in a codependent relationship.
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 9:20 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


... and in reflecting on my comment, I'm not trying to present being trans as choice or a flippant change, but trying to give little purr an example of gender fluidity in a loving and supportive environment. They're still in the gender-essentialism phase, so I'm hoping every little example helps (colors have no gender! boys can take care of babies! two girl cats can get married and officiate the marriage of two boy bunnies!)
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 9:34 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I had a wow moment reading this article, I recognized a few of the picture books (Strega Nona was a favourite of mine), but I just about gasped when the author got to the part about Nordstrom writing The Secret Language - I had this book, inherited (I suppose) from my mother, and it is terrific. But I also (naively, of course) thought I was the only person born after 1975 who had read it, that it was just this obscure but good little book I happened to have.

I'm glad it had more attention, and is available in a current edition, though I'm sorry Nordstrom didn't write more.
posted by jb at 10:08 AM on February 7


I still can't believe we managed to get a movie version of Where the Wild Things Are that was actually *good*. What an incredible thing to happen.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:03 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I didn't remember having read The Secret Language, but as soon as I saw "ick-en-spick" and "lebossa", I knew I had!
posted by Daily Alice at 11:10 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Same here, Daily Alice. Funny the things that stick with you after so many decades.

This was a great article--thank you for posting it. It mentioned so many of my childhood favourites. I don't think I understood the queer subtext of some of them, but I think I did pick up on it as I got older, and it was a very positive thing.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:26 PM on February 7


“Frog and Toad” — a series of four picture books by Arnold Lobel, originally published between 1970 and 1979 — is not gay-themed. But it’s not not gay-themed either.

And there is your perfect world. It's both not gay and not-not gay. And nobody cares anyway.

As for this, word:

The message: Leave me alone with my imagination and I’ll be fine.
posted by chavenet at 1:21 PM on February 7


I love Frog and Toad so much. We read a passage from Days with Frog and Toad at our wedding. I didn't know about James Marshall, though. (Honestly the first time I heard of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I was like, is that ripped off of the picture book hippos?)
posted by Tesseractive at 1:26 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Even sitting here now, in my 40s at my desk job, just thinking the phrase "and it was still hot" makes me tear up.

Oh, Ben Trismegistus (and Mrs. Pterodactyl, and Bulgaroktonos), me too!
posted by huimangm at 1:27 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Oh heck. There's dust in my eye.

I knew the sensation of being utterly unable to fit myself into the world long before I knew what I was. And the author nails how these books provide a voice for what it's like to exist when you know you're not supposed to. What it's like when your secret World is forbidden. How you protect it and what that costs, and how it expresses itself in small, usually unnoticed ways. And what incredible meaning there is when you find someone to share it with.

Thanks for helping strip away the dullness of another closeted day.
posted by allium cepa at 1:37 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Frog and Toad Previously: 2016 New Yorker article “Frog and Toad”: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love

Also glad that the current article mentioned dancer/choreographer/kids book writer Remy Charlip (1929-2012), though it didn't examine him in as much depth as some of the other writers. His books such as Arm in Arm have a delightfully creative sense of whimsy. This 1999 Advocate profile called him "The Gay Dr. Seuss".
posted by larrybob at 1:51 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I loved this article and want to deeply rec the letters of Ursula Nordstrom for anyone interested in writing or children's literature. She's wonderful.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:39 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


If you haven't seen it, the musical "A Year With Frog And Toad" is delightful. If I suddenly became ridiculously wealthy, I would hire Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen to perform it.
posted by fings at 3:39 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Command-F for Louise Fitzhugh successful. All is (temporarily) right in the world.
posted by jokeefe at 3:39 PM on February 7


This is a lovely essay. These were the beloved books of my childhood.

It is also a heartbreaking essay at moments, including moments such as "In deference to his mother, Marshall’s 1992 obituary omitted his longtime partner — and listed a brain tumor as the cause of death instead of complications from AIDS."
posted by Dip Flash at 6:29 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


It's both not gay and not-not gay.

Ha ha it’s me.

In a funny way, I think these books helped me with my own sexuality, even though I don’t think it was exactly, as the article puts it, about feeling alienated by desires I couldn’t express. But there was a kind of gentleness and kindness to them that modeled how I wanted to be, in a way that was incompatible with expectations (it’s no surprise that from early adolescence on, everyone always assumed I was gay, to the point that they’d insist I was in denial if I said otherwise). I identified strongly with these male figures and their sweet friendships because they were allowed to appreciate each other without restrictions. Which, I think, is a good model for a sexuality like the one I grew into, which I refuse to label (I spent too many years being labeled without my consultation).

Which is to say, I appreciate this article.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:14 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Er, on reflection, I guess that means I was sort of alienated by a longing I couldn’t express.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:15 PM on February 7


This is great, but it left out Ann M. Martin! I know The Baby-sitters Club books aren't really accorded the same literary admiration as many of the titles mentioned here (and apparently many in the series were basically ghostwritten to her outlines), but my friends and I sure inhaled those books in elementary school, and along with a whole lot of queer old-millennial women on twitter were delighted when she quietly came out in this interview.
posted by karayel at 10:22 PM on February 7 [10 favorites]


...whole lot of queer old-millennial women on twitter were delighted when she quietly came out in this interview.

SHE DID?! Well now, this queer old-millennial woman on Metafilter could not be more thrilled to hear this. I don't know how I missed that Autostraddle article. If I had seen it at the time, I would have clicked any article by Heather Hogan about the BSC so fast it would have broken my trackpad.

I devoured those books at an alarming rate and had a crush on every one of the original crew at some point. Sigh, Kristy, the top of my dreams. Claudia and Stacy, my first queer relationship idols. Mary Anne, the introvert who understood me better than anyone, and her stepsister Dawn, the cool Californian who you know would wake you up the morning after with a green smoothie made with homemade nut milk.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:28 AM on February 8 [6 favorites]


Re: Ann M. Martin, I checked The Secret Language out of the library after reading Mallory and Jessi’s fond review of it in one of the BSC Super Specials. I really doubt that was a coincidence.
posted by Daughter of Time at 7:01 PM on February 9


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