Proud Kids, Proud Books: Little Island Picks Kids’ Comics for LGBT Pride
Toronto's Little Island Comics is a very special place. As the world's first comic shop aimed exclusively at kids 12 and under it plays host to some of the most infectiously enthusiastic comic fans you'll meet in any store -- not just the children who love to visit, but the parents, teachers and librarians who are thrilled to take their kids there. Little Island is a very inclusive place, and last week they put up their first ever LGBT Pride display, titled "Proud Books, Proud Kids."
It's no surprise that Little Island is so queer-positive; the manager, Andrew Woodrow Butcher, is the husband of Christopher Butcher, manager of world-class comic store The Beguiling. The two stores are located just minutes away from each other on opposite sides of the same small city block in Toronto's Annex neighborhood. The Beguiling is an industry institution, while Little Island has been around for less than a year, and this is the store's first LGBT Pride Month. I sat down with Woodrow Butcher to discuss his pick of children's books for the Pride display.
Though this is Little Island's first Pride, it's not the first time Woodrow Butcher has put together a kids' Pride display. He has more than ten years experience at Canada's biggest bookstore chain, Chapters/Indigo, working primarily as a children's books manager, and he used to put together similar displays there. At Chapters/Indigo he was able to include prose books on the display, but Little Island is a comic shop; it sells monthly comics, manga, superhero books, bandes dessinées, indies, picture books and more, but it doesn't sell prose. That meant getting creative.
"Often kids' material is stuff you are appropriating," Woodrow Butcher told ComicsAlliance. "It's usually not very clear that every book is a gay book." The aim is to find books that celebrate being different; books about finding one's own identity and forging one's own relationships. "It's an expression of solidarity," said Woodrow Butcher.
The first book on the display that caught my eye -- and that caught the eye of a customer who grabbed it and bought it while Woodrow Butcher and I were talking -- was Piggy Bunny, by Rachel Vail and Jeremy Tankard, published by Feiwel & Friends. Piggy Bunny is a picture book about Liam, a piglet who identifies as a bunny. The official publisher's description says, "For children who put on a cape or a tutu, who dream of being someone or something different, Piggy Bunny offers a reassuring and fun opportunity to believe in themselves."
"We read it as a trans story," said Woodrow Butcher. "I hope I'm not investing it with too much weight or with a weight that people might find inappropriate, but it's about identity, and about a bunch if people brushing off your feeling of self, and other people being your allies in the end, and it's about you getting to embrace yourself and knowing yourself."
Another book that might appeal to kids with questions about gender is No Girls Allowed, from Kids Can Press. Written by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Willow Dawson, it features a series of biographies of historical and legendary women who passed themselves off as men in order to overcome obstacles and pursue their ambitions. The women featured include 19th century medical surgeon James Barry, Civil War soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut, and Chinese warrior Hua Mulan. "It's about gender oppression and triumph," said Woodrow Butcher, "but also a bit about fluidity, because some of those people ended up to a greater or lesser extent living as men."
Two legends of children's book illustration are represented in the display: Maurice Sendak and Leo Lionni. Woodrow Butcher chose Sendak's book Bears, written by Ruth Krauss and published by HarperCollins. "Maurice Sendak is a great gay illustrator of the 20th century who just passed away. Celebrating him is important," said Woodrow Butcher. "Also: bears."
The title has an obvious double meaning to anyone familiar with gay culture, but that's not what earned Bears a place on the display. "Bears is almost a sequel to Where The Wild Things Are," said Woodrow Butcher, referring to Sendak's famous book about a boy named Max who travels to an island of wild monsters. "[Bears] features Max again, and it is the only other time that Max has been featured in a book illustrated by [Sendak]. I definitely think that Where The Wild Things Are can take a queer reading." As for the title? "I don't think Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak were writing a book for the bear community, but there's a lovely overlap. That's just felicity."
Leo Lionni was one of the major children's book illustrators of the '60s and '70s. His works include Swimmy, Little Blue & Little Yellow, and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. Woodrow Butcher noted that Lionni's books have often been the subject of socially conscientious readings. "I don't know anything about Leo Lionni's politics at all, but Little Blue & Little Yellow is a book that people read as a parable about racism, but actually it's a transcription of a story he made up on the subway for his kids."
A Color of His Own, published by Knopf, is not intended as a queer parable, but it fits the themes of Pride. "This is about a chameleon, and about finding the mate that is right for you," Woodrow Butcher explained. "We use color as a metaphor for queer diversity a lot, and so on a very surface reading it gets in, and I don't think that's bad. It's clearly not intended as a parable for gay rights."
Two real life queer icons make an appearance on the Little Island display. Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter, by Susan Goldman Rubin, published by Harry N Abrams, is a non-fiction kids' picture book that serves as an introduction to the artist's work, while The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde features gay artist P. Craig Russell's adaptation of Wilde's The Happy Prince. Neither book is explicitly queer, but each is suffused with queerness, celebrating as they do the artistic and cultural contributions of gay visionaries. "Obviosuly Oscar Wilde is writing in code all the time," said Woodrow Butcher, "So this is pre-Stonewall gay, this is as gay as Pre-Stonewall gay gets." With Russell providing his own exquisite take on Wilde's fairy tales, Woodrow Butcher dubbed the adaptation, "the gayest book that ever existed."
Some of the books in the display do feature same-sex relationships and definitively gay characters. Rainy Day Recess, from Northwest Press, collects the Steven's Comics strips by David Kelly that ran in LGBT and alternative newspapers in the late '90s, and it tells the story of a gay 11-year-old growing up in the late '70s and early '80s while his parents go through a divorce.
"That's a book that was written for grown-ups," sayid Woodrow Butcher. "We have been positioning it for libraries as a book that can have an application in a middle school collection, because it's about a gay 11-year-old. Not 100 percent of that is going to resonate with a kid right now -- there's a lot of nostalgia about record players and such -- but I think the outsider feelings that [the character] has might resonate."
One superhero book makes the Pride display, and that's the first volume of Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, published by Marvel. "First of all, the subtitle to the first volume is 'Pride and Joy,'" said Woodrow Butcher. "Second of all, it's a gripping teen series, and it features a lesbian character in its ensemble cast. It's actually a great example of a book that has a diverse ensemble cast in general. There is gender, complexion and sexual orientation as well as being from other planets and having dinosaurs and special powers. That's not what the story is about -- the story is not about people being gay -- but there are moments in that story where [the gay character] comes out, and that's great."
The final book on the display is a collection of the first appearances of Archie Comics' new gay superstar Kevin Keller, written and drawn by Dan Parent. "He's one of the gay comics celebrities of the year," said Woodrow Butcher. "It's both progressive and, in other ways, status quo-ey, but benign positive representations can be important."
The Kevin Keller book is unique in the display in that it's a North American kids' comic with a gay lead character. Woodrow Butcher admitted he was slow to warm to the series and its wholesome Riverdale version of teenage life, but he said, "I'm not every reader. I'm a 34-year-old downtown Toronto queer who likes tweeting about politics. I am not a ten-year-old from some small town who happens upon that book." Recent issues of the ongoing Kevin Keller series have show increasing engagement with LGBT issues, with Kevin Keller standing up to bullies, pursuing romance, and even helping one kid to come out.
The character of Kevin Keller has met resistance in some quarters, even leading to an attempted boycott of Toys 'R Us. Some people don't think that LGBT content is appropriate for children, because they struggle to distinguish between identity and action. Does Woodrow Butcher worry about his Pride display getting a negative reaction? In a word, no.
"I have put up children's pride displays for most of the last 12, 14 years, and I have never ever received any feedback about whether or not that's appropriate," he said. "I feel like it's pretty clear if you put that display up there, someone who comes up and complains about it is not going to have much sway with you. What are they going to say? If you're a homophobe looking to pick a fight, you're doing it in a downtown Toronto bookstore, honestly? I've done this in the suburbs of Toronto too, there are plenty of people who want to complain about funny things, but that's not something that I've had complaints about."
Hopefully the Little Island Pride display is the start of a tradition for the fledgling store, and there will be more books to choose from every year. Woodrow Butcher already has his eyes on a title for next year.
"I just read Raina's forthcoming book and it is super queer positive," said Woodrow Butcher, referring to Raina Telgemeier's Drama, about a middle school drama production. Woodrow Butcher picked up an advance copy at Book Expo America in New York earlier this month, but it's not scheduled to come out until September.
"Having just read it yesterday I am all excited to sell it, but there are no copies. It doesn't exist yet."