Monday, April 6, 2015

Diversity with Dragons, Football and Drama

I was brushing my youngest daughter's hair when I found myself talking about trans people. It happened because a mini-fight broke out between eldest and youngest about how to dress their stuffed bunny for Easter (Let me set the scene: This is right before church and the girls are trying to figure out if they can get our Rector to baptize the stuffed bunny. Spoiler alert: They can't.)

Eldest wanted Chubby to wear a bow tie and youngest wanted Chubby to wear a skirt. I said, "Why not both?"
"Because he's a girl," said Eldest
"No he's both," said Youngest
"That's not possible," said Eldest

And this launched me into a somewhat awkward explanation about how some people are born looking one way on the outside, but feeling another way on the inside. It was awkward, because I'd never thought about how to talk to my kids about gender diversity. There are so many kinds of diversity that young kids aren't exposed to (especially in quasi-rural Pennsylvania.) And if the diversity involves sex and gender issues there's a hesitancy to discuss because the topic is deemed inappropriate for the age.

But why? Why is it inappropriate to discuss gay people, trans people or any other people with non-heteronormative orientations, with children?

I can't think of a good reason. My kids see hetero relationships in cartoons all the time. And youngest liked 'marrying' our neighbor Trevor so much, she did it three times.

Driving in the car with eldest and her friends (10 and 11 year olds) we were discussing Raina Telgemeier's fantastic graphic novel DRAMA.

One of eldest's friends said her mother wouldn't let her read this book because it wasn't appropriate for children. I made that unattractive between-brow furrow with my face as I tried to remember what could be inappropriate in that book. After all, it's for their age, no curse words or drug taking or violence (lots of snarkiness and over reaction but duh, middle grade.)

It turned out to be because one of the characters was gay. I might have gone on a tirade about how if there's nothing inappropriate in the Cinderella love story, then there's nothing wrong with a gay person falling in love in a middle grade book.

So without any more tangential stories about my kids or driving through my neighborhood (the daffs are up! and the crocuses!) here are two books that I read recently which I think are good with gender diversity.

Boy In A Dress
David Walliams

Title says it all. This is a wonderful middle grade book illustrated by the excellent Quentin Blake about Dennis, who likes fashion and football. And thinks that dressing up as a girl is fun. He wishes boy's clothes were prettier. His Dad and his brother are typical British lads who do not understand and push hard to contain what they think is alarming and deviant behavior. Despite the heavy subtext, the book is light, funny and open ended enough to make kids think, without shoving a message down their throats.

Shadow Scale
By Rachel Hartman

I can't believe I didn't know how amazing these books were before. I've been burning through them for two weeks now and I'll likely have a seizure of withdrawal when I finish Shadow Scale. In a fictional world where Dragons not only exist, but can turn into human-like shapes to speak and intermingle with humans, there is an uneasy peace between human and dragon kind. Seraphina is a product of a dragon-human union - human seeming with a ring of silver scales around her torso and down her arms. She is ashamed at being a half-breed and for good reason. Everyone around her distrusts the dragons. But a half-breed is fit to be reviled.

The world building in these books is breathtaking, and the plot is intricate without being cumbersome. The message of diversity is not something that comes out at you like a jackhammer, but one that builds in layers as Seraphina learns about herself and about others like her. Seraphina has visions of other 'half-breeds' like herself and each of them is more different than the rest. Some are nearly unrecognizable as human. Each one challenges Seraphina's idea of what is 'normal'. The introduction of the transgender character Camber is wonderful because we see him in her vision when he is a man, then meet her in person when she identifies as a woman.

All this is seamlessly woven throughout a novel that is high stakes adventure and deeply human—even when the humanity is in the dragons.


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