Empathy Through Books

In my last post, I wrote about my invitation to participate in Shenandoah University’s 33rd Children’s Literature Conference. I presented yesterday to a small group of about ten people. But there were about twelve sessions all running concurrently, so I was thrilled to have ten!

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I covered a bit of the history of LGBT literature, from the pulp novels of the 50s and 60s – with their legally mandated tragic endings – to the current wealth of YA/NA books. But there is a gap in books available for middle readers – kids old enough to be aware of their otherness, but not old enough for dating or romance stories.

The theme of the conference (as you can see from the mugs above) was We Are What We Read. In my opening slides, I added that we also long to read what we are. I certainly knew I was gay before I was ten, and I wanted so much to see myself in the pages of the books I read. Kids in that middle age range need to see older LGBT characters modeling what they will grow into, to know those relationships are just as healthy and normal as heterosexual ones. Of course, not all relationships are healthy. Kids also need to read books in which young characters deal with unpleasant, real-life scenarios.

Divisions and divides mostly occur when people have never had any exposure to those who differ from them. Books provide kids (and adults) a safe way to bridge those divides and see the ways in which we’re more alike than different.

I hope I opened a few eyes to what is lacking and what is out there, including some of our smaller lesbian and gay presses that offer so much more than just the offerings from mainstream publishers.

The coolest thing of all was that right after the short sessions, we got to listen keynote speaker, Lois Lowry, who has twice won the Newbery Medal. Her talk was fantastic, but it echoed much of what I said about finding empathy through books. I’m glad I went first!

Oh, and the next best thing is that I’ve been invited to return next year!

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8 thoughts on “Empathy Through Books

  1. I’m glad your presentation went well, Caren. I agree that it’s so important for kids to have books that reflect themselves, and also those that give them insight into the experiences of others.

    It was actually in one of Lois Lowry’s books that I probably first read something close to the experience of a young lesbian when I was about 10 or 11. In “Anastasia Has The Answers”, Anastasia has a crush on her female gym teacher. Although she doesn’t end up being lesbian in the book (or later books in that series), the way the crush was treated by her mother, and in the book overall, was quite positive.

    It’s too bad that there’s still so much of a gap in LGBT representation in the middle-grade area, but it’s wonderful that “Miserere” and “The Dragonmage Saga” are there to help fill it.

    • It’s interesting, Lisa, that you mentioned “Anastasia” because that was one of the books Lois included in her talk. She shared a redacted email from a young reader who was very upset at the crush. The girl obviously had conflicted feelings about it. And in my preparation for this conference, the lack of LGBT characters in middle-reader books was glaring. I so wish I could reach a wider parent/teacher/librarian readership for Miserere and The Dragonmage Saga, because I do feel kids would respond well to them.

  2. You are a beacon in shadowy land. Maybe you could write something for those readers who need to read about themselves.

  3. Thank you so much, Annette. I have heard from so many readers who’ve told me that they felt a particular book was written for them, as they saw themselves on the page. That’s important for all of us. I’ve got more ideas than ever squirreling around in my head. Some of them will find their way into books.

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