This paper will analyze how three graphic novels published during the Kids Comics Boom introduced concepts of gender and sexuality to children. In order to effectively convey the nuances of queer identity, this paper proposes the implementation of queer vocabulary into children’s comics.
Keywords: Queer, LGBTQIA, comics, children, graphic novel, gay, bisexual, transgender, drag, children’s books, gender, vocabulary
In the wake of the Kids Comics Boom, graphic novels for young readers are outselling adult and direct market-driven comic books with increasing growth. However, despite this growing success of children’s comics, the representation of queerness in children’s books has struggled under a legacy of threats to bans and censorship. With this growth, western children and young adult comics are in the process of redefining perceptions concerning who comics are made by and who they are made for. Modern graphic novels have achieved best seller popularity by providing stories directed at children and young adults, a readership that most of the mainstream direct market have alienated. Many artists creating this new line of graphic novels are women (BookScan 2014), something uncommon for an industry historically dominated by men. In their quest to broaden readership for comics, the Kids Comics Boom has opened gateways for marginalized creators to tell diverse stories. However, due to threats of bans and censorship, the process of introducing concepts of queer vocabulary to young readers remains underdeveloped.
The censorship and banning of queer content have been driven by the assumption that any reference to queerness exists to be inherently sexual in nature. Pressure to protect ‘innocence’ in children has led to slow strides in queer representation in children’s media. In its desire to avoid blatant depictions of queerness, children’s comics have actively prevented introducing young readers to a means of navigating identity. The implementation of queer vocabulary will provide young readers with the tools to better navigate identity within themselves and others. To provide context for the current state of queer representation in children’s comics, an analysis will be conducted on the variety of ways in which three middle grade graphic novels published in the Kids Comics Boom have dealt with introducing concepts of gender and sexuality to young readers. Drama by Raina Telgemeier reflects the nature of teen romance in all its forms by including queer characters in its cast. Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker suggests the exploration of gender through fashion and performance similar to that of drag. The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag employs fantasy elements as metaphors to communicate the stigma surrounding gender identity.
Defining Queer Vocabulary
The sample middle grade graphic novels demonstrate the choice authors make between introducing concepts of gender and sexuality through queer vocabulary or by suggesting such concepts through more thematic means. Queer vocabulary in the context of this analysis refers to the application of terminology developed by the queer community. These terms serve as lingual signifiers to specific experiences within queer identity. Terms such as “gay,” “bi,” “pan,” “lesbian,” “transgender,” “aromantic,” “non-binary,” “butch,” “femme,” “queer” along with gender neutral pronouns such as the singular “they” are the result of continuous revision. These revisions often involve intersecting discussions within different communities (Kapitan). With the legacy of reclaimed slurs and constantly evolving language that queer vocabulary carries, it is common for writers outside the community to search for a queer consultant or reference guide to aid their depictions of queerness (GLAAD). For all the revision involved in developing queer vocabulary, few of the terms ever find themselves in children’s books. The few examples include children’s books such as I am Jazz, a picture book about transgender activist Jazz Jennings. “I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender” explains Jennings, through the narration (Herthel). Other books such as Daddy’s Roommate, a children’s picture book about a boy whose divorced father now lives with a boyfriend, uses queer vocabulary in fictional contexts. In the story, the boy’s mother explains to him that “Being gay is just one more kind of love, and love is the best kind of happiness” (Willhoite). The avoidance of queer vocabulary could stem from several motives. An author may desire to achieve a timeless quality in their work by avoiding terms that may become outdated in the future. They may perceive that by excluding community-specific terminology from their work, the work becomes palatable and transcends perceived differences. The fear of backlash discourages authors from using queer vocabulary as well. Queer vocabulary eliminates any argument for ambiguity in the portrayal of queer experiences, as simply illustrating a gay couple may not have the same effect in defining their relationship that queer vocabulary does. Martha Freeman’s The Trouble with Babies was met with poor sales due to the mere mention of a queer family in the book, threatening its chances of being reprinted. The Trouble with Babies was taken off a Pittsburgh-area elementary school library when a parent demanded that it be removed, discouraging other librarians from acquiring the book (Getlin). The absence of queer vocabulary simply delays its normalization in common usage. Writer Ana Mardoll wrote that in beta responses to xer book, one of the readers found the use of neo-pronouns to have interrupted immersion within the story. “By saying that pronouns outside of he, she and them distract from the story, the respondent effectively dismissed how important specific language is to identity” Mardoll wrote (Wiener-Bronner). To avoid queer vocabulary is to deny the reality in which queer experiences differ from that of heteronormative ones.
Resistance to Queer Representation in Children’s books
Children’s books face significant backlash over representations of queerness. Queer children’s books occupied 8 spots in the 2019 Top Ten Most Challenged Books list over issues such as “causing confusion”, “addressing gender identity”, “featuring a same-sex relationship”, “being a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate children” and including a transgender child in a book targeted at elementary-age children (American Library Association). Threats of bans and censorship manifest in different forms. George, a children’s novel about a transgender girl who uses a school play to come out to her community, stirred backlash when it was included in the Oregon Battle of the Books reading program (Butler). Conservative advocacy group One Million Moms boycotted purchasing George and demanded Scholastic seize publication of the book (Perez). Picture books such as King & King prompted bans, a lawsuit and a Congressional bill for its portrayal of a gay prince. The bill was reported to have mandated boards comprised of parents to review books before implementing them in schools. Schools that refused the procedure would be deemed ineligible for federal funding under the bill, which did not pass committee (Stancill). To complicate matters more, queer children’s books can face pressure from the government to limit their influence on children in foreign countries. And Tango Makes Three, a picture book about gay penguins adopting an egg, was among the ten queer children books removed from public view in Hong Kong’s libraries. The Hong Kong government was pressured by anti-gay rights group, the Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group, to move them to closed stacks (Zhang). Executive editor of Holiday House publishing noted that “For some readers, the mere use of the word ‘gay’ is inappropriate, and they can’t separate the word from the idea of sex” (Getlin). The implementation of queer vocabulary increases the likelihood of censorship in children’s books because it eliminates any argument for ambiguous representations of queerness.
Overview of the Kids Comics Boom
Queer visibility is a product of a rapidly changing time. To understand the current progress of queer representation in children’s comics, one must first contextualize it within the significance of the Kids Comics Boom. The Kids Comics Boom is a recent shift in demographic response to western comics. Its origins trace back to the manga boom from the early 2000s, where the beginnings of the western “under-18 market” began to develop. Riesman considered Jeff Smith to be a key influential figure in triggering the Kids Comics Boom. The colorized reprint of Smith’s Bone by Scholastic resulted in the creation of their new Graphix imprint in 2005 (Riesman). Jennifer and Matthew Holm’s Babymouse series, (the first book of which was published by Randomhouse in 2005) was crucial in establishing a format and pipeline for comics within traditional publishing. Jennifer Holm recounted “It was my idea to actually have a children’s publisher-a classic book publisher- not a comics publisher like DC or Marvel, because I felt that the way you reach children is through libraries and schools…” (Gagliano). Afterwards, a steady increase of interest in children’s graphic novels began to develop. To most, the popularity of Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels marked the shift into the Kids Comics Boom. The 2017 BookScan reported that children’s graphic novels occupied all of the Top Twenty books in sales, an increase from the 18 they occupied from the year previous. Telgemeier’s works themselves occupied over a quarter of the list (BookScan 2017). In 2014, The Beat reported how “All I can say is: Women and Children first! …The revolution has already happened, just out in the bookstores.’” (BookScan 2014). In 2016, the Book Industry Study Group expanded BISAC codes within the children’s and young adult graphic novel category. “More graphic novels are being published for kids and teens and the codes pertaining to this genre were not necessarily keeping pace with this growth” stated Matthew Poulter, director of the Children’s Book council (Alverson). Expanding BISAC codes not only allowed publishers and retailers to more accurately categorize graphic novels, it encouraged the expansion of sections in bookstores and libraries to accommodate the growth of children’s graphic novels. By 2018, Barnes and Noble had announced to create separate, dedicated sections for middle grade graphic novels in all of its stores to allow parents and children to more easily find comics for children (Reid). The portrayal of queerness in the children’s graphic novel market will be the primary focus of this analysis because the obstacles that queer representation in children’s books face differ from that of books aimed at other age groups. Although it is difficult to define the parameters of a phenomenon as it currently develops, for the purposes of this analysis, the Kids Comics Boom will be defined as occurring between 2005 and the present. A middle grade graphic novel is defined as a self-contained comic directed to readers between the ages of eight to twelve. The success of the Kids Comics Boom shares a similar shift in demographic response with that of the growing Young Adult graphic novel market. Publisher Roger Sutton stated that while there has been significant growth of queer representation written for young adults, sales of such books for younger children in schools and public libraries remain difficult. “If a library refuses to acquire a gay-themed book for teenagers, they can find it elsewhere because they have disposable income. But most younger children are dependent on adults for books to read” reports Sutton (Getlin).
Another complication regarding representation in queer children’s comics is how the majority of queer stories are not written by authors who share the same queer identity with the characters they depict. Danika Ellis reports that “More trans books are being published-but a lot of them are by cis authors. These depictions can be offensive, but even the best portrayals still push trans voices aside” (BookRiot). The drive for authenticity in portrayals of diverse experiences had led to the hashtag #OwnVoices to circulate in writing communities on Twitter in September, 2015. Coined by science fiction and fantasy author Corinne Duyvis, #OwnVoices refers to fiction featuring a character who shares the same marginalized identity as the author of the work. Duyvis writes, “…It’s common for marginalized characters to be written by authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions. As a result, many portrayals are lacking at best and damaging at worst. Society tends to favor privileged voices even regarding a situation they have zero experience with…” (#OwnVoices). The examples to be analyzed demonstrate the varying tendencies in which an author depicts a narrative outside of their personal experience with marginalization.
Drama and the nature of teen romance
Raina Telgemeier’s Drama is at its core a coming of age story that explores the nature of preteen romance in all its forms. Drama centers Callie, a middle schooler who participates in her school’s theatre productions as a set designer and stage crew member. The story explores relationships surrounding Callie, both behind the scenes and outside the drama production. Among the cast are Jesse and Justin, twins who express interest in participating in the school’s upcoming play. Justin is presented as the more confident brother, signing up for a lead role in the play. He later comes out as gay to Callie when the topic of crushes is brought up (figure 1). Jesse is presented as Justin’s opposite, fearing judgment, he prefers to work behind the scenes as part of the stage crew despite his excellent singing ability. As he works with Callie among the stage crew, Jesse gains the confidence to come to terms with himself and his fear of judgment. By the climax of the story, Jesse replaces the arrogant lead actress Bonnie, to sing on stage and share a kiss with the leading boy, West. Jesse’s eventual coming out follows the story’s coming of age themes.
Drama demonstrates some of the tendencies of a non-queer writer portraying queer experiences. Eti Berland considers Drama to have “expanded the canon of children’s literature by presenting the coming out narrative as part of the everyday fabric of young people’s lives” (207). Queer vocabulary is surprisingly apparent in Drama, as characters casually use terms such as “gay” and “bi” in discussions surrounding queerness. Reviewer Brigid Alverson asserted that the story “treats being gay as a normal part of life, not something exceptional” (Berland 210). Callie’s supportive reaction to Justin’s coming out does suggest a more accepting society. Other aspects of the book however, do not shy away from depictions of stigma. When Jesse and West share a kiss on stage, most of the crowd reacts in shock (figure 2). Characters remark that “a couple of people are laughing up front” before eventually rewarding Jesse’s performance with an applause at the end of the play (189-192). Although this may be argued as an intentional change in response, it falls into the depiction of a society that normalizes queerness only when it suits the convenience of the narrative.
Drama’s explicit use of queer vocabulary provides young readers with the means of navigating queer identities. Queer experiences in children’s books are often limited to that of gay couples and binary transgender characters. Less visible experiences such as that of bisexuality, asexuality, gender fluidity and non-binary identities often require more than context or visual signifiers to convincingly portray. Writer B.J Epstein noted that “a major issue here is that bisexuals are generally not visibly identifiable…unless bisexuals regularly proclaim their bisexual identity and/or wear bisexual flag jewelry or t-shirts, they are not a visible minority” (118). Drama provides one of the rare examples of a biromantic character in children’s books. West, the leading boy in the school’s play, is a minor but pivotal character in the story. Halfway through the book, West is revealed to be romantically involved with Bonnie, the school play’s leading girl. When tensions begin to rise among the cast and crew, West ends his relationship with Bonnie after discovering that she had tried to use Jesse’s position as a tutor to cheat on her exams. Later on he shares a kiss with Jesse on the final performance of the play and during the eight grade school dance, they spend a significant amount of time talking together. Near the end of the book Jesse reveals that “West still doesn’t know if he’s really gay. Or, I dunno, bi or whatever” when Callie asks if they are dating (222). Although the narrative shows West’s attraction to boys and girls, it allows his character to question his orientation by the end (figure 3). Epstein reported in the Journal of Bisexuality that there had been no explicitly bisexual characters in children’s books. Bisexual characters are more common in young adult fiction books, where the introduction of sexuality would seem to imply that explicit portrayals of queerness would be more appropriate to include (Missing Bisexuals). By implementing the use of queer vocabulary, Telgemeier captures the complex feelings of fluidity and questioning in a brief moment with considerable nuance.
The performance of gender roles plays a large part in Drama. Characters such as Jesse and Matt struggle with the expectations of hegemonic masculinity through the story. Matt struggles with his unreciprocated attraction to Callie and copes through making passive aggressive comments against femininity to exert control over her decisions. Jesse however, struggles with the heteronormative aspects of traditional masculinity. When his father asks whether he and Callie are a couple, Jesse is unable to answer the question. Berland states that “When Jesse challenges hegemonic masculinity and takes on the role of Miss Maybelle to save the play, he resists gender norms and eventually comes out” (209). It could be argued however, that the climax of Drama only subverts gendered expectations within the boundaries of a heteronormatively structured society. Telgemeier’s Drama, Alex Gino’s George and Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson share a similar storyline wherein a queer character comes to terms with their identity through taking the role of a non-queer character in a school play. George centers a transgender girl who wishes to play the part of Charlotte in the school’s production of Charlotte’s Web in order to come out as Melissa to those around her. Gracefully Grayson centers a transgender girl who comes to terms with her identity by auditioning for the role of Persephone in her school’s production of The Myth of Persephone. Queer characters in this context are treated as stand-ins for traditional gender roles. Jesse shares a kiss with West through performing the role of a female character (figure 4), Melissa proves who she is by playing the role of cisgender female character and Grayson discovers herself through playing the role of a cisgender woman. Portraying school plays as a means of coming out for queer characters places such characters in a position of performing their affirmed identities for the entertainment of a heteronormative audience.
The Prince and the Dressmaker, performing gender identity
Portraying queer characters as objects of entertainment can involve a fascination with the qualities of transformation. Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker is a historical fiction graphic novel about asserting agency in oneself in spite of the odds. The story follows a Prince named Sebastian who employs the help of the local seamstress Frances to design dresses for his secret persona as Lady Crystallia, France’s newest fashion icon. Frances and Sebastian find acceptance in each other. Sebastian enjoys wearing Frances’ nonconventional dress designs and Frances accepts Sebastian for who he truly is. While Sebastian struggles under the pressure of keeping his identity as Lady Crystallia a secret, Frances grapples between designing clothes to appease to conservative fashion tastes or to express her nonconventional style in her work. When Sebastian is forced into taking his role as the heir to the throne more seriously, he pressures Frances into secrecy, worrying that his secret would be exposed if people discovered that he and Lady Crystallia share the same seamstress. Soon after Frances quits, Sebastian is outed as Lady Crystallia to his family. To the horror of his parents, Sebastian later runs away. When Frances is hired to design dresses for a conservative fashion show, Sebastian returns to encourage her to display her nonconventional designs instead. Frances agrees and Sebastian takes on the role as Lady Crystallia again (figure 5), believing that if the world refuses to accept him he would still have one friend that did.
At its core, The Prince and the Dressmaker suggests at exploration of gender identity through fashion and performance. The book appeals to its target audience with a Disney manner of whimsy and style. The emphasis on gaining entertainment value from viewing acts of gender expression is a common narrative pattern for cisgender writers portraying transgender characters. Transgender comic writer Magdalene Visaggio stated that “There’s a critical difference between cisgender narratives of being trans and real self-directed narratives: it turns being trans into a spectacle, something to be stared at, consumed. It’s strange and other and foreign, and the presentation is driven by a gaping fascination with the facts of transformation” (Cis Creators Writing). It could be argued that the presentation of Sebastian’s character is inherently written for the consumption of a cisgender audience. When expressing his desire to appear feminine he proclaims that “When I walk into a room, I want everyone to notice. They don’t have to love it or understand it, but they’re going to remember it” (30). While Lady Crystallia is positioned as a fashion icon in France to be gazed at (figure 6), Sebastian displays no other motivation outside a desire to come to terms with his identity. The tragedy of Sebastian’s outing is portrayed in dramatic detail; he is intoxicated while presenting as Lady Crystallia only to be romantically approached by Prince Marcel. When he passes out, Marcel removes Sebastian’s wig in horror and demands that he be humiliated in front of his parents (figure 7). The portrayal of this scene is designed to entertain cisgender readers with the tragedy of outing. “It’s about pathos;” Visaggio writes, “you get to feel bad for a minute, and then feel good about how bad you felt. It’s about staring at the weirdo under the cloak of compassion” (Cis Creators Writing). Much like in the climax of Telgemeier’s Drama, Sebastian gains acceptance from the masses by performing for Frances’ fashion show. Queer characters are again, required to perform their affirmed identity for the entertainment of a cisnormative audience in exchange for acceptance from the masses.
The influence of drag culture provides context for the way gender expression is portrayed in The Prince and the Dressmaker. In an interview regarding the book, Wang claims “I’d wanted to write a story about a character whose super power was making clothes that transformed the wearer. I couldn’t think of a premise that fit until I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race one day, and suddenly everything clicked” (Danielson). Perhaps unknowingly, Wang’s conflation of drag with that of gender exploration in The Prince and the Dressmaker speaks to a mainstream understanding of drag culture. The depiction of a queer character earning acceptance through entertaining a heteronormative audience roots itself in a misinformed history of drag and cross-dressing. The relationship between drag queens and the transgender community is one that is currently undergoing reinvention amid a history of tension and antagonism where they were once closely allied. By the 1800s, the queer context of cross-dressing began to develop outside that of Shakespearian attitudes. “Yet even as the public devoured female impersonation in entertainment, cross-gender expression was otherwise thoroughly policed,” writes transgender editor Samantha Riedel (Drag Queens). What continued in the following years was an inter-community cooperation between intersections of the drag and transgender community to abolish laws that outlawed cross-dressing outside the context of entertainment. By the 1990s however, drag exploded within mainstream media under the influence of gay, cisgender drag queen RuPaul. The drag boom of the 90s effectively influenced the way cisgender Americans perceived and talked about transgender people. The perception of gender expression was dominated by cisgender gay men, a group that in the 70s was said to have “virtually disowned” the drag and transgender intersections within the queer community (Riedel). Cisgender drag queens participated in historical revisionism, rewriting drag history in the 1997 book The Drag Queens of New York, to focus solely on defining radical gender exploration within cisgender boundaries. Sociology scholar Suzanna Danuta writes that mainstream drag did “not necessarily entail a challenge to traditional definitions of gender…In films and popular culture generally, drag becomes a safe and circuitous way [of dealing with queerness, rather than a radical cross-gender experience]” (Riedel). Considering how cisgender drag queens have in Riedel’s words “manipulated the vocabulary [surrounding transgender people] to twisted ends” it would seem that the modern mainstream influence of drag offers another argument for excluding cisgender writers from approaching narratives that center transgender identity.
Wang’s approach to gender identity is ambiguous as it is performative. Wang expressed that she intended for The Prince and the Dressmaker to be “like a Disney Princess movie but with more queer themes attached” (Danielson). One could argue that the queerness in The Prince and the Dressmaker is merely thematic rather than representative. The Prince and the Dressmaker is devoid of queer vocabulary. When Sebastian speaks of his experience with identity he claims that “Some days I look at myself and think that’s me, Prince Sebastian! I wear boy clothes and look like my father. Other days it doesn’t feel right at all. Those days I feel like I’m actually…a princess” (44). Perhaps in a desire to achieve a timeless quality that supports its fairytale-like premise, the narrative avoids the use of queer vocabulary to preserve the ambiguity of the character (figure 8). With the absence of queer vocabulary, the text provides no explicit claims to Sebastian’s gender identity outside of implications of a drag influenced cross-dressing persona. In one scene, after a servant demonstrates the respect Sebastian gains with his status as a prince, he claims that “Plus, being the prince can be useful” (132), conflating affirmation with the advantages of status. Although an argument could be made for the gender fluidity of Prince Sebastian, Wang does not provide any blatant signifiers towards such a claim. This is due in part to the influence of modern drag and the way it orients itself around the boundaries of cisgender-focused gender expression and vocabulary.
The Witch Boy and Metaphors in Fantasy
Even in fantasy settings, experiences of gender non-conformity can reflect real world stigma. The Witch Boy is a fantasy story about a family whose women practice witchery while its men exercise shapeshifting (figure 9). The story follows Aster, a boy who takes interest in witchery. Aster’s family forbids him from learning witchery, warning him of how his granduncle once lost control of himself by engaging in witchery many years ago. By practicing witchery, Aster’s granduncle became corrupted and brought harm to others before eventually disappearing from the family. When Aster’s cousins are kidnapped during their shapeshifting rite of passage ceremony, he sets out to use witchery to find them. He bonds over not conforming to gendered activities with Charlie, a girl from outside the magical community. A demonic creature later appears in Aster’s room, offering to teach Aster how to shapeshift. Aster is conflicted between his desire to practice witchery and conforming to his boyhood to gain his family’s acceptance. With the help of Charlie, he summons the demonic creature again only to discover that the creature is his granduncle. Aster captures his granduncle using a binding spell, revealing the truth about his abilities to his family. To his surprise, his grandmother reveals herself to have practiced shapeshifting magic all along. She pleads for the family to accept the different ways in which magic can manifest in others. The Witch Boy is the first book in the Witch Boy trilogy. The subsequent books expand on the worldbuilding and characters set up in the first book.
The Witch Boy employs the use of fantasy worldbuilding to serve as a metaphoric allegory for the stigma surrounding gender non-conformity. The story avoids the use of queer vocabulary by introducing magical imagery as a means of allegorizing issues of identity for its young audience. However, The Witch Boy’s use of metaphor conflates its portrayal of stigma against gender non-conformity with that of gendered activities. Aster is sometimes portrayed as a boy who longs to practice a traditionally feminine activity in a household of strictly gendered traditions. This set up suggests that witchery is a practice that any magical person could partake in if traditions had not forbid it. When Aster describes his predicament to Charlie, he says “I’m good at…this one thing, but it’s a thing that only girls do. But I’m not good at boy stuff…” (67). Charlie responds by comparing Aster’s predicament to that of an issue with her school’s sports teams (figure 10). They both proclaim that “If you’re good at something you should just be allowed to do it!” (69). Other times however, the narrative contradicts this set up by establishing an intrinsic and inherent quality to the way magic manifests in a person. Aster does not simply struggle with masculine traditions as his dialogue implies, he is physically incapable of practicing masculine magic. Aster’s father, Tohor explains that boys receive intuitive dreams where they are approached by animals that seek to share their forms with shapeshifters. The boys would then undergo a rite of passage ceremony where they seek out spirits that offer their forms to shapeshifters. When Tohor asks Aster about shapeshifter dreams, he hesitantly responds that he had not received such dreams (24). Later during the rite of passage ceremony, Aster does not encounter any spirits despite wanting to. In the climax, the demonic creature struggles to see the beast within Aster, proposing to “taste his soul” to find answers (figure 11). Upon doing so, the creature shouts “You have the soul of a disgusting witch!” confirming that witchery is an intrinsic practice (171). Aster’s granduncle is portrayed as a victim of intolerance, having turned to forbidden practices of “strange magic” to force himself to shapeshift. In her plea for understanding. Aster’s grandmother criticizes the family’s judgment of her brother, “It was not his magic that was wrong, but what we denied him” (202). The conflation between ability and identity is where the metaphor in The Witch Boy struggles to encapsulate experiences surrounding gender identity. This conflation comes to fruition in a scene where Aster seeks advice from Charlie after the demonic creature offers to grant him shapeshifting abilities. Aster expresses concerns for the future in a manner similar to compromising one’s queerness for acceptance (figure 12). He considers accepting the demonic creature’s offer because “If I could finally do the magic everyone wants me to do…I don’t think my mom and dad would care that I learned it from a monster” (139). Charlie’s response shifts the scene from the subject of identity to that of ability. She encourages Aster to remain a witch because he promised to use witchery to heal her broken leg, conflating his struggles with traditional boyhood with the benefits she would gain from his non-conformity.
The conflation of gender identity with gendered activities in The Witch Boy may stem from a cultural issue regarding ambiguous portrayals of queerness. With the massive pressure of resistance to queer content in children’s media, many writers have resorted to “queerbaiting” to avoid blatant depictions of queerness. Queerbaiting is a colloquial term which refers to the ambiguous depictions of queerness in fiction that allows the author to either confirm or deny its presence in the text to avoid backlash or receive accolades for attempts at inclusion. The term contains negative connotations over associations with granting the author plausible deniability and the exploitation of the queer community’s desire to be represented without alienating conservative audiences. When an author engages in queerbaiting, they are viewed as exercising their authorial influence over paratext to inadequately present queerness without risk. Ostertag demonstrates an exploitation of the ambiguous depiction of gender identity in Witch Boy in several interviews regarding the book’s themes. In an interview on The Beat, interviewer Megan Fabbri mentions the emphasis the book places on Aster’s conflict surrounding identity. Fabbri asked “This to me can serve as an allegory for coming out, with either sexuality or gender identity. Is that intentional?” (Hidden Witch). To which Ostertag responds “Yeah, very much so. I really wanted to make a book for queer kids, for kids who don’t know who they are yet” (Hidden Witch). In an interview on RoguesPortal however, Ostertag denies the allegorical themes of coming out in The Witch Boy. “I’d argue against it being a coming out story, simply because Aster is very honest about who he is and what he wants to do” Ostertag stated, “There are definitely LGBTQ themes in the book…I wanted to make a book about being young and queer…and about the disconnect between how you want to be and how people treat you” (Puc). The lack of queer vocabulary allows other signifiers to suggest themes of queerness (figure 13). However due to the ambiguous and interpretive nature of fantastical metaphors, the presence of queerness in The Witch Boy remains debatable.
Avoiding queer vocabulary is to avoid a lingual means of portraying blatant representation. One review of The Witch Boy demonstrates the desire to search for queer subtext where explicit representation cannot be found in the story itself. Reviewer Latonya Pennington describes Aster’s design to serve as signifiers for queerness, stating that “Aster’s long pony tailed hair and fondness for purple goes well with Aster’s gender role nonconformity” (Pride). Ambiguity allows for inadequate portrayals of queerness to be excused so long as the signifiers of such experiences are suggested in some form. In the same review, Pennington states that “Although Aster is never explicitly stated to be queer, it’s not hard to see parallels between his situation and that of gender queer and gender non-confirming people” (Pride). Much like The Prince and the Dressmaker, the queerness in The Witch Boy is more thematic than it is representational. Although there are queer characters in The Witch Boy trilogy, they play surprisingly incidental roles despite the story being about queerness. Charlie’s two fathers are merely mentioned but not shown until the later books. Although Iris, one of Aster’s aunts is shown to be married to a woman in the family tree preceding the story, they are never explicitly shown as a couple throughout the trilogy. Charlie develops feelings for a new girl at school in the later books as a subplot unrelated to the queer themes of the book. Despite the narrative’s reliance on themes surrounding that of gender identity and non-conformity, there are no transgender characters in the Witch Boy trilogy.
The Witch Boy demonstrates the tendencies of a cisgender author portraying transgender experiences. Most cisgender narratives about transgender people tend to center their marginalization at the expense of further characterization. Much like Prince Sebastian in The Prince and the Dressmaker, Aster of The Witch Boy is only defined by his struggle with gender identity. Transgender characters are rarely shown to experience conflict outside that of their gender identity. The ambiguous conflation between gender identity and gendered activities is another common oversimplification of transgender experiences written by cisgender authors. Even books that use queer vocabulary struggle with such nuances. In the children’s picture book I am Jazz, the narration claims that the transgender girl Jazz Jennings “…hardly ever played with trucks or tools or superheroes. Only princesses and mermaid costumes” as though such activities somehow correlated with experiences of gender identity (Herthel). Although Jennings herself had co-written the book, her young age may not have granted her the perspective to consider the nuances between gender identity and gendered activities. Had her co-writer been another transgender woman, the conflation could have been avoided.
Children’s graphic novels are experiencing a renaissance from the success of the Kids Comics Boom. Much of that success relied on providing content for groups that have been historically alienated by mainstream direct market comics. While the increasing visibility of queerness in modern culture encourages more instances of its representation in fiction, the price of newfound exposure often comes with missteps, exploitation and ignorance. Queer children’s books carry a legacy of threats to bans and censorship that have delayed its development as a means of providing queer education to children. As a result, many of these continued attempts at representation fall into historically rooted stereotypes and misunderstandings regarding the nuances of queer experiences.
The fear of attracting backlash, bans and censorship encourages many writers and artists to engage in ambiguous depictions of queerness. The issue with avoiding queer vocabulary in favor of using contextual or thematic signifiers that reference drag or queer culture is that children are not equipped with the contextual knowledge to understand such references. A child would not understand the influence of drag on books such as The Prince and the Dressmaker, and would likely conflate concepts of performance and entertainment with that of the acceptance of gender exploration. Subtle signifiers such as Aster’s affinity for the color purple in The Witch Boy sets an expectation on young readers to approach the text with an understanding of queer associations with the color along with its opposition to culturally gendered colors. Avoiding queer vocabulary also contributes to the erasure of less visible queer experiences that rely more heavily on lingual signifiers for visibility. Professor John H. Bickford III reported in The Elementary School Journal that “Gay and lesbian were the most common types of sexuality represented…Bisexuality, asexuality, and characters questioning or confused about their sexuality were notably absent” (Examining LGBTQ). In an attempt to avoid the backlash that conservative parents or organizations may respond with upon discovering queerness in children’s books, writers set a high expectation on children to understand references to queerness where adults may not.
Due to the slow development of queer representation in children’s books, the few books that do portray queerness are often written by those outside the queer community. Queer vocabulary is most effective under the pen of those within the community as they have the most experience with it in common usage. The examples analyzed have shown the shortcomings that come with writers who approach experiences outside of their own, regardless of well-meaning intentions. Out of the sample of graphic novels analyzed, only one of them is written by an openly queer, albeit cisgender author. When selecting stories that explore gender identity, publishers tend to prioritize the work of cisgender women, implying that matters revolving around gender exploration are limited to the perspective of cisgender womanhood. Whether it be through ignorance on historically rooted relationships between intersecting queer communities or the misunderstanding of nuances involving gender identity and expression, the missteps surrounding lack of experience with the subject matter can be harmful. Continuing to uplift authors who do not share the same marginalized identity with the characters they portray takes advantage of the queer community’s desire to be represented without actively supporting creators from the community.
The avoidance of queer vocabulary delays its implementation into everyday language. Arguments for palatability in representations of diversity stem themselves in a desire to exert a standard of normalcy on marginalized experiences. This standard is often based on the perceived universality of those in privileged groups. Ambiguous depictions of queerness tend to be encouraged within motivations that view acknowledging lived differences to be divisive. In doing so, such motivations equate homogeneous representation to equality and acceptance. Aversion to queer vocabulary is a symptom of marginalization, it disregards the generations of revision that went into developing terminology that accurately reflect experiences which are not structurally validated by heteronormative society.
As of this year, only a handful of middle grade graphic novels have implemented queer vocabulary into their text. In Cathy G. Johnson’s The Breakaways, the word “trans” is featured when a transgender boy in the story comes out (figure 14). In Svetlana Chmakova’s Crush, a teacher uses the word “nonbinary” when lecturing issues of bodily autonomy to her students (figure 15). In Meg, Jo Beth (Little Brown Book’s modern retelling of Little Women) by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo, Jo directly comes out to her family by saying “I’m gay” (Terciero). Despite these small steps towards progress, many other middle grade books still shy away from queer vocabulary even when queerness serves as a central theme. When a transgender character is directly brought up in the Kat Leyh’s Snapdragon, the narrative goes out of its way to avoid using terminology in a discussion about gender identity (figure 16). Even with the abundance of queer characters in Snapdragon, the story does not feature any queer vocabulary.
The introduction of queerness is vital for children because it broadens their early perceptions of identity, relationships and expression. The implementation of queer vocabulary would provide young readers with the tools to better navigate identity within themselves and those around them. Queer vocabulary encompasses romantic orientation, gender identity and gender expression in a way that heteronormative society cannot encapsulate. When coming to terms with their identities, many queer people have cited discovering the term for their identity as what led to the realization of who they were, and where to find supportive communities. In an afterward of her memoir comic collection, Super Late Bloomer, transgender artist Julia Kaye writes to her younger self saying “There are others like you out there. So many others who feel the same way…but you have no way of knowing. You don’t yet have the vocabulary to be able to describe and understand yourself. You don’t have anyone to look to as a point of reference” (159). Professor of children’s literature Rudine Sims Bishop emphasized that “literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience” (Berland 206). Providing children with the lingual means of navigating queerness can build powerful tools for empathy and affirmation, allowing them to contribute to the transformation of ever-evolving language as a whole.
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