Toronto
3 min

Kids’ lit is not always child’s play

But queer titles offer a brave new world

Credit: Xtra files

James Howe is a familiar name to anyone whose childhood reading included the Bunnicula books, about half a dozen titles featuring a vampire rabbit. Those who currently have children in their lives might be more familiar with his two recent Horace And Morris (and, of course, Delores) picture books. Howe is a great writer of kids’ books – they’re funny (in a five-year-old sort of way) but there is usually a relatively subtle message as well.



Howe recently published The Misfits in that dubious category of young adult fiction which is aimed at 10- to 14-year-olds. But do they really read it? In the case of this book, it would be great to think that they actually do, because it’s so irresistibly sweet and smart at the same time. The book is set in a small town in New York state and the main characters are 12 years old, which means they’re stuck in grade seven. What could be worse?



Well, being gay in grade seven like Joe Bunch or being fat like Bobby Goodspeed or being too tall and too smart for a girl like Addie Carle or just too weird like Skeezie Tookis. They call themselves the Gang Of Five (just to keep people guessing) and hang out together and struggle with the usual and some unusual early adolescent stuff. There’s a lot of sweating and a lot of anxiety and a lot of irritating adults and if the book as whole is a little heavy handed, it could be that’s what being 12 is all about. Everything is just a bit larger than life, but life at that age is awfully small.



Howe was apparently inspired to write the book when his daughter was in junior high and he was reminded of the intensity of pre-adolescent passions and in particular the social awkwardness and the complicated social lives of 12-year-olds. Equally inspiring perhaps is the fact that Howe himself is gay (although he came out later in life) and was particularly interested in presenting a positive adolescent gay experience. The Misfits is a great little feel-good exercise – you’ll laugh and you’ll probably cry more than once before you’re done reading.



For the younger set, there are a couple of new picture books that are specifically aimed at children of gay dads. Both are about adoption but they are very different. Daddy, Papa And Me is written in the classic social realist mode, with a very simple text. Mike Motz’ illustrations look as if they could have been computer generated.



The book does the trick in terms of describing where adopted babies come from for an audience of two- to five-year-olds, but as children’s lit, it doesn’t do anything to capture the imagination. It’s like Heather Has Two Mommies but for guys.



King And King And Family is the second book by Linda DeHaan. The first is King And King in which the heir to the kingdom is told by his mother that it’s time he choose a queen. He then informs his mother that he’s not into princesses and chooses a prince instead. The second book begins with the two kings going on their honeymoon and returning from their travels with a child in their luggage. Sound crazy? Well, keep in mind that this book was originally published in Holland and the sensibility is radically different from the usual North American take on the topic.



Stern Nijlnad’s illustrations are vivid and dramatic, with an emphasis on fun rather than reality. It’s a book for children after all, not one to make adults feel better. Children can’t get enough of fairy tales of one kind or another and the book manages to escape the slightly preachy edge that creeps into a lot of kid’s books that so earnestly explain “different” families to children.



Not new, but available again in May are three kids titles from Alyson Publications: The Daddy Machine, The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans And Other Stories and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dads Blue Dads (all paperbacks at $16.95). All are by Johnny Valentine and all were originally published at least 10 years ago. The books have new illustrations and apparently some changes.



* Maureen Phillips writes on books in every other issue.



THE MISFITS.

James Howe.

Aladdin Paperbacks.

274 pages. $8.99.



DADDY, PAPA AND ME.

Andrew R Aldrich.

New Family Press.

32 pages. $27.95.



KING AND KING AND FAMILY.

Linda DeHaan.

Tricycle Press.

32 pages. $21.95.