7 min

Secret garden

The fertile origins of children's lit

FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE. Athors Allan Stratton, Deborah Ellis and others discuss how and why they write for the little guys. Credit: Paula Wilson

Is their some connection between being gay and writing children’s books? You might think so considering the bumper crop of new children’s books this fall by gay and lesbian Canadian writers.

Deborah Ellis just won the Governor General’s Literary Award (text) for the children’s book Looking For X, a moving first novel that explores inner-city life with sensitivity and compassion from the perspective of a street-smart kid who is bursting with energy and imagination. The author has a new young adult novel, The Breadwinner, about life under the Taliban in Afghanistan.

CBC Radio’s Bill Richardson came out with After Hamelin, providing young readers with a fantastic riff on the story of the Pied Piper.

Ottawa writer Jan Andrews published Pa’s Harvest, a story of the Great Depression, and Out Of The Everywhere, a masterful collection of folk tales.

Playwright and novelist Allan Stratton released Leslie’s Journal, which focusses on teenage stalkers. Ken Setterington retold Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. And writer and critic Sarah Ellis brought out her first picture book, Next Stop!

None of these books are about kids who are gay or lesbian or who live in queer families, nor are they about coming out. Yet all of the authors are passionate about issues like gay and lesbian visibility, role models and giving voice to queer youth.

The connection between the authors’ sexuality and the books they create is more indirect – and intriguing – than you might expect.

Deborah Ellis, an outspoken activist campaigning against the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan, is a psychiatric counsellor in a Toronto group home and an exciting new voice in children’s literature.

She’s amazed that her first book for children, Looking For X (Groundwood Books, $7.95), won this year’s Governor General’s Award. “I still feel like there’s been a huge mistake and someone is going to call me up and tell me that there’s been a clerical error,” says Ellis, laughing.

Did growing up gay make her a better writer? “I think that it helped me to understand the experience of being an outsider. I was an outsider growing up in Paris, Ontario. As a teenager, I was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital for a couple of years, and that increased that feeling of ‘outsideness.'”

For Ellis, coming out is probably what most influenced her creatively. “To be a decent writer, you have to be honest – and that’s what coming out is all about. That fundamental truth opens up a whole lot of other truths. And writing for children allows us in a way to re-live the sense of empowerment that coming out gave us as adults.”

Long before Look For X or The Breadwinner (Groundwood, $7.95), Ellis wrote a teen novel about growing up gay. “But it wasn’t very good,” she says; Ellis is now thinking of revisiting that old manuscript. “I got so much of my view of the world from fiction and it would have been amazing had I had books that could have helped to tell me who I was.

“It would have given me a lot more courage that took a lot longer to find. I would really like to see lesbian and gay characters in kids books who are just themselves – not tortured by that process of coming out – and comfortable in their skin.”

Pa’s Harvest (Groundwood, $12.95) and Out Of The Everywhere (Groundwood, $29.95) are the latest gems from Ottawa storyteller Jan Andrews. Her picture books, Very Last First Time and The Auction have become Canadian classics.

Andrews isn’t sure that being a lesbian comes into the equation.

“I think to be a children’s writer,” she says, “you have to have a very particular contact with the kid you used to be – the kid inside you. You have to write out of that place or you can’t write for kids at all.

“I also think that just about everyone who’s a writer of any kind has felt like an outsider a huge chunk of the time. It’s how we get to be the observers we need to be.

“I don’t actually feel my lesbian-ness is a particular part of my children’s writing voice. But then, I lived for a long time, in many ways, happily and satisfactorily, as a not-lesbian woman. I was married. I had children. I think I may well write far more out of that latter fact than anything else.”

Sarah Ellis is one of Canada’s finest literary ambassadors. Writer, critic, teacher and librarian, she’s published numerous novels for children and young adults, including the Governor General’s Award-winner Pick-Up Sticks (Groundwood, $5.95), a collection of short stories, as well as two recent books about the connection between reading and writing. Her latest, Next Stop!, Is a picture book illustrated by Ruth Ohi (Fitzhenry And Whiteside, $17.95).

What’s the connection between her sexuality and her writing?

“Well, isn’t this an interesting question,” writes Ellis (in an online interview). “I’ve never really thought about this in a focussed way.

“Of course, the temptation is to invent something interesting. But there is something in my own life that I’m pretty sure is true.

“When I was a child, I was very well behaved. I always tried to behave in ways that were expected of me. In grade one, I concealed the fact that I knew how to read because, obviously, one wasn’t supposed to know already. I assumed that everyone else in the world was behaving in this way.

“When my parents read the evening paper, sitting in chairs holding the paper in front of them while I lay on my stomach on the floor, propped on my elbows reading the funnies, I assumed that they adopted that position because somewhere, there was a rule book for mums and dads that said: ‘You shall read all the boring bits of the paper and you shall read them from a seated position.’ Otherwise, why wouldn’t everyone lie on the floor?

“Then when adolescence hit,” Ellis continues, “and all my previously sensible friends started going goofy and giggly over boys, I naturally assumed that they were obeying some rule that they had read in an issue of Seventeen that I had missed. It never occurred to me that they were wired differently from me.

“Thus, my take on the world was that you could not jump to any conclusions about what a person was like based on their outward appearance and behavior, that everyone was simply obeying the rules.

“Since looking beyond appearances to the real hidden person beneath is something that fiction writers do all the time, I think I was in practice to be a writer. And because I did this from such an early age, I think I retained my memories of how childhood felt.

“I guess what it comes down to is secrets.”

Playwright and novelist Allan Stratton has only just turned his pen to young adult fare with Leslie’s Journal (Annick Press, $9.95). Growing up gay is clearly important to Stratton’s career as a writer. “You’re very aware of playing roles,” says Stratton. “You play the role of a straight kid, aware that what you are presenting to the world is not what you are feeling on the inside, of having to pass.

“Isn’t being a teenager all about attitude and role-playing? Teens are struggling to find their own sense of identity and their own sense of self – separate from their parents, from their friends – within the world.”

There aren’t any gay characters in his teen novel, while his latest adult novel, The Phoenix Lottery, has plenty. Why?

“I am wrestling with that question,” says Stratton. “How to write a teen novel with gay characters that is actually going to connect with its audience and that the kids are going to read.” Stratton himself is a excellent role model as a teacher at the Etobicoke School For The Arts; he’s out to his students, colleagues and the board.

“If I think of myself as a gay teenager,” says Stratton, “if there was a book that was about a gay teenager, there’s no way that I would want to be caught dead with it. I was myself so terrified of being found out. I wouldn’t have had the guts to approach it if it was dealt with directly. That kind of courage comes when one is out.”

(A stage version of Stratton’s The Phoenix Lottery hits London, Ontario’s The Strand stage in February.)

Ken Setterington would be the first to advocate the need for books that put a positive spin on being gay and lesbian. The Toronto Public Library’s first children’s and youth advocate, storyteller and first-time author believes that “as gays and lesbians we bring a lot of respect for children that we are writing for.

“I think writers for children have a special affinity with children who are never in the positions of power, who are always dictated to, told what to do and often don’t get the opportunity to speak with their own voices.

“As an adult, I am able to use that child voice that I wish I could have spoken with. It’s a way of giving something back to the community.”

His version of The Snow Queen is illustrated by Ernst and Nelly Hofer (Tundra Books, $19.99).

Author and broadcaster Bill Richardson just published his first novel for children, After Hamelin (Annick, $9.95), an imaginative look at the classic story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He brings the discussion back to its foundation: the words behind ideas and stories.

“I was on a panel with the Australian writer Robert Dessaix (who wrote the novel Night Letters) a couple of years ago,” says Richardson. “In answer to someone’s question, he said, ‘When I was a child, words were the only thing that I had to defend myself with.’ And I knew exactly what he meant. I felt so apart from the rough and tumble world of boys.

“I’m not saying that this is every gay child’s experience, but it’s not uncommon. For me, I learned fairly early on that how I used words was what I could do to set myself apart, to tell myself who I was, to define myself. It feels very natural to use words to reclaim childhood.

“In writing for a young audience, it is like revisiting childhood and making myself whole by linking my own ‘then’ to my own ‘now.'”

Being an outsider, surviving coming out, having had to play roles or keep secrets, coming back to that safe place that books and reading provided, are part of a rich heritage that gay and lesbian children’s lit authors all draw upon. The results are far richer and more evocative than didactic fare like One Dad, Two Dads, Red Dads, Blue Dads or Heather Has Two Mommies, books that have politics at their centre.

In the words of Jan Andrews: “Kids books are where kids get to stand at the centre, to feel more clearly what it’s like to be the deciding element in their own lives.”