Back in 1976, the Trinidadian born US writer Rosa Guy published Ruby, a follow-up to her novel The Friends. Ruby was the older sister of Phyllisia in The Friends, and she was not only the first lesbian character in Young Adult fiction, she was the first Black lesbian character. LGBT characters of colour have been rare in the intervening years in literature for children and young people, but recently representation has increased.
Because of Section 28, a provision which made it illegal for Local Authorities to ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ most publishers were reluctant to depict anything but heterosexual relationships in children’s books, let alone LGBT relationships that included people of colour. The Gay Men’s Press publication of the English version of Susan Bosche’s Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin in 1983 was at the centre of the furore that led to Section 28 being passed in 1988. It was not repealed in England and Wales until 2003, and David Cameron finally apologized for the clause in 2009 – but even then, many publishers were reluctant to celebrate LGBT relationships.
In 2010, a year after Cameron apologized, Malorie Blackman’s novel Boys Don’t Cry was published. The book features a same-sex relationships, but does not make it central. Blackman’s novel focuses most of its attention on 17-year-old Dante’s discovery that he has a daughter following a drunken encounter with his girlfriend, who subsequently abandons the toddler with him. Dante’s brother Adam is gay, although neither Dante nor the boys’ father will talk about it. Adam is badly beaten by a closeted gay friend of Dante, and is scarred for life at the end of the novel, whereas Dante has learned to live with his life as a teen father; in fact, Emma, Dante’s daughter, brings the family together as an ‘innocent’ figure who does not know that Adam’s sexuality is seen by society as negative. The family is Black British, but this is only mentioned once, when Dante wonders if people’s treatment of Adam is similar to racism.
Thankfully, readers of YA books no longer need to rely solely on books written by writers in the USA for thoughtful portrayals of LGBT people of colour. Adiba Jaigirdar begins The Henna Wars (2020, Hodder) with narrator Nishat announcing ‘I decide to come out to my parents at Sunny Apu’s wedding.’ Faridah Àbíké-Íyimídé, a writer from South London, has described her critically-acclaimed YA thriller Ace of Spades (Usborne, 2021) as ‘a love letter to queer Black teenagers who feel powerless and alone finally finding their voices’. Tanya Byrne has written a number of lesbian protagonists and is the only author featured in both BAME writers anthology A Change Is Gonna Come (2017) and LGBTQ+ writers anthology Proud (2019) both of which were published by Little Tiger. In Almost Certain, her short story in the latter, musician Reeba Shah is presented as confident, cool and caring. She offers support to Orla, a sixteen-year-old girl considering coming out, as they both mourn the loss of their older friend Mal, whose record shop offered them a space where they could feel at home. ‘They say home is where the heart is, but I think home is where you’re understood,’ says Orla. The story ends as Orla begins to experience for the first time, what she has been craving; to be seen by another as she sees herself. Byrne’s Reeba Shah, a girl with a Muslim name, who offers this assurance is an all-too rare depiction of a young lesbian. Her former band’s name, ‘Lavender Menace’, offers a brief but importance reference to the lesbian feminist group of the same name.
Multi-award winner Patrice Lawrence’s Eight Pieces of Silva (Hodder, 2020) offers another depiction of a confident young lesbian of colour in the character of Becks who narrates the search for her missing sister; ‘Mum always says, I didn’t come out to her because I could never be in’. As Fen Coles notes (Books for Keeps 244 September 2020), Becks is shown as part of a wider queer community and ‘she expresses and experiences desire’ just as Lawrence’s straight characters do in her previous work.
Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo (Hodder, 2019) is a YA novel which begins with the narrator’s sixth birthday and ends with him at university. Identity is a central concern for the narrator; Atta contextualises this by exploring how it is a concern for friends and family around him. On more than one occasion Michael / Mike / Mikey / Michaelis is told by others what his identity should be and how he should behave, leading him to consider whether he feels ‘black enough’ or ‘queer enough’. He finds a sense of liberation through his drag character ‘The Black Flamingo’, and in doing so raises important questions about the extent to which identity can be performed and chosen. Atta’s free verse novel also encourages us to consider the way that racism and homophobia function in close relationships and not solely as hostility from strangers.
Middle grade novels published recently focus on family dynamics. Susie Day’s The Secrets of Billie Bright (2016) has a naïve youngest child discovering that her dead mother was not a hero, but homophobic, kicking out Billie’s oldest brother when she found him kissing a boy, and attempting to justify this by reference to her Christian faith. The rest of the family remembers this, but keeps it from Billie, who cannot understand why her beloved brother does not want to come home. Benjamin Dean’s Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow features a boy dealing with his parents’ divorce. They keep from him the fact that the reason for the divorce is that Archie’s dad has come out as gay. Neither of these books focus on the fact that Billie or Archie are people of colour, although Dean’s book makes repeated reference to Archie’s dad’s ‘giant afro’ and Billie counts ‘the faces of the other black girls’ on her first day of school. Both Billie (in Day’s story) and Archie (in Dean’s) must solve the problem of how to reunite their family, as no one else seems willing or capable.
Archie, in Dean’s book, finds part of the solution in traveling with his friends to London’s Pride Parade. While Archie and his friend Bell think they are going to a party, their other friend Seb—with the help of a pointed flyer they happen to pick up—explains the protest aspect of Pride. Pride is also an aspect of Kacen Callender’s young adult novel, Felix Ever After, which features a Black trans protagonist, Felix. Many of Felix’s friends, who are all gay, lesbian, or bisexual, look forward to New York City’s Pride parade, but Felix feels uncomfortable there until he realizes ‘I’m worthy of love and respect’ (326)—then and only then does Pride feel like the right place for him to be.
Recently, a number of picture books featuring racially minoritised LGBT people have been published in the UK. Spacegirl Pukes written Kay Watson and illustrated by Vanda Carter was first published in 2005 by Onlywomen Press and later by Spacegirls Books in 2017. Whilst Spacegirl, Mummy Loula and Mummy Neenee and Trotsky the cat are all shown vomiting, there are plenty of images of warmth and love as Spacegirl prepares for a rocket journey to the stars in what Letterbox Library describes as ‘a relatively early example of a children’s books in which same-sex parents are included without fanfare and without an ‘issue’ to be sniffed out.’ Other such examples include The Girls by Lauren Ace and Jenny Løvlie (Little Tiger), where Sasha the one Black character of a multiracial group of friends grows up to become a doctor and is shown arm in arm with a woman as they move into their new home. Earlier in the story, she is shown with her three friends marching with a rainbow flag. In the follow-up book The Boys, Tam, who is East Asian and the son of one of her friends, is shown marrying a man. In Lulu’s Sleepover, (Alanna Max 2021) Lulu has her first sleepover at her cousin Hani’s house. Hani’s mums, Auntie Zari and Auntie Jina welcome Lulu, as Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw extend the portrayal of a loving Black family that has characterised the series of books aimed at younger readers.
My Daddies (Puffin 2020) by Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons, a rhyming celebration of the stories and the imagination. The young narrator and one of their dads are both brown. In amongst the fantastic stories that the three characters read and act out, we learn that ‘my daddies’ favourite story is the one that brought them to me!’ An adoption scrap book is shown. The book includes a family with two mummies – also a racially mixed relationship – as well as a family with a mum and dad. The final fantasy image shows the brown dad dressed as an old-fashioned English king and the white dad wearing a turban and a sherwani. They are described as ‘the world’s best king and king’ by their child. The image feels to us gently transgressive. The two dads are perhaps embracing each other’s cultural background. They are two gay men dressed as kings – symbols of patriarchal social order. The image suggests that the imagination is not merely a source of fun, but something morally important too.
Whilst many picture books emphasise inclusivity by offering us glimpses of an ideal world, some recent picture books can be read as acknowledging the continuing presence of homophobia through allegory. The Pirate Mums (OUP 2021) by Jodie Lancet-Grant with pictures by Lydia Corry begins with Billy wishing ‘his family was a little more like everyone else’s.’ Mummy and Mama are pirates – and this influences how they dress, how they decorate the house and even their choice of pets. However, when a school trip aboard a ship goes wrong it is they who save the day – with amongst others things the liberal use of rainbow-coloured flares – and Billy comes to recognise that being ‘ordinary’ is not so important after all. Whilst we don’t see any hostility directed towards Billy’s lesbian mothers, Billy’s concern about the ‘otherness’ of their pirate lives does suggest a world where difference is not always readily accepted. Nen and the Lonely Fisherman (Owlet, 2021) by Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew can be read as exploring an LGBT relationship through folkloric traditions. Nen is a merman with brown skin and black curly hair whose beautiful song attracts fisherman Ernest. This angers his father Palagios who causes a storm. Whilst the story has the surface features of a traditional tale, the yearning and loneliness depicted has an emotional depth. Nen saves Ernest from the storm and the story ends with them holding hands and ‘dreaming about the future’ as they sit on a rock with a rainbow in the background.
The publishing history of Uncle Bobby’s Wedding hints at the changes in picture book publishing regarding LGBT people over the past fifteen years. The book was originally published in the USA in 2008 (Putnams) and written and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen, with illustrations featuring guinea pigs in human clothing. Yet, when Chloe asks her mother about Uncle Bobby’s forthcoming wedding, the reply refers to “grown up people”. In 2020, the book is republished with minor modifications to the text but with bright bold illustrations by UK-based artist Lucia Soto. The characters are now human including Uncle Bobby who is white and his partner Jamie who is Black. The narrative is affirming in both versions; but in the newer version we see clearly that Chloe inhabits a world where gay people – including Black gay people – exist.
Direct references to homophobia are rare. Salim’s Secret is published by the Matt and Naz Foundation, a charity set up by Matt whose fiancé Nazim Mahmoud ‘passed away, two days after his religious family confronted him about his sexuality’ (www.nazandmattfoundation.org ). The book is written and illustrated by Noor Ramadani (2017). Although the setting of the story isn’t made obvious, all of the characters in the book are Muslim. Salim comes out to Bilal who doesn’t respond well at first, but who grows to support his friend. On Friday at the mosque the preacher tells them ‘Boys must not like other boys… ‘It’s a heresy! God will be angry’(p10). Unusually for the picture books discussed here, the book show Salim being subjected to homophobic bullying by his classmates. Salim forms a friendship with Dinda, a girl who is bullied, and they support each other. When Salim comes out to his parents, ‘to his surprise they are not angry’ (p28). Instead, his mother tells him to ‘[f]ind the people who love and believe in you – there will be lots of them.’ P30
Whilst each of the eighteen illustrators of Hey You! (Penguin, 2021) written by Dapo Adeola provides a striking interpretation of Adeola’s words, it is the final spread, illustrated by Adeola himself that is the particularly remarkable. A Black woman with pink hair and a rainbow-coloured clenched fist earring (combining Black power and LGBT symbolism) kisses the belly of a Black woman who is pregnant with twins. On encountering this beautiful, tender image we are reminded how rare it is to see a kiss – that staple of so many traditional tales for children -shared between two men or two women in picture books. Despite the wonderful work of the writers featured in this column, it does appear that the shadow of Section 28 still looms over children’s publishing in the UK.
With thanks and gratitude to Dr Fen Coles of booksellers Letterbox Library for her support with writing this column.
Karen Sands-O’Connor is the British Academy Global Professor for Children’s Literature at Newcastle University. Her books include Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and the author, with Jeffrey Boakye, of What Is Masculinity? Why Does It Matter? And Other Big Questions. He tweets at @rapclassroom.
Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin
Boys Don’t Cry, Marorie Blackman, Corgi Children’s Books, 978-0552548625, £7.99 pbk
Felix Ever After, Kacen Callender, Faber and Faber, 978-0571368013, £7.99 pbk
The Henna Wars, Adiba Jaigirdar, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1444962208, £7.99 pbk
Ace of Spades, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Usborne, 978-1474967532, £8.99 pbk
A Change Is Gonna Come, Stripes Publishing, 978-1847158390, £7.99 pbk
Eight Pieces of Silva, Patrice Lawrence, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1444954746, £7.99 pbk
The Black Flamingo, Dean Atta, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1444948608, £7.99 pbk
The Secrets of Billie Bright, Susie Day, Puffin, 978-0141375335, £6.99 pbk
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow, Benjamin Dean, Simon and Schuster, 978-1471199738, £7.99 pbk
My Daddies, Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons, Puffin, 978-0241405772, £6.99 pbk
The Girls Lauren Ace, Jenny Løvlie Caterpillar Books, 978-1848578432, £6.99 pbk
Lulu’s Sleepover, Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beradshaw, Alanna Max, 978-1907825385, £11.99 hbk
The Pirate Mums, Jodie Lancet-Grant, Lydia Corry, Oxford Children’s Books, 978-0192777799, £6.99 pbk
Nen and the Lonely Fisherman, Ian Eagleton, illus James Mayhew, Owlet Press, 978-1913339098, £7.99 pbk
Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, Sarah Brannen, Lucia Soto, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1444960938, £12.99 hbk
Hey You!, Dapo Adeola, Puffin, 978-0241521946, £7.99 pbk