Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Diverse KidLit

Currently Reading: Look, by Zan Romanoff

New Look!

If you’re new to my blog, welcome! If you’ve been here before… you’ll notice that I’ve made some layout changes! This is because there are exciting things coming for the blog… recently, I’ve begun working with an artist to put together a branding package for the site, so that it will reflect me and my vibe a little bit more. I’ll share more on that later, as things come together! If you’re really curious, you can visit Ice’s site, and get hyped!

Trans Lit News

I’m excited today to be writing this (belated) post in order to be part of the blog tour for Each Tiny Spark! I’m also celebrating having 1K Twitter followers, and I’m grateful to have this platform to use to share my thoughts about publishing, books, and issues that affect LGBTQ2S+ people. Before I dive in about this newly-released middle grade title, I want to share two links that might be useful. First, I’ve had an ARC of Sissy by Jacob Tobia on my TBR shelf for ages, and I still haven’t managed to get to it. In part, that’s because there are just so many trans memoirs these days – it’s really astonishing. Even though I can’t speak to it, trans journalist Harron Walker wrote a piece about this memoir for Jezebel, that can be found here, called What Can a Trans Memoir Do? In addition, Bookish Heights, written by a UK blogger, has a great post that offers up some recommendations for books with non-binary MCs. This is a great roundup, and has some titles that I have yet to feature in this blog, so check it out (and get ready to explode your TBR…)!

Each Tiny Spark Blog Tour

A banner for the Each Tiny Spark Blog Tour, with that text, and the Penguin logo in the bottom right hand corner. The image on the left shows a girl with light skin and curly red hair, wearing a pink shirt and green coveralls and yellow gloves, holding a welding helmet and a welder. There are small lightning bolts coming out of the welder.

Even though Each Tiny Spark, by Pablo Cartaya, isn’t an LBTQ2S+ title, I was super excited to be invited to be part of the blog tour for this exciting middle grade book. I’d grabbed the ARC for one of the kids in my life a while back, and it’s a title to watch for a number of reasons. First, Cartaya is a seasoned, award-winning, Latinx novelist. Second, this book features a feminine main character who smashes gender stereotypes as bonds with her father working on old cars with him. Third, the book features representation of neurodiversity – something that isn’t explored enough in books for younger audiences.

As part of the blog tour, I got to ask Cartaya about his work directly… and here’s what I wanted to know: I talk a lot about gender on my blog, and one of the things that interested me about Each Tiny Spark was that the main character reconnects with her father through welding – something that I wouldn’t consider a traditionally feminine pursuit, but a skill that really is so useful and so cool for folks who can do it well. I would love to read something from him about why he chose to write about a feminine main character, and what he hopes young readers will take away from the story, both folks from the Latinx community, and folks from outside.

Check out Cartaya’s post below! Each Tiny Spark was released just yesterday, and can be ordered here, or from your local book shop!

Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Diverse KidLit: Pablo Cartaya

A photo of the author, Pablo Cartaya.
Pablo Cartaya, author of Each Tiny Spark

I began writing Each Tiny Spark with a singular scene. I didn’t know exactly where it was going, so I just listened to the voice in my head and wrote down what it told me. What emerged in that first iteration was a twelve-and-a-half-year-old girl welding a piece of metal to a car door while her father looked on quietly. I suppose something subconsciously was telling me to write this story with a female protagonist while her Papi looked on without saying much, but I didn’t understand why at first.

When I finished the manuscript, I realized that I was building a character modelled around my own twelve-year-old daughter. It was my way of trying to understand, respect, and listen to who she is and how she sees the world. There are many layers to this story but at its heart, this is a book about a father and a daughter finding their way back to each other by literally welding a car back together. My books are very personal as are my characters and I hope that readers, both in my Latinx community and beyond feel empowered by their own voices and build on their experiences. With Each Tiny Spark, I realized that first vision of the girl welding a car as her dad looked on quietly was in fact, a hope for my daughter to claim her identity and voice as she navigates the world. Ultimately, I wrote a book with her in mind so when I read it back now, it’s her voice I’m listening to.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Guest Post by Lisa Bunker

Introduction…

I am super excited to be hosting a drop in post today from Lisa Bunker, author of two middle grade books featuring trans main characters. Bunker’s first book, Felix Yz, was released in 2017, and was a science fiction story about a child who had an alien inside of him, and who faced a dangerous Procedure to separate the two beings. Felix Yz is told as a series of journal entries written by the main character as he anticipated the Procedure.

The cover of Felix Yz, by Lisa Bunker.

This year, Bunker released her second middle grade novel, Zenobia July, which I reviewed back in April. As I told Bunker during our correspondence, this book wasn’t necessarily the book for me, however I am a huge supporter. There needs to be a diversity of voices in middle grade books, especially when it comes to books that represent trans, non-binary, and other LGBTQ characters. My shop carries the book, and I advocate for it with our school board and educator customers.

This gentle story about trans character Zen navigating life at a new school and solving a cyber mystery is a great path for readers who may not know a lot about trans issues, and perfect for young trans readers looking to see themselves reflected in literature.

The cover of Zenobia July, by Lisa Bunker.

The other reason I advocate for Bunker’s books is because of the author herself, and her strength as a role model for trans and other LGBTQIA2S+ readers. A trans woman herself, Bunker is not only a successful published author, and a pioneer of #OwnVoices trans literature for the middle grade bracket, but also an accomplished politician. Bunker is currently a Democratic state rep in New Hampshire. Following the election of Danica Roem in Virginia in 2017 that gave her a boost of confidence to run for office as a trans woman, Bunker used her decades of activist and community organizing experience to become one of New Hampshire’s first trans legislators.

For all of these reasons, I’m proud to host Bunker herself on my blog today, the only (to my knowledge) #OwnVoices author of trans middle grade books!

What The World Needs Now is Post-Binary Narrative

A guest post by Zenobia July author Lisa Bunker

No doubt binaries come in handy. We humans need to be able to sort and classify our worlds, in order to be safe and productive. But binaries can also easily get out of hand, and are susceptible to abuses. As a trans author of stories with lots of queer characters, I am on a mission to keep binaries under good management and to push back against the abuses. I’ve gathered my ideas about this mission under the new-minted genre descriptor Post-Binary Narrative. And, in order to make it manageable and memorable, I’ve come up with the following six quippy characteristics of this kind of writing.

Human Scale

How many times do plucky protagonists have to save the world (again) before we become completely numb? The whole Marvel Universe arc that just ended with “Avengers: Endgame” is a perfect example of scale overkill. I don’t know about you, but I left that movie feeling bludgeoned and empty. Could we please get back to stories driven by the struggles, choices, defeats, and victories of individual characters? I think such stories can actually have a bigger impact, because a reader who invests will be able to connect in a way that feels right-sized for once. In my new story, Zenobia July, someone hacks the school website, protagonist Zen deals with teasing at school while living in stealth, friendships form, and a family starts to come together. Those are the biggest plot elements, but they make just as engrossing a story as if Zen were single-handedly averting Armageddon (again).

No Evil

Note the capital E. I’ve gotten so tired of villains who are just purely, cartoonishly vile. Disney, much as I love many of the movies, is particularly egregious about this. Jafar, Scar…there’s no way to understand them as human (lion), and the good guys flatten out as well, because they are so completely Good in contrast to the Evil. I try to write gloriously imperfect humans coming into conflict with other gloriously imperfect humans, with everyone doing what they do for reasons that make sense to them, and I strive to write them all sympathetically. That’s not to say that Evil has never existed in the world, but plenty of other story-makers are making those stories. Too many. For deconstructing binaries, No Evil is the way to go.

Challenge “Normal”

Inevitably, in each binary we humans invent, one side weighs heavier than the other side, and then some less-than-ideal things start to happen. One is that generally the heavier side gets to decide what counts as “normal,” and that can lead to the lighter side getting defined as abnormal, freakish, less than, other. To counter this, Post-Binary Narrative includes the idea of challenging and even subverting this pattern. I have gotten reviews that complain that there are too many queer characters in my stories. In my first book, Felix Yz, I did it just for the lark, but in the new one it’s very much on purpose, as queer family of choice is a powerful force for good in Zen’s life. Within the bounds of both these stories, the nerdy geeky Rainbow Folk are the “normal” of the story, and the cis/het characters are the ones fluttering around the edges. This subversion jostles the comfortable in a fruitful way, and is definitely part of the playbook.

Fight Injustice

This is a distinct and more serious version of challenging “normal.” When the imbalance of power in various binaries gets entrenched in how our culture operates, we get outcomes like systemic racism and the glass ceiling. I mean, for crying out loud, when are we going to finally elect our first female President? Such interleaved injustices are challenging to name, describe, and dismantle, not least because those in power constantly offer counter-narratives that tell us that we’re wrong, that we’re imagining it, that we’re over-reacting, that they’re just kidding, that it’s our own damn fault anyway. Gaslighting is rampant around these ingrained power-imbalances, and we have to keep crafting narratives that push back against it. It’s crucial to the future well-being of our species as a whole.

Remember “We”

In these increasingly polarized and reactive times, I think it is essential that at least some of us keep trying to find ways to say “we” and “us” that actually mean all of us, not just other humans sharing our particular bubble. And, we need to do it while holding the “fight injustice” provision in our hearts at the same time. It’s like when #blacklivesmatter happened, and there was the immediate reactive response of #alllivesmatter. The Post-Binary Narrative response to that is, “Yes, true, in one sense, but that’s not what we’re talking about right now. We’re talking about a world where unarmed black teens get gunned down by police and then told it was their own fault. Of course all lives matter, but we have a problem, all of us together, that we still need to fix.

Practice Love

I’ve chosen the verb on purpose for its dual meanings: “practice” as in enacting something in the world, and “practice” as in continuously working at it because it’s hard to do. In particular, it can be hard to give some version of love back to someone who is pointing hate at you. Sometimes we can’t, and that’s OK too. But as much as possible, speaking for myself, I try to offer love back to everyone, all the time. Or, at least, refrain from hating back. Not much more to say about this – it’s pretty simple.

Human scale stories, with no Evil, that challenge accepted ideas of what constitutes “normal” and that fight injustice, while recognizing that we are all humans and that all humans are worthy to love and be loved. That’s Post-Binary Narrative. I respectfully submit that our poor over-burdened planet needs more of it.