Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Over the Rainbow

Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd. Over the Rainbow: Queer Children's and Young Adult Literature. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010. ISBN 9780472071463.

Reviewer: David Beagley

As we move further and further into a world of instant communication all around the world, one thing that becomes patently obvious is just how contextualised is so much of what we communicate. It is very easy to assume that, from our own place, our own point of reference, things will appear elsewhere in the world exactly as we see them here, that people will think as we do, that conclusions will be reached as we reach them, and that ideas will hold the same currency as we invest them.

So, we use a turn of phrase that is automatic in our local 'place', or we refer to a television program or a pop culture detail or a political movement that we take for granted as everyday, in our local 'place'. But while Facebook and Twitter and Googling and iPhones might be ubiquitous in virtually all societies around the world, those societies are still individual, diverse and multi-faceted. Comedians in all societies have long made capital from 'outsiders' innocently using words and phrases not only out of context, but totally inappropriately, but it is a much larger and more serious issue than this.

As we see daily, it can get to the stage where wars are fought over what one group one faction sees as 'right' or 'normal', yet another sees as 'wrong' or 'unnatural'. Whether it is an issue of gender, land rights, religious belief, ethnicity, political system, or sexual identity, what someone sees as right will be seen as wrong by another.

This structural antagonism in and between societies is obvious, and is nothing new. Equally obvious is that the only real mechanisms to deal with it are tolerance, willingness to listen to the other, and to compromise. Helpful too, certainly, is an understanding of the past and the different histories that lead to where we are now in our multi-faceted, multi-cultural world. All these approaches enable the 'certainties' of personal conviction to be viewed in the context of one's current personal situation.

Any addressing of sexuality in relation to children's and young adult literature immediately raises controversy, and highlights the huge differences in perspective and context that can exist within any apparently modern, multi-cultural society. Combine the issue of age appropriateness with that of non-normative sexualities and watch the sparks fly!

Over the Rainbow: queer children's and young adult literature, edited by Michelle Abate and Kenneth Kidd, leaps directly and deliberately into this debate. It makes its stance and context immediately clear in the Acknowledgements through comment on a quote from Eve Kosovsky Sedgewick: "'Motive: I think everyone who does gay and lesbian studies is haunted by the suicides of adolescents.' … It is our hope that this collection honors this fact, while it simultaneously seeks to hasten its end." Thus, the essays in the collection consider the expression, in young readers' literature, of the range of non-normative sexualities included in the acronym LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer).

They are structured in 3 groups. The first, 'Queering the Canon', explores historical texts from the more recently developed perspectives of queer theory, particularly considering how these texts have dealt with aspects such as homosexuality, androgyny, same sex friendship, and the assigning of socially expected gender roles in stories, characterizations and in some cases the lives of the authors. The second, 'After Stonewall' considers specific texts from the period after 1969 with their more open and explicit representations and discussions of cultural politics, while Part 3: 'Queer Readers and Writers' swings the focus round to how readers and writers may model queer textualities and identities in both the creation of narratives and the consequent responses to them.

All of the chapters have been published elsewhere, usually as individual journal articles. Indeed, Tison Pugh's "There lived in the land of Oz two queerly made men" also appears in his own book Innocence, Heterosexuality, and the Queerness of Children's Literature (Routledge, 2011) published almost simultaneously with Over the Rainbow.

As a collection, though, all these pieces build through the 3 groups to present a clear statement of the last few decades' growing understanding of non-normative sexualities in children's and young adult literature in the United States. This painfully slow, step-by-step, growth of awareness, through tolerance, towards acceptance, is examined in stories from over a century and a half.

But here is the key issue of context. Claudia Nelson opens the collection with her study of 19th century British boys' magazines, while Jess Battis' and Catherine Tosenberger's Harry Potter chapters, and Andrea Wood's on the Japanese Boy's Love games and manga close it. In between, virtually all the texts, authors and audiences considered in the other 13 chapters are only from the USA. The chronologies, particularly, resound to the cultural, political and publishing movements of the USA. From Little Women and Understood Betsy, through 1969's Stonewall Rebellion in Greenwich Village, to Nancy Drew and Rainbow Boys, the commentary is grounded in American events and sensibilities. This structural limitation certainly does not detract from the detailed and thoughtful analyses of all these times and their texts but it can place a distance between non-USA readers and the discussion.

Certainly many of the issues raised are common to other countries around the world. Robert McRuer's "Reading and Writing 'Immunity': Children and the Anti-Body" analyses how the discourse in children's books about AIDS has largely ignored the presence of the gay male body and sexuality, emphasising instead illness, medical procedures and eventual grief. However, that analysis assumes that there is a discourse - in many countries even that stage has not been reached. For instance, Deborah Ellis' The Heaven Shop, set in Malawi, deals only with the orphans left behind afterwards, and not the cause, as observed by McRuer. But Ellis is Canadian - stories actually written in Malawi, or similar African and Middle Eastern countries, will rarely if ever reference sexuality as an aspect of such lives if, indeed, they discuss them at all.

American experience is just that - American. Aspects may be relevant or applicable to other societies but, certainly in the social awareness of non-normative sexualities, American experience is markedly different to many places that see it daily through TV, the internet, movies, Facebook and so on.

For instance, Christine A Jenkins' "Young Adult Novels with Gay/Lesbian Characters and Themes, 1969-1992", is a graphed and charted survey of 60 novels, but only includes 2 published outside the United States. Thomas Crisp's "The Trouble with Rainbow Boys" constructs a careful and thoughtful argument about identities and roles inherent in this text, cautioning against the assumption that, as this is one of the few texts depicting gay males that has made it into school reading lists, these identities and roles ('Closet Jock', 'Understanding Doormat', 'Queer and Proud' and so on) must be enshrined. Rainbow Boys' success, in bringing the characters and discussions into the classroom, has been almost solely in the USA. It is largely unknown elsewhere, where these questions may still just be forming, let alone being answered.

Jody Norton's "Transchildren and the Discipline of Children's Literature" (originally published 1999) explores gender expectations in childhood and the complexity of its expression that isolates trans- or uncertainly gendered children but its examination of tomboys and sissies seems a little dated, especially after Michelle Abate's own excellent Tomboys: a literary and cultural history (2008). Perhaps editor Abate should have joined the discussion, especially on why the tomboy is often an affectionate representation while the sissy is invariably negative.

Over the Rainbow is an important critical text, bringing together key topics, arguments and writers in LGBTQ issues in children's and young adult literature. If nothing else, it shows how much things both have and have not changed over the last few decades. However, its USA focus means that its stance on acceptance and toleration could be assumed to be the norm (or at least the goal) in all societies, even within the United States itself. This is clearly not the case, and perhaps some analysis of less inclusive texts or communities could have provided a broader context in which to place the issues around non-normative sexualities.

Still, all things must start somewhere and, as it identifies itself as "the first collection of essays dedicated to LGBTQ issues in children's literature", Over the Rainbow is a strong beginning to this social and literary study, but it needs more texts to follow and a wider world perspective to be developed.



David Beagley

Volume 16, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, January/Feruary 2012

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