Helen Patuck is a children's author and illustrator who is supporting Just Like Us' #YoungerMe campaign.
Wearing a cloak of invisibility is not every child's dream. Being seen, heard and understood is an integral part of developing self-esteem and confidence. Asking how power works, and who gets hidden in its shadow, is therefore a big question for anyone working towards a more inclusive world. That includes LGBT+ children's authors.
For me, being queer is about understanding that there is such a thing as 'normal' and whoever does not look or behave that way is different. I think that difference is wonderful and part of a vast human mosaic. However, noting difference becomes a form of violence when those who are 'normal' have access to resources, rights and respect that others do not because of their socio-economic background, immigration status, race, gender or sexuality.
My #YoungerMe illustration:
Being a queer author has therefore been about challenging the stigma of those who are not 'normal', be they people who have been made stateless, or those seeking a better life. That's why it's been so important to me to create children's books where refugees are central, not marginal, for example: so they can see themselves and their lives. This challenges an ancient literary tradition of creating 'others' and banishing them to the woods, to the edges or invisible interstices of society. Dehumanising difference has long been the tool by which peoples, animals and the environment have been silenced and oppressed.
When people don't understand the unknown, it scares them. That includes adults and children. I believe we can fight fear with understanding, and children's books can help.
My publishing initiative, Kitabna, works with communities affected by conflict, most recently in Syria and Northern Ireland, where I have seen how a children's book is a strong vehicle for social change because it goes into the hearts and minds of both children and adults. Stories can help adults to facilitate conversations with children during bedtime reading, in circle-time at school, or even in the vulnerable space of the refugee camp.
I discovered that this year whilst working on the My Hero is You: How kids can fight COVID-19! emergency children's book with the World Health Organization. Our story was based on the real fears of parents, caregivers and children, and has been translated into over 130 languages, including indigenous and minority languages, since the pandemic struck early this 2020.
An illustration from My Hero Is You
For me, making children's books more LGBT+ inclusive is part of a wider agenda of making dignity and resources available to all.
In my #YoungerMe illustration, I sketched the joy of discovering stories about queer love as a teenager. Novels like Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and Ali Smith's Boy Meets Girl, follow a literary tradition of the bildungsroman – the 'coming of age' narrative of a person's development and transformation through life experience.
For me, these novels presented a further 'coming out' narrative I could identify with, which made my first experiences of falling in love with women not just familiar, but the stuff of my favourite stories. This familiarity made having relationships with women, and men, something I feel lucky to be able to do.
I was lucky that I never had to wonder: what's wrong with me? I want all young people to feel this way and Just Like Us' work with schools and colleges is a wonderful way to make long-term change.
Challenging what is 'normal' and celebrating gender fluidity have long been the content of my favourite transformation stories – from Orlando by Virginia Woolf, to Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, to the children's book, Here Lies Arthur, by Philip Reeve. Magic lies in our ability to see beyond appearances.
It is wonderful to me that in 2020, Just Like Us' Ambassador Programme, school talks and resources can help young people do that; making visible the otherwise invisible, encountering possibility in what might otherwise feel impossible.
I hope the #YoungerMe campaign will demonstrate the need for inclusive education and that these posts will flood our social media feeds with reminders that being LGBT+ is, of course, something to be celebrated.