An update to my original post regarding last week’s webinar “Battle Bullying with Books,” which is now available as an archived video. The Misfits author James Howe has weighed in on some of the excellent questions attendees asked during the presentation. Below are the questions and his thought-provoking responses.
Question: These books are fine as far as they go, with endings that “work out” the bullying behavior. But real life doesn’t have a happy ending. Why is children’s literature so naive?
James Howe: I don’t believe it’s the job of literature merely to reflect real life. How does it serve the reader—the young reader, especially—to depict bullying behavior and leave the victim powerless (if that is what one sees as the “real life” scenario)? If a book dealing with serious subject matter does not in some way affect the mind or heart of the reader, it has failed. All good writing does more than reflect reality; it offers insight, transcendence, and possibly hope. In my own writing, I try to empower my readers with the language they might use to understand themselves, understand others, and bring about change. I try not to leave them stranded in the hopelessness they may feel in real life by pointing them in the direction of what is possible, not merely what is known.
Question: What advice would you give to librarians when materials addressing LGBTQ issues are challenged by parents, teachers, administrators, etc.?
James Howe: You are there to serve all the young people in your school or community. Some of those young people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. These young people need these materials. If the argument is made that there are no such people in your school or community (which is virtually statistically impossible), it is still true that variations of sexual and gender identity are a fact of life. You would be failing as a librarian not to provide resources on this topic. If the question of “belief” comes up, you can always make the case I do: “You can tell me you don’t believe in trees, but look outside the window—there they are! Whatever your belief system tells you about homosexuality, it does not take away the fact that we—LGBTQ people—exist just as those trees exist.” The best article I’ve read on this—and a far more eloquent argument than I am making here—is by David Levithan and is called “Supporting Gay Teen Literature” (School Library Journal, 2004).
Question: Please address gender expression and bullying—peer pressure that enforces conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity and bullies those who do not conform.
James Howe: I have addressed this issue in many of my books, especially the Pinky and Rex series, about a boy whose favorite color is pink and a girl who is athletic and loves dinosaurs (see Pinky and Rex and the Bully) as well as The Misfits and Totally Joe. The world is tough on boys and girls who act or dress like the opposite gender. But the world is also changing. There is more comfort with gender fluidity among young people in general, especially with characters on TV and real musicians being playful and “out there” in their gender expression. That doesn’t take away from the fact that “girly boys” and “butch girls” still make a lot of people uncomfortable. There’s so much I could say on this subject, but I’ll leave it by agreeing that this an area where bullying is a very real problem and where there need to be more books and more education, not only of students but of educators themselves.