Sunday, July 28, 2013

On the importance of LGBTQ literature

I'm currently reading Jeanette Winterson's autobiography Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?, and she talks a lot about how literature saved her. This, of course, lead me to thinking about those coming out years, and how desperate I was to locate myself in the pages of the books I read.  I remember so clearly accidentally picking up E. Lynn Harris' Invisible Life in the adult fiction section and feeling absolutely floored.  The cover itself was enough to draw my radar.  Something about the way the two men looked toward each other, and I knew I had found something.  Too afraid to actually check it out at first, I would read sections of it curled into a corner of the library and then replace it carefully in the H section before leaving.  I was so relieved to find in print the same feelings I was having, even if they were happening for a man and not a woman.  It was enough to see that we existed outside in the world.  After I was outed, I finally got up the nerve to take it home. Sometimes I didn't even read it again. I would just stack it with my other library books in my room and be comforted by its presence.

Fast forward to my first year of college.  I left home and came to Tallahassee, admittedly not a bustling metropolis, but still the largest city in which I'd ever lived.  There was a gay community center and, wonder of all wonders,  a gay bookstore! (Oh, Rubyfruit Books, how I miss thee!) The first time I went in that store, I felt this knot in my chest release.  Staring at me from all angles were gay and lesbian fiction, nonfiction, tshirts, buttons, sex books...I wanted to turn in circles and toss my hat like Mary Tyler Moore. It was one of the most wondrous experiences I have ever had--discovering that not only were we legion, we were freaking prolific writers!  The first book I bought was Rita Mae Brown's  Rubyfruit Jungle. I devoured that book, and then I read anything that had the woman's name on it. By the gods, if she had written copy for Kellogg's boxes, I would've been on an all-cereal diet.  I was then handed Winterson's Written on the Body for a Women in Literature class. I was engrossed in the book and remember having to do a group project on it. I was so nervous, because I felt like I had to represent my people well and honor her. Really, it was a crap project, but that book. Oh my god. That book. Perusing my beloved Rubyfruit, I found out that she wrote others and fell in mad love with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.  One afternoon, I was in the campus bookstore and found "Lesbian and Gay Studies" section. Albeit, it really was a small section, but the implication! This was a regular bookstore. And they had books about us! Like it was normal! I felt another knot release. I know I picked up every book on those few shelves and stared at the covers and back jackets.  The first one I bought was Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, and after I got over the shock of not really needing to try to be covert about my purchase, I proceeded to buy one every single time I had money.  There was erotica and nonfiction and so many blessed other things.  And if I had only been able to locate these in my own library, senior year might have been a very different place for me, at least, internally.

Remembering all this makes me want to order a million LGBT books and stuff shelves full in libraries everywhere. Because everyone deserves to be able to see themselves reflected.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

One More For Our Side!

As you probably already know, I work for Scholastic Book Fairs, and every season we have a Season Kick Off meeting at which we discuss the previous season, customer surveys, new books, etc.  Today was the Spring SKO, and as usual, we ended up discussing, what else, but our own individual reading. :-) A coworker, one who admittedly never liked reading  before, talked about picking up one of the Bluford High series (No Way Out, I think) to read for our Stop, Drop, and Read program.  In it, he found for the first time a story to which he could connect.  The characters and situations reflected his community and life, and as a result, he came to love the book.  It seems to have sparked a genuine interest in reading, and I'm pretty sure he'll be reading the rest of the series.  Hopefully, this will lead to even more reading of lots of different titles and kinds of books.

What's your point, Dawn?  This is cool, but really, what are you trying to say?  This coworker is in his early 20's, 23 I think.  He is just now, as a result of a random book picked up because he "had" to read for 15 minutes every workday, finding a love of reading.  What could it have done for him to have found this love 10 years ago? 15 years ago?  What if some librarian or teacher had put a book in his hands then that reflected him, and as a result, he started reading more and more at age 8 or 13 as opposed to 23?  Now, don't get me wrong here...starting to read every day at ANY age is awesome, and I love that he did.  I just wonder about the kids who grow up to be the 23 and 30 year olds who never find that book.  Once a child is out of school, there is no guarantee that he or she will visit the library or read at all.  Once he or she is out of that age range where school is mandatory and the library is visited at least some for schoolwork, we've lost our golden chance.  Luckily, this coworker came to work for a company that values literacy and created an opportunity for him to find this new interest, but there are a lot of people who don't like to read or never read out there and only a few jobs open at Scholastic.  So what to do?

Every time you have the opportunity to put a book in a child's hands, DO IT.  Take your kids to the library.  Buy books for nieces and nephews and cousins and friends.  Read in front of kids.  Get excited about whatever you're reading, and when you read something amazing, talk it up like you've got the cure for cancer. While reading may not actually cure cancer or AIDS or anything else in and of itself, if you get a child to read a lot now, who's to say that he or she won't find a love of science in that reading and grow up to cure these things.  There's no way to gauge just how much impact the simple act of handing a book to a kid can have, but I promise you, it is huge.