Subjects once considered taboo for people of any age are making their way into books geared toward the youngest readers. In many ways, the trend mirrors television shows and movies that push the envelope and open up dialogue about important political and social topics, including recent hits like Orange Is the New Black and The Normal Heart. But unlike these shows, the books call on kids to confront difficult subject matter and start thinking about social justice at an early age.
In Jacob’s New Dress, written by Ian and Sarah Hoffman, Jacob is a young boy who opts to wear dresses whenever he can. Christopher, a classmate, makes fun of Jacob, arguing that boys can’t wear dresses, but Jacob is determined to dress how he wants. And his parents support him, after a short period of hesitation. Published in March, Jacob’s New Dress imagines a reality in which gender non-conformists can be open about their identities, and feel supported by people around them. LGBT activists consider the book important for trans kids and children who don’t identify with traditional gender identities, and don’t always see their identities acknowledged by mainstream culture. So it’s a timely story, as celebrities like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Carmen Carrera work to bring more visibility to trans identity. It’s also a necessary one, as transgender people face discrimination in housing, healthcare, and the workforce, leading Vice President Joe Biden to call trans rights the civil rights issue of our time.
Authors are also confronting complex world events. This week, NPR showcased Lily Hyde, an author living in Ukraine who believes children’s books can be an entryway into Eastern European’s sociopolitical issues. Hyde’s work combines fairy tales with “history, myth, and geopolitics” of the region. For instance, in her most famous work, Dream Land, Hyde tells the story of a young girl whose family must reintegrate into Crimean society after being deported. And in light of the recent events in Ukraine, which Hyde currently blogs about, she’ll have interesting material to draw from in her future work.
“I always thought it was history, everything that happened in 1917,” the year of the Russian Revolution. “And I’ve just realized it’s not history at all. What’s happening now in east Ukraine, there are some incredible parallels in 1917,” she told NPR.
And student writers at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena are also using children’s books in an initiative to counter gun violence, “Uncool: The Anti-Gun Violence Project.” Last year, four books were published to dissuade children from thinking guns are in style and desirable, countering the message in TV, movies, and video games that guns are worth having. In Zoarmax 133’s Big Question, an alien scans the Earth for cool and uncool objects, but has to ask a number of people — chemists, race car drivers, bakers, etc — how they feel about the gun he finds. The consensus from the human population is that guns are not as good as other items. They don’t have good chemistry, they aren’t as fast as cars, and they aren’t as sweet as baked goods. So Zoarmax 133 decides that guns are uncool. And mass shootings, police killings, and racialized murders heat up debates about gun laws and safety procedures nationwide, the story encourages kids to think about gun violence in an inventive way.
This is not to say that all children’s books should have an agenda, and ones that do can very easily stray into the realm of indoctrination. See, for example, Help Mom, There Are Liberals Under My Bed.
Claudia Millls, the former president of the Children’s Literature Association, argued that all books are political, but become problematic when agenda overshadows story. And as many parents argue that challenging subject matter is best suited for teenagers and young adults. However, there are many others who want to expose their children to “tough issues” when they’re young. Writing about books that confront real-world subject matter, one father explained to the New York Times, “The sooner my children and grandchildren — all African-American — can learn about what it means to be black in a society still riven by racist attitudes and the uneven application of justice, the better equipped they’ll be to navigate it.”
Ultimately, the incorporation of sociopolitical themes based on current events in children’s literature isn’t an entirely new concept. Dr. Seuss was known for underlying political messages in his books: the consequences of the Cold War (The Butter Battle Book), dictatorship (Yertle the Turtle), and the results of prejudice (The Sneetches). But contemporary children’s book authors are taking a strong stance and raising awareness about very specific issues, like gun violence, LGBT equality, and the hardships associated with immigration, that didn’t have the same visibility in the past.
“Christopher, I made this dress, I’m proud of it, and I’m going to wear it!” Jacob proclaimed in the school yard. It’s an assertive position, much like the ones that children’s authors are ready to make.