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Five Gay Picture-Book Prodigies and the Difference They’ve Made

depaola cover art

From the March/April 2015 cover by Tomie dePaola.

Andy Manley, a Scottish theater artist, travels the world putting on shows for children. In 2014, he was in New York doing My House, a “mostly wordless solo piece co-starring a cardboard box and a wayward melon,” according to the New York Times. That one was designed for youngsters eighteen months to three years old.

“Do you have kids?” the Times reporter asked. “No,” Manley replied, “I’m gay.”

Two thoughts occur. First, being gay is less and less a barrier to fatherhood. But in any case it’s a rare father who, qua father, has Manley’s playful imagination, his creative reach: in sum, his ability to think big on a small child’s level.

That’s what a number of gay picture-book creators — distinctively, perhaps — have been doing for the past sixty years or so. Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, Remy Charlip, and Tomie dePaola differ in just about every outward way, from the look and content of their books to the course of their lives and careers. But open the covers of those books and you’ll find tenderness, wit, and imagination as a common bond — qualities that they have in common with the unfettered young.

 

Maurice Sendak (1928–2012)

Sendak drew feelings — first and last, the feelings of small children. Over the years his subjects ranged from nursery-rhyme characters to life in a Polish shtetl to heroic nudes and portrait heads, but his work is grounded in 
the life force of the young, girls and boys alike.

AHoleIsToDig_straightenedUnisexism, or gender equivalence, showed its face — maybe for the first time on record — in A Hole Is to Dig (1952), where Sendak’s drawings illustrate Ruth Krauss’s collection of kids’ off-the-cuff definitions. Along with “A hole is to dig,” in multiple embodiments, we find the indelible “Eyebrows are to go over your eyes” and “The world is to have something to stand on.”

Think of that! On his first try, Sendak had girls and boys doing what each was “supposed” to do. Krauss, a progressive thinker, pointed out that young kids didn’t behave that way and, according to Sendak, he made a few changes to eliminate the stereotypes. Altogether, he did more than that: there are no sex roles whatever in the pair-ups or group scenes, and no pat tableaux as a consequence. In an independent jacket drawing, moreover, one little boy holds a bouquet of flowers for another to sniff.

A Hole Is to Dig, small but mighty, liberated little girls from dolls-and-doilies more than ten years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique touched off the second wave of American feminism — and, along the way, freed little boys from being he-men.

very far awayNow, a small boy could be desolate, feel rejected. In Very Far Away (1957), the second book Sendak himself wrote, Martin heads away from home, in an outsize cowboy hat, when his mother is too busy with the baby to answer his questions. His encounters with an old horse, an English sparrow, and a cat are fanciful, whimsical — and unrewarding. Martin heads home: maybe now Mama has time for him. Or he’ll count cars, and wait.

Martin, a timorous tyke depicted in a scratchy line and a light, almost neutral wash, is the first of the M-named Sendak surrogates.

His successor, the fierce and unrepentant Max of Where the Wild Things Are (1963), returns home after working his will over the Wild Things and finds his supper awaiting him, reassuringly, “still hot.” The illustration is at once vintage Neverland and, in the play of emotions across Max’s face, high cartoon drama.

Coming next: cartoons as an extension of child life.

in-the-night-kitchenMickey, the dream-traveler of In the Night Kitchen (1970), flies off, out of his nightclothes, into a graphic panorama of Sendak’s 1930s New York City childhood. Oliver Hardy triplets appear as the Sunshine Bakers and mix Mickey into the cake they’re baking; he pops out, molds the dough into a plane, plunges to the bottom of the milk bottle…and rises to the top where (in homage to King Kong atop the Empire State), he cries “COCK-A-DOODLE DOO,” his own little penis proudly on display. Time to return to bed, more than satisfied: sated.

Power trip, wet dream, whatever: Sendak had something to crow about, however he chose. By that time, he had illustrated the endearing Little Bear books and created the larky Nutshell Library. He’d become a world celebrity and won just about every possible award. On the domestic front, he was settled in with Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst, who would be his life partner.

The AIDS epidemic, in the early 1980s, was painful for Sendak, as it was for other gay men, and like many of them, he became more open about his sexuality. Those agonizing times, emotional and political, had creative issue in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), a virtual mural of social protest, panel by panel. An echo of Dickens in the backwash of Ronald Reagan.

No age range is indicated on the jacket, nor should there be. Sendak was no longer making the “kiddie books” that, he often grumbled, got no respect. But early childhood was still home ground. In a late press photo, the grizzled Sendak is seen snuggling up to a Wild Thing, his protector now.

 

Arnold Lobel (1933–1987)

With Lobel, less and less became more and more.

His first assignment, as an aspiring illustrator, was to draw a salmon for a Science I Can Read Book — the editor had spotted a realistic drawing of a cricket in his art-school portfolio.

That salmon swam, and Lobel’s career was launched. Science and history easy readers came to his hand; he took on stories of everyday childhood rigors by Charlotte Zolotow and Judith Viorst. But factual or fancy-free, his work had an identity of its own.

giant john photoBooks of his own came almost perforce. First, cartoonish stories: happy-go-lucky blends of the lovable and the ridiculous. Giant John (1964) sets out into the world to earn some money after he and his mother eat their last two potato chips. At a friendly castle, he’s a BIG help…until fairy music sets him a-dancing and the castle walls come tumbling down. Never fear: John rebuilds, after his fashion, and departs with gold and glory. He “promised to visit often and kissed the king and queen and princess and dog good-bye.” A GIANT display of affection, indeed.

With the success of his work, Lobel had less need to illustrate books by others, and more time to spend on books of his own, which quickly became more diverse and substantial, even traditional, in nature. Cartooning wouldn’t do: the illustration had to have the resonance of art.

You’d think Lobel would have taken to folklore, in high demand at the time, but he didn’t — with one exception, Hansel and Gretel (1971). In the galaxy of H & Gs, Lobel’s stands as the modest, intimate one: more the tale of two babes abandoned in the woods than the story of a brother and sister victimized by an evil stepmother.

It’s a motif that turns up repeatedly in Lobel’s work. A pair of children appears, for example, in many of his illustrations for Jack Prelutsky’s collection of monitory verses, Nightmares (1976) — a pair of small, imperiled children, helplessness incarnate, the nonsexist embodiment of Hansel and Gretel. Sometimes the boy is larger and leading, sometimes the roles are reversed.

frogandtoad1Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970): is there a more satisfying, more puzzling title in children’s lit? Friends pal around, have misunderstandings, make up; but a frog and a toad — strange. Lobel had watched frogs and toads and noticed their differences. He’d also learned that toads will overwinter in the city without ill effects; but you can’t coop up a frog. So we have energetic, adventurous Frog and his best friend and opposite number Toad, something of a sluggard and a bumbler. All told, an odd, appealing couple.

At a later, savvier time, a gay couple. Through a wide lens, the designation fits: Frog and Toad jousting, in what are essentially two-character skits, could be two old loving, teasing, mutually indulgent mates. Or they could simply be humanized animals in the tradition of Beatrix Potter et al., mimicking human behavior. Lobel may have thought of them as gay, or they may have developed as they did because he was gay.

Does it matter? Besides four additional Frog and Toad books, Lobel produced five other I Can Reads during the same years — individual books with no less individuality, perhaps more. The character studies Owl at Home (1975), Grasshopper on the Road (1978), and Uncle Elephant (1981) also reflect Lobel’s sensitivity to animal ways, and are also aptly titled. Those three idiosyncratic bachelors might well be gay, too.

One thing we know for certain: the more identities — ethnic, religious, racial, sexual — the richer life is for all.

 

James Marshall (1942–1992) & Remy Charlip (1929–2012)

No two author-illustrators could be more different than James Marshall and Remy Charlip. That’s just the point.

Marshall was an accidental illustrator. Texas born and bred, he was on track to be a professional violist, then injured his hand, took up teaching…and, as the origin story goes, lucked into picture books. Lying in a hammock one summer day, sketchpad in hand, he overheard the battling George and Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on his sister’s TV, and — voilà! — conjured up the fondly parrying hippo couple of that name.

georgemartha_larger_colorfixedThe seven George and Martha books owe their acclaim to many factors. The spare illustration is flat-out brilliant, as the delicate line delineating the hippos’ bulk, a funny thing in itself, morphs into one sharp-witted, space-teasing composition after another. Take “Split Pea Soup,” the very first story. Martha keeps serving it to George, George keeps eating it reluctantly…until he doesn’t, and pours the remains of his bowl into his loafers under the dining table. The scene is tricky to picture, and a hoot as done: wit distilled to a pea-green pour.

Overleaf, George and Martha are sitting together at the table, close together, over a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Martha has caught him out: why didn’t he tell her he hated the split pea soup? “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Back and forth, that’s the theme of the stories as a whole. The delicacy of the hippos’ feelings accords with the delicacy of the line, and it, too, contrasts with their bulk. Just any old animals, conventionally drawn, wouldn’t have done at all.

Once started, Marshall cultivated his talents and spread wicked glee in one high-colored, high-energy series after another. Top grades go, though, to the kindly camp of Miss Nelson and class.

Remy Charlip, on the other hand, was a serial initiator; an adventurer.

The son of immigrant New Yorkers, he studied art at Cooper Union, helped found the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and — before filling his resume with performing, choreographing, and teaching stints — produced a picture book, Dress Up and Let’s Have a Party (1956), that’s also a performance, an improvisation.

Decked out in his mother’s pots and pans while she bakes a cake, John is inspired to ask his friends to come to his party in costume — and we wait with him to see what they’ll be wearing when, at the turn of the page, they come through the door. No dullards here: a carton on the street turns Hans into a special delivery package; a ball of string makes Vera a meatball covered with spaghetti. The final surprise comes when John carries in the cake, with the single word happy visible. In Charlip territory, nothing is all spelled out.

With Dress Up in his pocket, he got deeply into theater for young children — and for the rest of his life picture books and children’s theater figured in his career as corresponding “narrative forms.”

Every picture book was different from the others, its style chosen — 
conceived — to suit the subject matter. For The Dead Bird (1958), a brief text Charlip had plucked from a Margaret Wise Brown collection, he painted deep-toned primitivist tableaux. 
Fortunately (1964), the exuberant 
tale that seesaws between good and bad fortune, joggles accordingly between hot carnival colors and stark black-and-white. Each turn of the page — theater, to Charlip — brings a startling new composition, a new storytelling move.

charlip_arm in armArm in Arm (1969) brought Charlip’s genius for verbal play and pictorial invention to a peak. Verbal play and pictorial invention conjoined: “Two octopuses got married and walked down the aisle arm in arm in arm in arm in arm…” is exemplified by a fluorescent couple, long tentacles entwined, who could have come out of the Beatles flick Yellow Submarine.

Among the equivocal cartoons, visual puns, and other antic embodiments of the endless tales and other echolalia is many a rainbow — this, more than ten years before the AIDS epidemic and the gay community’s adoption of the rainbow flag as its emblem. Was Charlip a prophet, a visionary, a herald? When Arm in Arm was reissued in 1997, in a partially re-designed edition, it was out-and-proud: the white cover and endpapers became rainbow-hued all over, and Charlip himself appears on the last page in a rainbow-striped sweater.

 

Tomie dePaola (b. 1934)

Tomie dePaola, that most mild-
mannered of creative personalities, took the bull by the horns — gently, of course.

nana upstairs first ed_fixed2First, there was lots of freelance illustration; dePaola was a thoroughgoing pro. And there’d always be, along with the imperishable Strega Nona (1975), many other books of a folkish or religious nature. But dePaola was not long in addressing childhood joys and woes — foremost, the joys and woes of his own childhood.

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973), about his feeble great-grandmother and his bustling grandmother, came out at a time when the decline and death of a grandparent was a going topic in picture books, and endures when others have long vanished. For one, it’s not a demonstration model, it’s life — you couldn’t make this stuff up.

For Tommy, at four, Nana Upstairs, largely confined to her bed, is a fine companion, even a playmate and co-conspirator. On his visits they share candy mints from her sewing box and talk away about the Little People in the room’s shadowy recesses — sitting side-by-side, Nana Upstairs tied for safety into a big Morris chair, Tommy tied in his chair, too, at his own insistence. How, then, will he cope with her death? In a still, echoing picture, Tommy, who’s been told, rushes upstairs to Nana Upstairs’s room: “The bed was empty.” You may cry, too.

Oliver Button Is a Sissy (1979) is a spunky book about a spunky little boy with gay signifiers, Tommy/Tomie by another name. Oliver, in short, likes to do things that boys aren’t supposed to do — like reading and drawing pictures, even playing with paper dolls and dressing up, singing and dancing. No baseball for him, no kind of ball. So he’s sent to dancing school “for exercise,” and he thrives. Even when he’s tormented by the other boys for his tap shoes (and has to be rescued by the girls), he persists — and at the local talent show, he’s a star.

Not long before, kids might have gotten a very different message from another reputable book. In William’s Doll (1972), written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by William Pène du Bois, William is taunted by the other boys for wanting a baby doll to take care of. His father, like Oliver’s, is ready with a basketball, and William, unlike Oliver, has nothing against playing ball; he just wants a baby doll too. Leave it to grandmother: he needs the doll, which she gets him, “so that he can practice being a father.”

Not, in 1972, a gay father.

26 fairmount 1DePaola was a brand, and beloved, before he returned to the story of that budding song-and-dance man, in 26 Fairmount Avenue (1999), and, in Tomie’s childhood voice, carried it forward. The ensuing series is partly a documentary, taking in the 1939 World’s Fair, the March of Dimes, Pearl Harbor…It’s partly a family sitcom, with cameos for a host of Irish and Italian relatives. But in its naive, confiding way, it’s also an object lesson: Tomie, a born performer and artistic wunderkind, is encouraged at home and at school; on holidays and other occasions, he dresses as Mae West and the Farmer’s Wife; at five, he puts on his mother’s makeup. Never does a child tease him or an adult look askance. It’s OK.

He’s OK. You are, too.

But all is not hunky-dory. In the last book of the series, For the Duration (2009), dePaola revisits Oliver Button Is a Sissy, with a less sanguine, more realistic outcome. A group of older boys, his brother Buddy’s friends, call him a sissy and seize his beloved tap shoes — and Buddy does nothing to help him. It may even be Buddy, Tommy/Tomie comes to realize, who has egged them on. (Resentment? Envy?) The sympathetic principal will tackle the problem (discreetly), but, she suggests to Tommy, it would be better if he brought the tap shoes to school “in a paper bag or something…”

Complexity: addressed by dePaola with tenderness, wit, and imagination — as Sendak, Lobel, Marshall, and Charlip themselves did time and again. They were gay, talented, and gifted also with insight.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

For more in The Horn Book’s Pride Month series, click on the tag Pride 2017.

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About Barbara Bader

Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.

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Comments

  1. Ann Voss says:

    I was in Library school at Catholic University when I read of James Marshall’s death. I sat there and quietly cried. My compatriot at school thought something awful had happened. It did. I forgave him years ago for picking on Cleveland.

  2. Cynthia Marshall says:

    To Ann Voss..Your message really touched me deeply. I have been crying about him today. The loss of James was profound and I will never recover from it. Thank you.
    Cynthia Marshall

  3. Thank you for posting this article. Such sensitivity in writing, capturing the essence of life.

  4. Elise Katz says:

    All very beautiful comments. And, an unexpected and unique article. Thank you.

  5. K-Fai Steele says:

    Came across this great post! Would love to see another like it about lesbian-identifying female picture book writers and illustrators. Curious what scholarship exists around the similar not-so-distant historical challenges that those women may have faced in this field.

  6. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    K-Fai Steele, check out this Horn Book article by Lesléa Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies. It’s from 1997 (!) but still — unfortunately! — quite timely: http://www.hbook.com/1997/03/choosing-books/horn-book-magazine/heather-and-her-critics/

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