One recent children’s book has incorporated LGBTQ content so unassumingly that you may have missed it.
The latest board book in the Tinyville Town preschool series, however, by New York Times bestselling author and illustrator Brian Biggs, not only features a gay protagonist, but shows him in bed with his husband. The Philadelphia-based Biggs was kind enough to share with me the story behind the story.
“Tinyville Town: I’m a Librarian” is the fourth in this cheery series that introduces us to residents of the eponymous town. Those of us who grew up with Richard Scarry’s classic children’s book “What Do People Do All Day?” will find echoes of it here — but with bold, modern illustrations and human characters instead of Scarry’s anthropomorphic animal citizens.
In this latest volume, we meet the town librarian going about his day, answering people’s questions and helping a boy find a book. Biggs said via email that although the librarian is never named in the text, “in my head, his name is Kevin.”
At the beginning of the book, we see Kevin in bed with another man, who is turned away, half asleep, asking what time it is, as Kevin sits up and looks at the clock. At the end of the day, the man is already asleep again as Kevin sits in bed reading. The scened embody domestic tranquility: One senses that the two have been together for some time.
“Yes, Kevin has a husband,” Biggs confirmed. “And as far as I know, my book is the first children’s board book to show two dudes in bed together.” (It is not the first board book to show two-men couples, however; there are already several on the market. Visit mombian.com for a list.)
He noted how the idea developed.
“As I wrote synopses of the various characters that make up the first several books in the ‘Tinyville Town’ series, I knew that Kevin would be gay,” he explained. “I never expected it to come up. It was just backstory for me. Originally, he was there alone in bed, surrounded by books.”
As he developed the story, however, Biggs said, “I moved away from ‘books’ and toward ‘information’ as to the main thing that a librarian does. And since a librarian probably isn’t going to be giving information to himself, I needed a partner.”
This precipitated a conundrum.
“I wrote to my editor, in a bit of a panic since I assumed the publisher would never let me get away with this, and asked whether I’d be able to draw a guy in Kevin’s bed — a husband,” Biggs said.
He said the publisher, Abrams Appleseed, replied a day later.
“They were very much for it, and would support the book in the event of any potential blow-back.”
Traci Todd, his editor at Abrams, said via e-mail, “Brian let me know early on that one of his goals for the series was to show each character’s morning routine: The firefighter wakes up in the fire station, the vet wakes up with her family and pets, and so on. So, if Kevin has a husband, naturally, he’s going to wake up with his husband. The end.”
Yet Biggs said he didn’t want to make the book “about a ‘gay librarian.’ Rather, it’s about a librarian — a librarian who happens to be gay. Big deal. Like real life. My other books aren’t about straight veterinarians and mail carriers. It’s never mentioned there; why should this be any different?”
He understands, he said, that “so many books (for good reasons, of course) are about ‘My Two Moms’ or the like and make the book about that.”
He chose to take a different approach, consistent with his other works.
“I wanted it to be the same as the African-American mayor or the female police officer in other ‘Tinyville Town’ books,” he said. “The stories aren’t about them being black, or a woman. They just are. Again, just like in real life in any halfway diverse community. A kid in the 21st century should see it and think, ‘Huh, he’s got a husband’ and move on. Or not notice it at all. Who cares?”
To stick with this nonchalant approach, he said, “We didn’t mention it in the promotion copy, or advertising. And somewhat surprisingly, we haven’t caused the stir that I kind of secretly hoped we would. Maybe if the series was a best-seller it would have raised some hackles from the red states. I don’t know. But it’s gratifying that, for the most part, all I get are ‘Thanks for doing this.’”
The negative feedback has been minor, he said, noting, “There was one review on Amazon that asked ‘Why, even in picture books, are children having GAY forced down their throats?’ A few weeks later, the review had been removed. I was actually kind of disappointed by the removal. That was the writer’s opinion and I feel she had the right to express it, and really, it just made the whole argument against featuring a gay character seem so stupid anyway.”
“Since the book came out, I’ve had people tell me how they appreciate this normalization of the relationship,” he said.
The one downside of such a normalizing approach, however, is that the tale may escape the attention of many parents actively seeking books with positive LGBTQ characters for their children. Now you know. Check out “Tinyville Town: I’m a Librarian” at a bookstore or library near you — and make sure to leave a rating and review at your favorite online bookstore too.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.