Raccoons, teachers, drag queens… and me

Children’s Book Week (the 100th anniversary, yet!) snuck up on me this year. I should have created a raft of clever social media posts around Raccoon Rescue and my other projects in the children’s book world but… I didn’t.

I did, however, wear red on Wednesday, May 1, in support of the organization SC for Ed which staged an #AllOutMay1 Day of Reflection. Then, teachers marched on the state capitol to demand better pay and working conditions. I posted a picture of myself in my red tank top to show my support for the teachers who do an amazing job with our kids (and even in support of those who fell short, because I know what burnout feels like and what it can do to your motivation).

Just showing up can make a difference

Admittedly, I’m not the most active of activists. Crowds overwhelm me emotionally. I struggle with verbal expression, especially in emotionally charged situations, and so I’ll do just about anything to avoid a confrontation. I’m far more comfortable writing about issues (including through Postcard Parties!), though I have absolutely donated to workers’ strike funds.

Sometimes, though, circumstances converge to a point where I can logistically show up, and where I feel strongly enough about something that I can put myself aside for a few hours. I did this in January 2017 protesting the immigration ban, attending a Pride rally last June, and again this past January, in support of Drag Queen Story Hour.

Really, I couldn’t justify not showing up. It hit too many important points for me: children’s literacy. Freedom to be who you are, to exist the way that feels right for you. (Years spent not fitting in at schools, workplaces, or social events make me sensitive to this.) Heck, the event was happening at my local library — not just part of the county where I live, but literally at the branch located only a few miles away from home.

So with my sons and a few friends from the animal rescue, we went out to help cheer on some drag queens.

I didn’t anticipate how that Sunday afternoon would affect me personally, but watching those queens parade into the library, heads and heels high as if they walked on red carpet, I felt what it took to be themselves.

True, they can take off the glitter and the feather boas and the makeup and still be men and still benefit from that particular privilege. But while women, especially Black women, face the “death by a thousand papercuts” of daily microaggressions that accumulate over time… these men faced full-on macroaggression in the crowd of protestors.

And the point isn’t that they’re men and should be able to throw a punch. It’s that they’re exploring the sides of themselves that don’t want to throw any punches at all.

Looking at the queens from the kids’ point of view

The conservative Christians who showed up worry about “what message we’re sending our children.” To me, though, children’s literacy only starts with the written word. “Literacy” has such a profound meaning that it’s also come to cover digital technology, finances, the environment, and even social interaction. Literacy, in short, is about communication in all its forms.

Kids’ eyes and ears and souls are innocent. Some might look at a man in drag as simply funny. Others might see a beautiful fairy-tale princess. But to the child who wants to dress up in glittery tulle instead of superhero garb, or who loves to pretend when their parents see no value in it — Drag Queen Story Hour represents permission to be themselves.

So my question to those protestors is: what message are we sending the other way? Are we telling our daughters that their femininity is worth so little that men shouldn’t explore it? Are we telling our sons, not just that we don’t accept their feminine side, but also that femininity isn’t worthy of aspiration?

It’s sad to think that some parents are so threatened by the notion of “being themselves” that they’ll punish, shame, even disown their children for doing it. Somewhere along the way, those parents learned that repression and conformity is the price of survival in an unforgiving world.

But there are plenty of kids for whom that price is far too high. Those are the kids we lose to suicide, drugs, eating disorders, and related diseases. What’s the point of surviving if you can’t live as you wish? And so Drag Queen Story Hour also represents community: the knowledge that you are not alone.

Back to the teachers… and the raccoons

I started this post talking about my support of #RedforEd. To me, it has two things in common with Drag Queen Story Hour:

  1. The end goal is to benefit children directly…
  2. … by means of living your truth out loud.

Low pay, large classroom sizes, few breaks, and other conditions are a different way of forcing people into survival mode. It might “build character,” but only when there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And moralizing about character when superintendents (and cishet people) live quite comfortably is far too thin an argument.

Both labor strikes and Drag Queen Story Hour are about standing up in the face of a system or a society that demands they sit down, shut up, and conform to majority expectations. Speaking the truth of your existence, alongside others speaking theirs, is our best defense against tyranny.

And look, I get that both sides are equally afraid of tyranny and of being silenced. The difference is that the side asking for acceptance already knows what it feels like to be oppressed, and they’re not looking to do it to anyone else… and being asked to make room isn’t, in itself, oppression.

There are parallels to the themes running throughout Raccoon Rescue and the other planned books in the Living Wild Side by Side series. All too often, we humans expect to live our lives unencumbered by wildlife making homes out of our attics and crawlspaces and decks. When they do, our solution is to eradicate it.

I started writing the Living Wild series because to me, ultimately, literacy is about empathy: our capacity to recognize ourselves in others. Whether through characters in a book, or living, breathing humans, we can and should be able to see that the way we live isn’t for everyone, whether it’s out of their reach or simply doesn’t fit.

Good literacy helps us, in other words, to tap into the way we felt when we didn’t fit in, and learn how to make the kinds of accommodations — physical, emotional — that others failed to make for us. It’s about communicating that we’re safe to be around — safe to be who you are, because I’m who I am, too.

I think that’s the message we want to send our children most of all.

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