I’m on tour this week promoting my new book, Little Elliot, Big Fun. I love school visits. I love seeing kids’ pictures of Elliot lining school hallways. I love the excitement the students have about this little character that means so much to me. I enjoy meeting educators around the world who are passionate about books and about inspiring their students. It’s a very special feeling to be so welcomed by complete strangers wherever I go.
This morning, however, I did not feel welcome. I arrived at a school where the principal’s main concern was that I not talk about one of my books. They were referring to Worm Loves Worm, written by the talented JJ Austrian, and published by Balzer + Bray.
Worm Loves Worm is a book about inclusion. Worm and worm want to be married, but all of their friends have some input about what a real wedding (and a real married couple) should be like. They try to go about things the traditional way, but in the end, they have to do things a little differently, because what really matters is that worm loves worm.
The book is obviously about same-sex marriage. Though I am one of the people who made this book, I can safely say without arrogance that this is an important book. It’s important for children of same-sex couples to see their family represented in books. It is equally important for children who are not in such a family (especially for children that have zero exposure to LGBT people) to be able to see people (albeit in worm form) who are different from their family.
How come? Why should it matter that these kids learn about a family that they don’t interact with? If someone doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage, why should they be forced to read this? Why should an educator or parent have to talk about a topic that they are uncomfortable discussing? What difference will reading about worms make in the world?
It makes all the difference.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter if you are pro or anti same-sex marriage. The fact remains that same-sex couples exist. It is this visibility that makes the difference between acceptance and hatred. We all fear what we do not know, and WHO we do not know. We live in unsettling times. Every day we are exposed to “us and them” rhetoric. What if we all knew each other’s stories? What if we could see each other’s pain and loss, what if we knew why this person is always in a bad mood, or why that one never speaks? What if we knew how much love the other is capable of? If we knew all of these stories, I doubt we would have as many problems as we do. I think if we knew each other’s stories, the world would have less fear and more understanding, less hate and more compassion.
LGBT stories need to be shared with all children. People always talk about the “gay agenda.” I think there is such a thing, but it’s not to turn everyone’s kids gay. It’s to be seen. It’s to be heard. It’s to be recognized as fellow human beings.
So, this morning, when I was asked that I not mention this book, no matter how politely, that was a coded message. It read: You are not entirely welcome here. It said: We will accept this one part of you, but there is something wrong with the rest of you. It wondered: Maybe you’re trying to hurt our children. It silently yelled: Don’t give us any more problems when it’s easier to ignore this. It spelled out: YOU. ARE. NOT. SAFE. HERE.
And it hurt. Right down to my core. My body shook. My throat gripped my windpipe. My eyes welled up with watery shock.
But guess what? I’m a big boy. I swallowed all that ignorance, and I went on with the show because the people who really get hurt are these kids. They aren’t given the chance to get to truly know some pretty awesome people. And then there’s that kid in the audience (actually, probably a lot more than just one) who already know that they are different. They know that there’s something about them that won’t be accepted. They already know at a very early age that they have to play by certain rules to be accepted and loved.
And that’s how the cycle continues. These “different” kids are kept from knowing themselves and anyone like them. The “normal” kids don’t learn how to be a proper friend or neighbor. And then they grow up, and so do their fears, and with it their shame and rage. And it starts all over.
Don’t worry, my story has a happy ending! I reached out on Facebook for some love. Wow. Do I have some amazing friends. All their love and support is what started to turn this day around.
I received over 100 loving, funny, reassuring notes. I got teary all over again, but this time is was a good thing. Folks at Macmillan got in touch with words of love and encouragement. And THEN…
A few hours after all this went down, I received a message from Alessandra Balzer at Balzer + Bray:
I laughed out loud. The universe is the very best author. It knows the perfect moment for some poetic justice and an ironic TWIST! And now I am writing this because it is important for me to share my story. It’s important for you to know that ignorance is our constant enemy, and that love is our eternal answer. I’m writing because I am an author, and an illustrator, and gay, and a husband, and a friend, and a son, and a brother, and an uncle, and a film buff, and a sugar fiend, and a karaoke singer, and your fellow human being. And I love you.
If you would like to vote for Worm Loves Worm (or any of the other amazing books that have been nominated) for Goodread’s Best Picture Book of 2016, please click here.
For more personal insights about Worm Loves Worm, please read my book release post.