This article originally appeared in SCBWI‘s July Insight.
Hi. I’m Mike Curato. I was asked to share what it’s like being an openly gay/queer children’s book author/illustrator. Here are a few snapshots:
My first book is coming out! It is called Little Elliot, Big City! I have to write a bio for the jacket flap. Do I say that I am married to a man? How would it affect sales? I decide not to mention it. But an Easter egg on one of the pages reveals his name.
I see Tomie dePaola speak for the first time at an SCBWI conference. He is sassing the whole audience in his floral silk scarf. That’s the man who wrote Oliver Button is a Sissy. He wrote it for a boy like me. I feel safe. Later we are introduced, and Tomie reads my F&G. He has kind words of encouragement. I see his long career spread across the smile on his face, and it gives me hope.
I am on my first book tour. I am at a Catholic elementary school. It’s very familiar to me. Same uniforms, same linoleum, same portrait of the Sacred Heart. Are the teachers the same as well? Should I be careful about what I share about who I am? Do I sound too gay right now?
I am still on my first book tour. I am in middle America, bound for a very small town that rallied hard to get me to visit. Do they know who I am? The woman who was supposed to pick me up has hurt her back. Her husband picks me up instead. It’s mostly a quiet ride as I see fewer buildings and wider stretches of fields. I am very nervous. Then he mentions his daughter…and her wife. And I can breathe again. I receive the warmest welcome of the whole tour. A librarian thanks me for coming to their “fly over state.” She gives me a knowing look and says that there are a lot of good people there who are happy to have me.
I read Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, & Peter Sieruta. I get to the chapter about gay authors, illustrators, and editors. I am blown away. These were names I learned as a child. If only I knew who they were as well. What could have been different for me? I want to do that for my readers. I want them to know who I am.
I illustrate Worm Loves Worm, an inclusive book about love and marriage by JJ Austrian. I dedicate the book to my husband, and he is mentioned on the flap this time. Upon its release, it is immediately embraced by many. I also receive my first (poorly written) hate mail, and the book is lambasted on an ultra-right wing website. WLW receives numerous honors and mentions. It is a frequently read title at Drag Queen Story Hour at libraries across the country, while some libraries ban it.
I am on a book tour for a new Little Elliot book. I am just south of the Mason-Dixon line. I am asked not to mention Worm Loves Worm in the presentation. This says “we want you here, but not all of you.” This says “we think there’s something wrong with you.” This says danger. My publicist says I don’t have to do the event, but I go because there’s an auditorium full of kids waiting for me. I stand in front of them smiling and reading and hiding my shaking hands. I look into the bleachers and look for that kid. The one like me. The one who needs to see me. The one who needs to feel safe. I wish I felt safe.
I am reading WLW to a public school classroom. I explain that I am married to a man. A child shouts out “EWW! That’s GROSS!” I want to snap at him, but I take a breath and say, “It is not gross, it is just different.” He is not having it. Who taught him that? I know it wasn’t the educator who invited me. Was it his parents? Was it his church? Was it this entire society? “Just different,” I repeat, forcing a smile.
I am in the backseat of a town car on tour. The male driver makes small talk. I try to avoid personal questions. I dread the inevitable: Are you married? You have kids? Why not? What does your wife do? What’s her name? You watch the game last night? I try to reassure myself that nothing bad is going to happen if I am honest. But I lie anyway, a few octaves lower than my usual register. I check Google maps every few minutes to see how far we are from the hotel. This happens during some car rides to/from the airport on every tour. Sometimes I’m honest. I endeavor to be completely honest from now on.
I am at a book reading. A queer family approaches with a few copies of my books to be signed. We are happy to see each other. They are just as nice as the straight couple and their kids who were before them. But we’re all smiling a little extra over something we don’t even need to say out loud. This also happens on most tours.
I have an idea for a graphic novel. It’s based on my experiences as a closeted teen. I write it. My agent and editor love it. I get a contract. I illustrate it. It is simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing I have ever made. I also finish it during one of the hardest times in my life. That is to say that I am no longer with a husband to mention on the jacket flap. It comes out in September and it is called Flamer.
I spent years making this book, and all those years I have also been mentally preparing for its reception. I know it will be polarizing. I know it will be controversial. I know it will be banned. I know it will make my experience with Worm Loves Worm seem like (wedding) cake. But I say “bring it.” Because I wrote this book for the people who need to read it. Because what I’ve shared with you in this tiny article just scratches the surface of my existence. Because queer people are dying of a pandemic.
This world tells us everyday that we’re not supposed to be here. Sometimes we are erased by others. Sometimes we are erased by ourselves. How do we vaccinate against hate and self-hatred? How do we protect queer children from the lies they are told? How do we protect them from their own hand? One thought is for them to see themselves in an honest light in people, in stories, in realities that reveal the truth of their value.
I’m Mike Curato. I am gay and queer. I am proud. And scared. But not too scared to tell the truth. I make honest books for children. All children. And I won’t give that up for anything.