I Am What I Am: My Reading Journey

Jon Biddle’s work on ‘Reading Rivers’ on the Research Rich Pedagogies website run by @OpenUni_RfP  and AF Harrold’s moving look back at the books which have shaped his life, inspired and encouraged me to reflect upon my own reading journey and the books which have shaped my life.

ian 1 As a child, I hated reading. That should probably read HATED reading! Reading for me involved sitting with a parent helper, in a gloomy room outside the classroom. It involved reading stories about Roger Red Hat and Jennifer Yellow Hat. I don’t remember talking about books or characters or storylines. I certainly don’t remember laughing at a book whilst at school.  I had an old tobacco tin in which I had a collection of words to read out loud and practice every night. I was actually a very fluent reader but I hated reading. It led to me sitting next to our parent helper (poor woman), folding my arms and refusing to read.

I certainly enjoyed listening to my mum read to me every night. I remember Garth Pig and the Ice-Cream Lady by Mary Rayner and many, many Alfie and Annie-Rose stories by Shirley Hughes. I remember laughing, joining in, feeling warm and feeling safe. I remember plaiting my mum’s hear as I listened spell-bound to Alfie’s trip to the seaside and his discovery of his own special stone, Bonting. Later when we visited Norfolk, I found a huge, grey, beautiful stone on the beach and named it Bonting.

However, it wasn’t until Year 6 that I finally enjoyed reading independently. I had a wonderful teacher – a teacher called Mrs Perry who loved art and drama and reading and creative writing. I don’t even know how it began really. I know she read to us lots. I didn’t particularly like reading so would often sit at a listening station, earphones plugged in, listening to a magical tale about a horse, read by a silky, smooth voiced narrator. She allowed me to write my own children’s story (I’ve no idea what everyone else was doing while I was doing it) and the excitement I felt when I finally saw it in print – especially as back in those days it took a whole day to print something out! I know there were books everywhere in 5/6P and I know one day I picked up ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl. And I was off!

After that there were all the Super Gran books by Forrest Wilson, Rebecca’s World by Terry Nation and The Enchanted Horse by Magdalen Nabb.

Later on books would save my life and become an escape. At secondary school I was bullied. I was pushed and shoved every day. I was sneered at, laughed at, made fun of, called gay and disgusting. I was spat at, kicked, prodded, poked, strangled, whispered about and ostracised.

This happened every day from the age of 11 until I was 18. It was a brutal, calculated onslaught that aimed to degrade me and make me feel worthless. It worked.

Every day I wondered where the next attack might come from and why they were doing this.

As a teenager I certainly retreated into books – I often sat in the library, which was a safe, often empty, place to sit quietly and escape. I was desperate to find someone, anyone in a book that reflected what I was going through. I wanted to be able to connect with a character or author who had been through the same thing, safe in the knowledge that if they could work their way through this strange, new world then perhaps I could too. I read and I read and I read and found nothing. I was searching for something that would help me understand my shifting, precarious identity.

Indeed, as Cremin (2007) notes:

Reading for pleasure is oriented towards finding personal meaning and purpose and related to the human need to make sense of the world, the desire to understand, to make things work, to make connections, engage emotionally and feel deeply.  

I wasn’t actually aware of any gay men in literature who were my age or experiencing what I was going through, when I was around ten and eleven and then as a teenager. Still, I read and I read and I read – always looking and searching for a sign I wasn’t alone.

As I grew up there was Russel T Davies’ groundbreaking ‘Queer as Folk’ and NBC’s hilarious ‘Will and Grace’. But books that tackled the issues I was facing seemed few and far between, an elusive part of my identity that was missing. And books that presented queer characters as ‘just being’ were non-existent.

Ilana Masad (2017) in an article for the Guardian, recognises that queer subtexts have long been evident in children’s literature, although historically have often been difficult to recognise. She discusses how characters such as Pippi Longstocking and Harriet the Spy have been adopted as lesbian icons, as they do not fulfill the ‘heteronormative expectation of girlhood, especially for their times.’ Masad also makes reference to the fact that ‘the implied-queer male characters tend to be animals, an easy way to depict gentleness and softness in men (whether meant to be queer or not) without inviting criticism.’ Think Ratty and Mole, Pooh and Piglet and Ferdinand the bull who would rather spend his days smelling the flowers in the field than fight.

However, during my teenage years and early twenties, I did not have the ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu, 1977) to be able to ‘read in-between the lines’ and find and adopt these characters.

I did however manage to find a few books that spoke to me, that provided glimpses of a better life and supported me in negotiating a personal framework of strategies and beliefs to manage my identity.

Finding stories that help you through the process of coming out and ‘identity synthesis’ (Cass, 1979) are vital because they help us produce an account that is our ‘own special creation’ and help us discover who we are and how we fit in the world (Coyle, 1992).

So what were the books that shaped me, helped me to ascertain who I was and helped me consider how I might fit into this strange, new adult world?

Paula Danzinger’s This Place Has No Atmosphere

this palceI found this book when I was 12 or 13 years old. This sci-fi/rom-com inspired YA story follows the plight of Aurora Williams, a 15 year old who lives in the year 2057. There aren’t any parks left, children take classes in ESP and there is a colony on the moon. Aurora is popular, happy and settled – everything I wasn’t. And then suddenly everything is taken from her when her parents announce that the whole family are going to move. To the moon. Aurora is dragged sulkily to the moon to start her new life but with water rationing, freeze-dried food and no atmosphere, how will she ever adjust and feel at home again? This book is warm, hilarious and I think spoke to me on many levels, even though it did not have any LGBTQ+ characters in it. Aurora, through no fault of her own, is stripped of everything she holds dear, everything she feels defines her and makes her worthy of love and respect. At the beginning of the story, she is a brattish teenager concerned with shopping, boys, music, parties and fitting in. She is, however, required throughout the story to reinvent herself and piece together her own narrative.

Aurora does not allow herself to be dictated to; she does not allow the failings of her society to belittle her or eradicate her spirit. She fights every day to manage the tense, unstable and ever-changing social interactions she is faced with and thus becomes an active, knowledgeable agent who consciously constructs ways of dealing with her tarnished, unstable identity. In the end she decides to stay on the moon – she realises it is not perfect but knows that she has the power to improve the world and society in which she lives.

After that there was Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster,1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell,  and Judy Blume’s Blubber. And Mariah Carey. Lots of Mariah Carey. Her lyrics handwritten and posted around my room offered joy, comfort and understanding of what it meant to be ‘other’.

Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: Balthamos and Baruch

amberThe ‘His Dark Materials’ series by Philip Pullman is stunning – challenging, exciting, mysterious and  moving. The trilogy follows the brave, daring Lyra Belacqua, the daughter of Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter, who finds herself in the middle of a cosmic war – her father on one side and the first angel (The Authority) on the other. This radical, epic book tackles philosophy, religion, government and original sin and moves expertly from exciting, political thriller to quiet, love story from a frightening murder mystery to a fantasy adventure with armoured ice bears and witches and daemons. How many of us, I wonder, longed for our own daemon to comfort us and provide a glimpse into our inner thoughts and dreams. I read these first and then passed them on to my mum and later on to my older brother, Neil. As a family, it’s very special to have a book that is ‘ours’, that we can talk about, share and that binds us in a way only a good book can. When ‘The Book of Dust’ came out recently, I sent copies to both my mum and brother, who now lives in Devon.

Pullman’s angels, Balthamos and Baruch, were my first experience in literature of love between two men. I remember at the age of about 14 or 15 being excited, shocked, elated and comforted by it, all in equal measure. What was fascinating to me at the time was that their relationship was presented without explanation or apology – they are just two male angels in love. And what characters they are – brave, daring, courageous, driven and dedicated. They assist a young boy called Will Parry on his journey to save Lyra and do so with nerve, wit and determination. So when Baruch is wounded in battle and dies, my heart broke. The bond between the two lovers is so strong, that Balthamos immediately feels the death of his partner:

“…he only knew that half his heart had been extinguished. He couldn’t keep still: he flew up again, scouring the sky as if to seek out Baruch in this cloud or that, calling, crying, calling; and then he’d be overcome with guilt, and fly down to urge Will to hide and keep quiet, and promise to watch over him tirelessly; and then the pressure of his grief would crush him to the ground, and he’d remember every instance of kindness and courage that Baruch had ever shown, and there were thousands, and he’d forgotten none of them; and he’d cry that a nature so gracious could ever be snuffed out, and he’d soar into the skies again, casting about in every direction, reckless and wild and stricken, cursing the air, the clouds, the stars.” (Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, 2000)

It is a heart-breaking, dizzying, breath-taking, achingly written part of the story that meant an awful lot to me as a teenager. It meant that men could be in love and that their love could be just as powerful as any other relationship. Even though Balthamos can be sarcastic and contemptuous, and often unlikeable, his love for Baruch provides him with strength, clarity and meaning. I always hoped that, however unlikeable I felt I was, a love as powerful  was waiting for me and that gave me strength in the darkest of times. They were an anchor that connected me to other characters who were like me and so made me feel less alone. They were in a relationship that I could aspire to one day to be in myself. Balthamos and Baruch meant a great deal to me, and still do.

After that there was Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Henry V, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, sneaky attempts at buying Attitude magazine and all the John Grisham novels that lined my parents’ overflowing bookshelf. Oh, the excitement of standing at that bookshelf for ages, poring over books and choosing my next crime novel! I felt very grown up indeed!

The last piece that I’d like to share with you is a poem I found in my early twenties by John Gilgun, called The Way They Are:

‘The Way They Are’

The way they are when a gay boy enters the room

and they tack like a sailboat and their eyes

alter automatically and their faces

grow long and their synapses discharge

in a different way and we’re back again

with Dad who is disappointed in us

and Mom who tries to love us anyway

and Bud who views us with contempt

and Sis who understands but even so…

And let him just comb his hair

or roll his eyes or click his tongue

and they tip sideways like canoes

and their eyebrows become as stern

as wooden boxes or silent pews

and a tick tick noise begins

and they are tight lethal bombs.

And if he goes home for Christmas dinner;

they make him aware that the Sears sofa

hates him too and the refrigerator

and the Kenmore washer and drier.

Yes, the metal lips of the kitchen sink

are forever pursed against him

and the gravy boat disapproves

and the wallpaper wishes he’d go away.

Upstairs in his old room

among high school yearbooks and toys,

his heart pulsates like a moth

and he knows he came from another galaxy

and that in his inviolate soul he is a poem.

Then the Mickey Mouse lamp leans toward him and whispers,

“You were made for love, made for love, for nothing but love”

(Gilgun, 1999)

This haunting poem powerfully describes the brutal personal and social pressures forced upon gay youth by a homophobic, unforgiving society. Gilgun’s rich, painful poem captures all the nasty, vile whispers, the disapproving looks and terrifying loneliness that I had experienced myself.

However, just re-read the last part of the poem:

his heart pulsates like a moth

and he knows he came from another galaxy

and that in his inviolate soul he is a poem.

Then the Mickey Mouse lamp leans toward him and whispers,

“You were made for love, made for love, for nothing but love”

Alexander (2000) notes that ‘the poem ends on an affirmative note – affirming and reaffirming an indomitable spirit that cannot be wished away by prejudice or ignorance’. Indeed, the poem certainly gave me the courage to face these conflicts, challenge them, manipulate and re-shape them and the hope that I too could re-build and piece myself back together again. I used this poem as part of my dissertation, where I researched and explored (using Goffman’s theory of stigma and self-presentation) how modern gay men present themselves and carve out an identity in today’s society.

Making connections

So what have I learnt from taking the time to reflect on my own reading journey and my experiences of reading?reading j

  • It’s reminded me of the importance of being read aloud to – the joy, the laughter, the feeling of safety that Mrs Perry and my mum created for me
  • It also reminded me of Mrs Perry’s gentle hand in helping me choose books – her knowledge of children’s books meant she could guide me to a range of different books, even when I was unwilling and too nervous to try new challenges
  • It also highlighted my lack of knowledge about books that could support diversity and teach about the LGBT community and the need to research and find out about them in order to offer the children I teach a rich and varied diet of books
  • It has certainly re-ignited my passion for books, which I try to share every day with the children in my class. My children loved one of my new discoveries ‘Rooster Wore Skinny Jeans’ by Jessie Miller, a riotous celebration of being different and standing out, especially as it had the line, “What’s not to love? Are they being sarcastic? These jeans are amazing: my bum looks fantastic!” Rooster-Wore-Skinny-Jeans-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEG
  • Books help us ascertain who we are and where we fit into in the world – which characters do we sympathise and connect with and why?
  • It’s reminded me of the different roles books have in our life – certainly there’s been many times when I’ve read solely for pleasure, but I have often also read for power, for confidence, for the chance to see myself reflected in others, for knowledge and for comfort. When I had a breakdown a few years ago, my husband sat next to me and read to me and I began to re-read the Chronicles of Narnia, escaping on a daily basis from what was happening to me into a mystical, frosty land. Books can and do provide a magical doorway into another world.

The books that I have been drawn to throughout my life have celebrated an exposure or reversal of power. They were what Ewick and Selby (1998) call ‘subversive books’. Aurora, after having everything taken away from her, re-constructs her identity and finds ways to improve the lack of atmosphere and strict, stifling regimes on the moon. Pullman’s angels love and fight honourably against a corrupt government and religion. The young boy in Gilgun’s poem knows he is still made for love, despite being treated with contempt and disgust. These stories offered me information about how the status quo could change, and be changed, over time.

Moving forwards

So why is it important that we have books that meet the needs of LGBTQ children? At a time when 45% of LGBT students are being bullied in our schools and more than four in five trans young people have self-harmed (Stonewall, 2017), books that subvert and challenge traditional social structures are more important now than ever.

Publishers and authors are now going some way to rectify the lack of representation of LGBTQ+ characters in children’s literature. Stonewall have produced a brilliant list of books which tackle these themes and a number of organisations have produced informative lists of books that can be used to support and develop our children’s empathy.

There are some fantastic books for younger children, such as ‘King and King’ and ‘This Day in June’ which champion LGBT characters. Brilliant authors such as Katherine Rundell (The Wolf Wilder), Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Island at the End of Everything), Simon James Green (Noah Can’t Even), Adam Silvera (History Is All You Left Me) and Patrick Ness (Release) have created some beautifully, well-rounded and  memorable characters from the LGBTQ+ community.

I can only hope that publishers and authors continue to create fully dimensional, human, realistic characters from the LGBTQ+ community in order to support and champion children from every walk of life.

All children deserve to see themselves in the books and stories they read. We need bold, exciting, engaging, well- written books that whilst directly tackle queer relationships and fluid gender identities also humanise and normalise them. I had a lovely reply from Katherine Rundell to a question I asked about Ilya in ‘The Wolf Wilder’ which captures this sentiment exactly!

k rundell

If the only books children see about sexual identities are ones where the characters have to overcome struggles, or where the characters are adults or where the books only aim to celebrate difference then Farrah Serroukh argues that ‘this can undermine the normalisation of reader realities and potentially problematize self-perception’ (2017). As Serroukh says, children must never feel like they are excluded from the literacy space. This is important because children’s books ‘can shine a light into the corners of possibility for children searching for signs that they are not alone in their otherness’ (Masad, 2017).

As teachers, we need to allow children the opportunity to talk about the social structures and relationships in books. Our questioning should allow our children to make what Keene and Zimmerman (1997) call ‘text to self’ and ‘text to world’ connections. By making these connections, they will know that they are not alone and that they have the agency to improve the world around them because books and ‘fabulous’ stories can provide them with a “a repertoire of tactics for future use”(de Certeau in Ewick and Silbey, 1998). It is books that can become our ‘weapons for the weak’. If children have access to these types of books and teachers can sensitively and carefully direct them to a range of books that teach about ‘otherness’ then they will begin their reading journeys with the knowledge, compassion and understanding they need to challenge inequality and replace the “what was” and “what is” with “what ifs” and “what could be”.

And finally, I’d just like to re-direct you to the last part of John Gilgun’s  beautiful poem:

Then the Mickey Mouse lamp leans toward him and whispers,

“You were made for love, made for love, for nothing but love”

edward tulaneWhen I married my husband last August, friends and family read extracts from Debi Gliori’s ‘No Matter What’ and Kate DiCamillo’s ‘The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane’, their words and stories ushering in a new chapter in my life. Throughout my life I haven’t had a Mickey Mouse lamp to offer words of encouragement, love, advice, knowledge and comfort – I’ve had books and I look forward to the next part of my reading journey, wherever it may take me.

 

Twitter has played a large part in my discovery of new books. So many people are keen to share their love of children’s books. Here are some other Twitter teachers and organisations talking about similar things…

@ilanaslightly

@storyriver

@maverickbooks

@grahamandre

@cazzash

@GenderCharter

@OpenUni_RfP

@moffat_andrew

@LetterboxLib

@chrisdysonHT

@stonewalluk

@Mat_at_Brookes

@_Reading_Rocks_

@BranwenBingle

@_KnightsOf

@whatSFSaid

@Booktrust

@LGBTedUK

@MrEFinch

@MrBoothY6

@redgierob

@marygtroche

@thatboycanteach

@thatgayteacher

@smithsmm

@Booktrust

@ysm_books

@books_gay

@booksfortopics

Further reading…

Alexander, J (2000) Telling the Stories of Our Lives: An Interview with John Gilgun, International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 341–351

Ash, C. (2017) We Need to Talk About Fairytales…

https://carolineashblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/26/we-need-to-talk-about-fairy-tales/

Austrian, J.J. and Curato, M. (2016) Worm Loves Worm. Balzer + Bray

Cass, V.C. (1979) ‘Homosexual Identity Formation: A Theoretical Model’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 219-235.

Cass, V.C (1984) ‘Homosexual Identity Formation: Testing a Theoretical Model’, Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 20, pp. 143-167.

Chbosky, S. (1999) The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pocket Books

Temple, E (2017) ‘CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE ON HOW TO WRITE AND HOW TO READ’

Connell, R.W. (1992) ‘A Very Straight Gay: Masculinity, Homosexual Experience, and the Dynamics of Gender’, American Sociological Review, Vol. 57, No. 6, pp. 735-751.

Cremin, T. (2007) Revisiting reading for pleasure : diversity, delight and desire in K. Goouch, and A. Lambirth, (eds.) Understanding Phonics and the Teaching of Reading, Berkshire: McGraw Hill.166-190

Danzinger, P. (1986) This Place Has No Atmosphere. Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Ewick, P., & Silbey, S. S. (1998). The common place of law: Stories from everyday life. Chicago,

IL: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self Identity. Cambridge: Polity.

Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy. Oxford: Polity

Goffman, E. (1959) Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin Books.

Goffman, E. (1962) Encounters. London: Penguin Books.

Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. London: Penguin Books.

Goffman, E. (1982) TheInteraction Ritual. London: Penguin Books.

Hensher, Philip (2008)”Introduction”. A Fairly Honourable Defeat. London: Vintage

Kander, J. (2011) Reading Queer Subtexts in Children’s Literature

http://commons.emich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1328&context=theses

Masad, I (2017) Queer children’s books have a long history that’s only now being told

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/feb/23/queer-childrens-books-have-a-long-history-thats-only-now-being-told

Millwood Hargrave, K. (2017)The Island at the End of Everything. Chicken House

Millwood Hargrave, K. (2017) His Dark Materials: the enduring, terrifying appeal of Philip Pullman’s world

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/oct/18/his-dark-materials-the-enduring-terrifying-appeal-of-philip-pullmans-world

Murdoch, I. (1970) A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Chatto and Windus. Rundell, K. (2015) The Wolf Wilder. Bloomsbury.

Pullman, P. (2000) The Amber Spyglass. Scholastic.

Richardson, J. and Parnell, P. (2005) And Tango Makes Three. Simon & Schuster

Serroukh, F (2017) Young Children Need Stories In Which They Can Recognise Their Own Lives, Teachwire

https://www.teachwire.net/news/young-children-need-stories-in-which-they-can-recognise-their-own-lives-and  

Singer, A (2011) A Novel Approach: The Sociology of Literature, Children’s Books, and Social Inequality

Troiden, R.R. (1988) ‘The Formation of Homosexual Identities’ in Herdt, G. (1988) (ed) Gay and Lesbian Youth. New York: Harrington Park Press.

Troiden, R.R (1989) ‘The Formation of Homosexual Identities’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 43-73.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Mary Roche says:

    This is an excellent piece, Ian. Well done. It is very moving, yet uplifting. Very brave too, and honest.

    Like

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