In the past, LGBTQ+ kids were forced to discover heroes where ever they could find them. A friend of mine shared that he’d had a crush on Astro Boy, and it’s easy to see why other fictional characters like Peppermint Patty and Harriet the Spy became role models, when most real celebrities were closeted, or presented to kids, as straight. For decades, biographies written for young people tiptoed around issues of gender and sexual preference, lauding folks like Walt Whitman, Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo and Virginia Woolf, but sharing their accomplishments as if they were just part of one straight, cultural legacy. Queer people of color were mostly ignored in this mostly white legacy too. In their introduction to Queer Heroes, author Arabelle Sicardi explains:
As a child I would get lost in the pages of fantasy books, searching for people who looked and felt like me. But they were always few and far between. The ones I did find, I held on to and used them as an anchor to keep me into place–to find my spot in the world. Reading about the lives of people who were as confused, scared and curious about the world as me made me feel less like I was failing at being a person. They were the family I needed to get me through hard days. But most of them were fictional.
Queer Heroes offers kids an exciting alternative, biographies that honor people’s queerness as integral to their accomplishments. Young readers will recognize celebrities here of their own generation, like transgender activist Jazz Jennings, singer Sia, and anti-gun activist Emma González, as well as queer mega-stars from the recent past, such as David Bowie and Harvey Milk. Inclusion of heroes like lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde, Paralympic athlete Claire Harvey, and Jordanian publisher Khalid Abdel-Hadi expand models for kids of queer heroism outside of, and in reaction to, the white, abled, western mainstream vision.
Another triumph–these biographies includes occasional mentions of successful partnerships of these heroes. For example, Japanese writer Nobuko Yoshiya’s biography shares that her relationship with her partner Monma Chiyo lasted 50 years. Though same sex marriage was illegal, “The couple did not try to hide their living arrangement, and lived openly as lesbians.” That a statement like this seems bold and new only emphasizes how thoroughly queer success stories have been erased from kids’ views.
These one-page biographies include enough information that students could use this book as a reference for school reports. So while this book most importantly models for queer kids, it also expands straight kids view of who their heroes can and might be.
Sarah Tanat-Jones’s illustrious portraits glow with lavender and gold, deep blues, peaches, and magenta. Informative symbols frame these memorable icons: Josephine Baker is fringed with bananas, borders of Act Up pink triangles outline Larry Kramer, and scientist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala is ringed in planets. Backmatter includes an index and a list of useful sources (books and websites). And an eclectic and equitable glossary defines words like “drag queen” and “unisex,” but also “radical,” “bachelor” and “CEO.” I checked for “enfant terrible,” but that will have to wait for (hopefully) a subsequent volume. This exciting, essential breakthrough book needs to be in every library and bookstore, where kids and their supportive adults can find it.
By Arabelle Sicardi/Illustrated by Sarah Tanat-Jones
Wide Eyed Editions
Hardcover, 9781786034762, 64 pp.