Books / Culture

Brian Selznick and Our Funny, Funny Families

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the 46th Annual Arbuthnot Honor Lecture. If you haven’t heard of this lecture, don’t feel too bad–until shortly beforehand, neither had I. May Hill Arbuthnot was an author and educator, with a focus on children and reading. She helped create the series best known as “Dick and Jane,” as well as writing a textbook on teaching children to read (Children and Books). As such, the lecture is to be given by somebody who will present a paper considered to be a “significant contribution to the field of children’s literature.” I expected an interesting and informative speech. I didn’t expect to cry.

Brian Selznick

PHOTO CREDIT: FOX BUSINESS

It was 10 p.m., the library was all but shut down as a handful of people and the library staff waited patiently for their turn to have their books signed by this year’s lecturer, Brian Selznick. I waited until the end, in part to spend some time with a friend of mine who works at the library and in part because I had nothing for him to sign. But I couldn’t leave without saying something, without letting him know that it had moved me.

When my friend posted a reminder about the event, I saw it and knew I had to go. I didn’t know much about the author himself, much to my embarrassment, but the title–Love Is a Dangerous Angel: Thoughts on Queerness and Family in Children’s Books–screamed out to me as a parent, as a queer person, and as somebody who loves children’s literature.

And when he stood up and started talking, I did know him. I knew him because he was me. And you. And every child who’s been lost and confused, who’s cobbled together their own resources by reading deeper into their stories, by finding the stories about persevering and finding ourselves and finding our families in stories that queer the norm, even when there’s nothing “queer” about them. He spoke of his own childhood, growing up and not even knowing that “gay” was a thing. He spoke of the art he’s created–with words, with pictures–and the way that queerness has worked its way in, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes less so. He spoke of learning what it was like to realize who you are and that, in doing so, you’ve inherited a great family history, one that may not be genetic, but is yours all the same.

An excellent speaker, he had the audience enthralled as he commented on the need for explicit representation so that kids can look at materials and see themselves looking back. He talked about the changes in attitudes between generations and how amazing it is that kids are now coming out younger and younger, safe and secure in their knowledge of being loved. He also said that, on his book tour, he made a point of coming out to each and every audience he addressed because if there was even one kid in that audience who’d been told that the things they feel are bad or wrong, he wanted them to know it could be okay and the things they were hearing at home or at church weren’t true.

Bringing it home again, he pointed out that, whatever struggles we’ve been through, we have persevered and are still here and are now raising our own families–“Our Funny, Funny Families,” as he pulled from Dick and Jane. And we’re raising them to know that whoever they are, whoever they may love, it’ll be okay.

Anybody who knows me knows that I don’t cry. So to say that I even teared up a little (sidenote: it was more than a little) as I watched him on stage is to say something massive about his moving speech. Even in this day and age, to watch somebody giving a speech meant to be a “significant contribution” to the field, and to know that it was about people like us, people like me. To know that the world is changing, and that our children will see themselves and their families reflected back at them, was far more overwhelming than I’d anticipated.

I was not alone, though. “I just wanted to get through it without crying,” he told me, after I’d stumbled through my comment. “And I almost made it. Right to the last word.”

And what was that last word?

It was love.

The 2015 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture was hosted by the DC Public Library, and here is Brian Selznick’s lecture. He will endear himself to you with his charm, his humor, and his heart.

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One Comment

  1. Deborah Goldstein says:

    I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed and appreciated his lecture. I know it’s longer than your average coffee break, but I do hope that people take the time to watch. Thank you for bringing Brian Selznick to VillageQ!

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