Some of the most beloved classics of children’s literature were created by flaming queers.
It’s touching to know that baby gays were being read the words of our family before we even knew it, sometimes by queerphobic family members who never would have allowed it if they had known. The authors were all closeted (at least in their professional lives) at the time these books were published in the 1940s to 1970s. As Tomie dePaola put it in 2019 after coming out later in life, “If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest… and schools wouldn’t buy your books anymore.”
But now that authors like him we were able to come out in more recent years, word needs to get around about these books because it can healing (and mind-blowing) to know that gay authors were with us in our childhoods. We’ve made some of the world’s most amazing technology and art… and some of the sweetest little picture books, too.
Arnold Lobel came out to his family as gay in 1974, four years after Frog and Toad Are Friends was first published. He never said that the two leading characters were in love, but the pair did show a generation how two guys could live a happy life together without marrying women. Lobel passed away from complications due to HIV/AIDS in 1987.
Gay author-illustrator James Marshall was close friends with Maurice Sendak, another author-illustrator who appears twice below. Marshall’s children’s book series about two hippos named George and Martha includes seven books published between 1972 and 1988. The books inspired a 1999 television show starring the voice of Nathan Lane as George Hippo.
Margaret Wise Brown carried on an affair with married woman Michael Strange/Blanche Oelrichs in New York City. They would fight and break up regularly and during one break-up Brown took some time alone at her house in Maine where she wrote a poem that became Goodnight Moon. The book was originally published in 1947 and is estimated to have sold 50 million copies since.
Maurice Sendak told the New York Times in 2008 that he never told his parents he was gay: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.” His book In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970, is frequently challenged and banned because of the child character’s nudity.
In Miss Nelson Is Missing from 1985, James Marshall (of George and Martha) and Harry Allard use imagery of hiding in the closet and drag. Marshall passed away from complications due to HIV/AIDS in 1992.
Gay author Tomie dePaola received the Children’s Literature Legacy Award for his lifetime contribution to American children’s literature in 2011. Perhaps his best known work of over 250 children’s books, Strega Nona was published in 1975 and won a Caldecott Honor in 1976.
James Marshall teamed up with Harry Allard for The Stupids as well, a series of four books published between 1974 and 1989. The books are frequently challenged because they may encourage children to be disobedient.
Maurice Sendak (of In the Night Kitchen) lived with his partner Eugene David Glynn for 50 years until Glynn’s death in 2007. Where The Wild Things Are was published in 1963 and has sold over 20 million copies.
Some of these books (In The Night Kitchen, The Stupids) were banned in their time even without their authors being out or having queer content. With the current wave of book banning targeting queer authors and authors of color, we should remember that queer authors have always been here and that classic literature wouldn’t exist without us.