Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Open Hearts and Closed Minds

“Teenagers travel in droves, packs, swarms…To the librarian, they’re a gaggle of geese. To the cook, they’re a scourge of locusts. To department stores they’re a big beautiful exaltation of larks…all lovely and loose and jingly.” With this quote, dated 1960, from Macy’s advertising director Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, Evan Wolfson began his piece in this week’s Huffington Post telling how Macy’s has decided to celebrate the California decision to uphold marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Wolfson said, “Inclusion and welcome actually strengthen businesses (and communities),” reminding us (but who knew?) of Macy’s motto: “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.”

Having typed the above two paragraphs (mainly quotes), and with the overattentive help of Microsoft Word, let me outline the points I mean to draw out from these thoughts:

"Gaggle of geese"? Anybody who has read the blogs of young adult librarians is aware that their jobs are frequently focused on gooseherding.  Despite or because of this, young adult librarians have a finger on the pulse of what matters to teens. Therefore, they are busy providing programs, books, and counseling services for the kids that come through their doors, including pointing kids toward relevant books, if available.  Ask a young adult librarian (or bookseller, for that matter) today for a book on gay civil rights and watch them struggle to find something to hand you or your young person. 

"Scourge of locusts"? What cook wouldn't welcome such grateful, appreciative locusts who are willing to experiment and hungry for…food. For kids, life’s rich smorgasbord is limited only by the menu. What message is sent when publishers don't publish nonfiction books about a particular minority group? 

"A big beautiful exaltation of larks…all lovely and loose and jingly.” Gosh, I love that. An "exaltation of larks, all lovely": beautiful, young, and joyous. "Loose"? Instead of being what we’re all afraid of, loose here means, again, open, willing to consider, unprejudiced. "Jingly"? Well, jingly with what? Money? To spend on what’s available, whether it’s books, food, or whatever Macy’s tries to astonish them with?

My conclusion: kids are open, new, willing to consider, and willing to buy. Which brings me to gay civil rights, which is one of the things with which Macy’s has decided to try to astonish them – and all of us – these days. High time. Which brings me to the sheer numbers of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer kids (an estimated 2.5 million in the U.S.) and their legions of straight friends, teachers, and family members.  Open, outspoken, and organized (with more than 3500 Gay Straight Alliances nationwide), this demographic and their supporting elders swell the ranks of open-hearted, open-minded adults who are shifting and will continue to shift the mind-set of our nation regarding gay rights. 

That Macy’s motto is worth repeating: “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.”   Really?  How does reaching out to those who support gay rights work for businesses? If you’re uncertain about this, take a look at the Fortune top 50. Only one of these has failed to offer equal employment rights to its GLBTQ employees. (It’s ExxonMobil.)
 Of the Fortune 500, 92 percent include sexual orientation in their employment nondiscrimination policies.

Does Macy’s motto put you in mind of OUR business, publishing? Not so much, I’m betting. Or does the collective motto seem more like “Stick to the familiar path, do what has worked in the past, and try not to freak out the customer”?

I grew up a white, Christian, straight girl who read a hundred books a year (I used to keep a list, okay?). Among my favorites were war stories (especially World War II and the Civil War) and biographies: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Louisa May Alcott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller, Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank. Whenever I wrote a report, it was about the struggles of my heroes as they strove for civil rights. And I followed the news, as anyone who has read my novel “Outside In” will attest, well aware of what was going on in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

And I grew up with a lot of GLBTQ kids, well aware of their isolation and persecution, ridiculously unaware of who their heroes were.  Unfortunately, I think this lack of understanding on the part of young GLBTQ kids of who their “people” are, what they’ve acomplished, and what challenges remain is woefully sparse. So, I ask: 

1. Where are the children’s and young adult books on the gay civil rights movement in America?

2. Where are the biographies of the GLBTQ heroes?

3. Where is the publisher that understands the needs of its young audience – that lovely, loose, and jingly exaltation of larks – and is willing to respond to it? Which editor is willing to stick out his or her neck? Which acquisitions committee will expand their scope? Which publisher will open its list to new ideas? Which publisher is willing to astonish?


Sneed B. Collard III said...

Great timing that you ask these questions! Larry Dane Brimner has written a wonderful new biography, WE ARE ONE: THE STORY OF BAYARD RUSTIN, published by Boyds Mill Press. The book has won several important awards and is not only a wonderful chronicle of the Civil Rights movement, but a wonderful biography of an American hero who happens to be gay.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

The ccbc listserv -- a glorious gaggle of librarians and children's authors -- just completed a month, or was it two weeks, of deep and lively discussion about GLBQT literature, along with lists of relevant books. (I believe the ccbc archive holds all the posts.)There are more than you might think, though not enough, of course. And most of that is fiction. I heartily agree that we need more young nonfiction on the subject.
BTW, as a citizen of California, I'm proud and thrilled about all the upcoming marriages!

Anonymous said...

Great post. Well argued. Remember that a lot of the publishing in this field for adults was initially done by small independent presses (and much of it still is). Maybe they need to be opening up to a younger market. But you are right, the big boys in this business need to take a few risks.