From Cinderella to King and King – the rise of alternative fairytales
Cinderella, The Princess and the Pea, Sleeping Beauty…You won’t find traditional fairytales like these at a special event being held later today at London’s Southbank Centre. Alternative Families, Alternative Fairytales – part of the Imagine Children’s Festival – is the first major public event dedicated to the 19,000 children now living with same-sex parents in the UK – and addressing the lack of literature reflecting their experience.
Of course, to grow up and not remotely recognise yourself in any of the characters you encounter in books, films, theatre or television can have a hugely detrimental effect on a child’s psychological development. It can make that child feel invisible, weird, like they aren’t fully welcome or included in society or that their life — or family — is something to be covered up or even ashamed of. All of which can cause devastating damage to a child’s sense of self-worth.
And this isn’t just the case with children of same-sex parents but also children of single parents and step-parents, or disabled or minority ethnic children for example — basically anyone in any way different from the norm. But thankfully children’s fiction seems to have most of these areas covered now.
And very recently I’ve been heartened to see that it’s even starting to explore the lives of children with gay parents. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole tells the true story of two male penguins in New York Zoo who fall in love and are given an egg to incubate as their own, which then turns into a chick, Tango. King and King by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland is about a queen’s attempts to find a suitable bride for her son, the prince; only when he falls in love with a perfect groom, the whole kingdom celebrates.
And Picnic in the Park by Joe Griffiths and Tony Pilgrim revolves around a little boy’s birthday, which brings together guests from all sorts of different family units — including single parent families, adoptive and foster families and gay and lesbian families.
Together books like these show that it’s fine to be different. They send out a positive message to children of same sex parents, making them feel validated and showing them that their lives are just as important as those of children with both a mum and a dad.
But of course this kind of subject matter in children’s literature has always been controversial. In 1983 a copy of the English translation of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Danish author Susanne Bosche, was found in a school library.
The resulting controversy was a major factor in the passing of Section 28, which forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality as an acceptable family relationship by any school or local government employee.
Of course the architects of Section 28 failed to recognise two fundamental points. First of all, that homosexuality can’t be taught, ‘promoted’ or even chosen; I grew up in an entirely straight world but that had no success turning me straight so I can’t see what chance there’d be that a straight child reading a book about a little girl with two dads would suddenly realise he or she wanted to be gay.
Of course if a child already knows that they’re gay, which most of us do from an early age, then a book like this can be reassuring and let them know that they aren’t alone and they aren’t a freak. Which brings me onto the second point forgotten by Margaret Thatcher’s government; in its haste to protect straight children from the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, it failed to recognise its duty to protect gay children too. And let’s not beat about the bush, gay children are far more vulnerable than straight children. Believe me, I’ve been there.
But all that’s old news now. Since Section 28 was repealed in 2003 David Cameron has formally apologised on behalf of his party for introducing the law and has called it a ‘mistake’. And over the last ten years attitudes towards same sex parenting have changed – perhaps as a result of high profile gay parents such as Elton John and David Furnish as well as TV shows such as Threesome and The New Normal.
So I strongly believe that these new picture books should be universally welcomed. And I can’t wait to see what children of same sex families make of them at the Southbank Centre later today. But if they’re to fulfill their potential as tools of social change, and themselves help transform attitudes towards same sex families, then it’s important that they’re read by children with straight parents too.
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