At Keshet we know how important it is to provide diverse resources for families. Last year we worked with author Elisabeth Kushner to create the first Jewish themed picture book featuring an LGBT family, The Purim Superhero. When we heard that S. Bear Bergman, Jewish educator, author, and storyteller, was creating an LGBTQ2S-themed book club, we knew we needed to learn more. Read on to get the scoop on the Flamingo Rampant Book Club, which features picture books for 4-8 year olds. Joining the book club means you’ll receive six books throughout the year. Bear is currently raising funding to support the project.
What was your inspiration for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
The truth is I was reading to Stanley, my four-year-old one night before bed. We had some new LGBTQ2S themed picture books, which my husband, who’s an expert on the topic, had ordered. These were out of print or from small publishers. Stanley asked if we could read the new books, and I said “sure, why not?” But every single one of them contained really difficult, extended descriptions of bullying. We read a couple, but eventually he looked at me and said, “I don’t want this anymore. I don’t like these bully stories.”
And all of a sudden I started thinking: “What are we sending our kids to bed with? What are the last images and stories that we’re offering them to carry into their dreams?”
The books we’d just read were fairly horrible–I mean, everything turned out all right in the end. But the descriptions of bullying we’re so substantial, they almost seemed like manuals for taunting, ostracization, and harassment. I’m a writer, and a lecturer; I do a lot of work around questions of gender and sexual orientation and I have for more than two decades. I am fortunate to be married to a guy who, among his many sterling personal qualities, is an expert on creating celebratory and inclusive classrooms for people of all genders and sexual orientations.
The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club include full stories of people of color written by people of color. Why was this important for you?
My family, which includes my chosen family, is fairly racially diverse and certainly diverse in terms of genders and sexual orientations. And my artistic community, ditto. We really wanted books that represented the world in which we actually live, and we also wanted to contribute positively to the experiences of families of color–especially LGBTQ2S families of color. At the moment, there are–as far as we know–only three or four books anywhere at all that feature lesbian or gay or bi or trans families that are anything other than white.
The industry average for representations of people of color in children’s books in 7%. To me, that’s a really shameful number. The prevailing wisdom within publishing directly mirrors the inequalities that already exist in our society–girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. Parents will buy books featuring white children or families for their Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children, but white parents won’t buy books featuring Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children or families for their white children. The result of all this is that the overwhelmingly majority of picture books center on white children; mostly boys.
So much of LGBTQ literature for kids focuses on stories of overcoming bullies and challenges centering on their (or their families) LGBTQ identity. The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club take a different approach–how has this shifted the narrative of the book club?
There are so many other things to talk about! That’s the thing that I find so bewildering. Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome. Flamingo Rampant Book Club’s mandate is positive representations. If people really feel that they urgently require a book that is about bullying in order to bring some realism, there are plenty of books for them already.
If a family isn’t LGBTQ, is this the right book club for them?
Absolutely. This book club is a good fit for any family regardless of sexual orientation, gender, family size or style, race, ethnicity that wants their children to grow up with positive messages about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queerer, or gender-independent people. That’s all that’s required. Whether your family knows LGBTQ2S people or not, these books all center around a story. So there’s plenty to hold the attention of a young person, and plenty of opportunity to open up conversations about issues of gender or sexual orientation without it seeming abstract, or like it’s coming out of nowhere. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who does a lot of work and writing around parenting and spirituality and was an early supporter of Flamingo Rampant’s first project, told us that her favorite thing about those books was that they gave her a way to talk to her children about gender roles that was based on something they had just positively experienced together.
I also got the following email recently from a friend, who had just received it from their friend:
Do you remember the book you gave [our daughter]–The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy about Transgender children? We had a friend visit who is trans and we read the book to [our daughter] so she could better understand who [our friend] is. [Our daughter] got very excited after I read the book to her, saying ” so [our friend] used to be a girl and now he is a boy” I said yes and then she said very happily: “so that means Fairies are real” That’s life with a four-year-old.
What has surprised you during this process?
Honestly, I have been surprised at how many people have marginalized this series as something that would only be of interest to LGBTQ2S parents and families. Of course, it’s lovely to have affirming books to show our children that represent our family and family like ours. But my kid sees positive images of families like ours every day-he lives in one! Think about the child who doesn’t get any specifically positive images of LGBTQ2S families. That kid is left with whatever filters through from media, and whatever kids say on the playground. I hope progressive, feminist parents will also recognize this book series a powerful tool for positive change in their families, schools, libraries and so on.
What’s next for you and for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
Well, the next 20 days will be devoted to getting enough people to sign-up that we can make this project happen. If 450 families don’t sign up for subscriptions, or if we don’t get the equivalent in funding, then there will be no books for anyone. So right now, I’m hustling to make sure we get the most media exposure that we can manage to make sure that the message reaches as far as I can get it to reach. After that, a nice nap. And after that, I’ll be doing some dates with the Jewish Book Council this year to various Jewish Book Festivals across the United States, continuing to perform and lecture at universities and festivals, trying to figure out the kindergarten drop off and pick up schedule, and trying to make some progress on my novel.
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A year ago The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, a story of a young boy named Nate struggling with his Purim costume, hit the shelves. The book, the winner of a Keshet book-writing contest, represents a first in Jewish children’s literature—an inclusive story with LGBT characters. This year, the book was added to PJ Library’s collection—for individuals who opted in.
Reactions to PJ Library’s decision to offer the book only when requested have been mixed. Some people have heralded the decision as a step towards inclusion. And some people are applauding the effort, but are wondering why the book isn’t available to everyone.
When PJ Library conveyed the news of the limited run on their Facebook page, it was shared over 440 times. Within less than 36 hours, the book sold out. We’ve gathered some of the reactions we’ve seen—on Facebook, over email, and from conversations—to share (unedited) with you.
Jan Oosting Kaminsky: I am so happy to hear that there are many enthusiastic people who are ready to order this book, and we purchased several copies last year when it was first released and distributed them because it is such a sweet book! However, I have to say that I am disappointed that PJ thought this book so controversial that it had to be distributed through a separate link! Honestly, is it so shocking to have a loving family with two fathers who care for their children that this had to be sent separately?? In no way does this book talk about LGBT issues – it simply shows a family with two fathers. I have received our PJ Library books for many years gratefully, but this was the wrong decision, PJ Library. Making this book a special order degrades our families, makes us feel shameful, second-class, all of the things that hurt LGBT families so much every day in the Jewish community and beyond. I appreciate your perspective, but the fact is every other book that we received from PJ has an opposite-sex-parented family in it. I am happy that this book is being publicized, but very sorry that it was not distributed widely and in the same manner as every other PJ Library book. It hurts.
Bari Greenfield Gilbert: Thank you! Very much look forward to getting it! My children have Jewish friends with two Dads and it is amazing that this book exists and that you are offering it. Children who see these different family makeups make for less ignorance – more tolerance – and, hopefully, less hate in this world! Thanks again! I hope everyone takes advantage of this opportunity for their children – and for themselves!
Lisa S Greene: PJ Library: We love your books. And would love it if you would add The Purim Superhero to the regularly distributed books going forward. It is warm and wonderful and supports the individualism of the protagonist.
Wendy Barnet: So pleased that so many people want this book. As a retired Jewish educator, I am so proud of Kar-Ben Publishing and PJ Library for taking a risk by offering, The Purim Superhero. All Jewish children should see themselves in our Jewish literature and our temple libraries.
Lisa Rabinowitz: Thanks! So happy you made this decision. It would have been even better if you just sent it as your monthly offering without having to order it.
Emily Mathis: Thanks for making The Purim Superhero available as an extra offering — I hope you will include it in your regular offerings, just as you’ve done with an orthodox book we received. You have an amazing sphere of influence, and I hope you will use it to the extent you can.
Carrie Bornstein: Thanks for the extra gift of a Purim story featuring two dads, PJ Library! Perhaps you’d like to send it to all of your families? After all, some of the books you send me don’t reflect my practice either, like the family who comes home on Rosh Hashanah day to bake challah and cook their meal. Thanks for sending that one anyway – it invites me to offer a lesson in diversity when I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to order it online.
Naomi Sunshine: My two daughters have been receiving PJ Library books since they were babies, and I am very grateful to you for the monthly gift, which has helped me teach them about Jewish holidays, traditions and values.
I wanted to share with you my disappointment that you’ve chosen not to send the book The Purim Superhero to all your members, but only to families who specifically request it. I know you put a lot of thought into this decision, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
As a proud Jewish mother and a proud lesbian, I aim to surround my children with a rich Jewish life. But I have to be honest with you. When I read things like your blog post “In Search of Perfect Gifts,” coupled with your decision not to make this book available the same way you do so many others, it hurts. And it makes me wonder whether the Jewish community you are creating really wants me as a member.
The message that you send to families like mine (and there are lots of Jewish LGBT people and families) is that we are second class. That families like ours should only be read about by children whose parents go to the great lengths of finding out that you are offering the book and then ordering it. That our lives are so marginal that you could not possibly send a book that features a family like ours to everybody, because further marginalizing LGBT families is a lesser evil than offending homophobes.
Now that you’ve heard the word on the street…. What are your thoughts about The Purim Superhero and the PJ Library’s decision to offer the book to families who request it?