By Isabel Millán
October 1, 2023 marked the start of Banned Books Week. Generally a celebratory week when book titles are shared among broader conversations over censorship, this year’s stressed the urgency to “unite against book bans.” The rate at which books are being targeted within the U.S. should alarm all of us. Yet, it is unsurprising that books are being challenged or banned in a calculated effort to stomp out critical race theory, feminist praxis, and all things LGBTQ+. As ALA proudly proclaims, “We Read Banned Books.” Indeed, we should all read, recommend, and continue to elevate banned books.
Many of the queer and trans of color children’s picture books I research either have been challenged, are currently being challenged, or do not have the opportunity to circulate within public school curricula because of their content. Coloring into Existence: Queer of Color Worldmaking in Children’s Literature is my love letter to the authors, illustrators, publishers, and readers of such books. In this project, I engage with picture books such as Asha’s Mums, Antonio’s Card, 47,000 Beads, Casey’s Ball, The Gender Wheel, Are You a Boy or a Girl?, Bridge of Flowers, Love is in the Hair, When We Love Someone We Sing to Them, The Boy and the Bindi, My Rainbow, and many more! Like other titles, My Rainbow is currently being targeted through book bans in schools. In an interview with Vice regarding transgender bathroom rights, co-author Trinity Neal asked “What’s so scary about us?” Her message for other trans kids is “Never give up. Keep fighting.”
As an adult, I am now reading and researching the books I wish I had as a child—especially as a young, queer Chicanita trying to navigate the world. Or, more precisely, trying to make sense of who I was while growing up in a small, agricultural town in California during the 80s and 90s.
Within Coloring into Existence, I am interested in the ways authors, illustrators, publishers, and readers of children’s literature engage creative literary, visual, publishing, and reading techniques to interject a sense of political urgency into narratives for children. I call these techniques autofantasías. As a literary and visual technique, authors and illustrators enact autofantasía by deliberately inserting themselves within the text or illustrations to fantasize about possible responses to hegemonic structures or imagine alternative realities. Meanwhile, publishers mobilize autofantasía when determining what and whom they publish, while readers do so through “misreadings” or autofantastic reading practices.
My research documents the emergence of a North American queer of color children’s literary archive. I chose to focus on the creation, distribution, and potential impact of picture books by and about queer and trans of color authors. This comparative and hemispheric study across Canada, the United States, and Mexico spans over approximately three decades, from 1990 to 2020. It begins with Asha’s Mums—a book challenged by the Surrey School District that made its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada. Another chapter within Coloring into Existence focuses on the courageous work of smaller independent publishers such as Reflection Press (United States), Flamingo Rampant Press (Canada), and Ediciones Patlatonalli (Mexico). Others highlight children’s gender and gender identities (chapter three) and children’s sexuality (chapter four). Lastly, examples of autofantastic readings include reading queerness onto Gloria Anzaldúa’s and Jacqueline Woodson’s picture books, and transness and disabilitiness onto Syrus Marcus Ware’s picture books. As my book’s title suggests, Coloring into Existence also explores the multifaceted significance of “coloring,” which, as in the verb to color, may include the acts of coloring inside or over and outside the lines of a coloring book. It may also refer to coloring, drawing, painting, or otherwise illustrating children’s picture books. More conceptually, coloring captures the act of coloring in characters and, in doing so, racializing and gendering markings on paper.
As literary scholars, we primarily analyze other people’s creative works. In completing my research and writing for Coloring into Existence, I also had the unique opportunity to write and illustrate my own queer bilingual children’s picture book, Chabelita’s Heart/El corazón de Chabelita, and reflect on that process within the concluding chapter or Coda.
From Asha’s Mums to Chabelita’s Heart, all of the picture books included in Coloring into Existence engage in a worldmaking that has the potential to modify our lived experience within our current, literal world. These books aim to shatter our existing assumptions about the current world by presenting alternative worlds—worlds where kids can be gender nonconforming, nonbinary, or trans, and worlds where boys of color can love and be loved by other boys of color, or girls of color can have crushes on each other, wear bow ties, and celebrate activist role models such as Nancy Cárdenas and Berta Cáceres. In providing alternative worlds or realities, this emerging literary field also provides a blueprint for enacting social change and transformation.
Isabel Millán is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon and author of Coloring into Existence: Queer of Color Worldmaking in Children’s Literature. She is also the author and illustrator of the award-winning queer bilingual children’s picture book, Chabelita’s Heart/El corazón de Chabelita (2022). Visit www.isabelmillan.com for more about the author and her publications. Purchase Coloring into Existence from NYUP here.