On Friday evening Brian Selznick delivered the 46th Annual Arbuthnot Honor lecture at Martin Luther King Jr. Library in downtown Washington, D.C. to a packed house of hundreds of librarians, educators, and youth literature aficionados. This lecture series was established in 1969 to honor May Hill Arbuthnot, educator, children’s literature critic, professor, and author of both the famous Dick & Jane books and the seminal textbook, Children and Books. In her introduction, Sue McCleaf Nespeca, chair of the 2015 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, described their reasons for selecting Mr. Selznick as this year’s lecturer, citing both his groundbreaking The Invention of Hugo Cabret and his powerful speeches in the wake of that book’s awards. His lecture, titled “Love Is A Dangerous Angel: Thoughts on Queerness and Family in Children’s Books,” promised to be a thrilling additional contribution to children’s literature–and indeed, it was.
Brian Selznick, dressed in a snappy navy blue paisley suit and black bowtie, stepped on stage and thanked his family (including his mother & husband, both in attendance), friends, co-workers, editors, and, finally, the ASL interpreters for the evening, to whom he spoke and signed his gratitude and advance apologies for speaking quickly. His humor and personalized acknowledgements set the tone for the evening.
He opened his lecture with a quote from the late Maurice Sendak, who gave the Arbuthnot lecture in 2003. Mr. Selznick noted that Sendak is his “great hero” and when Hugo was awarded the Caldecott Medal, he was especially thrilled that the award would forever link his name to Sendak’s–an honor that the Arbuthnot lecture enriches further. To begin, he read out the six sections of the first chapter in May Hill Arbuthnot’s Children & Books. He used these section titles to structure his lecture, artfully intertwining his evolving understanding of his own identity and his career with his thoughts on the shifting visions of queerness and families in children’s books.
He began with “The Need for Security,” reflecting on his own childhood, his emerging attraction to boys, and the absence of role models as he struggled to understand his identity. “I thought I was alone . . . I didn’t know anyone was gay,” Selznick exclaimed. “I didn’t know that Michelangelo, or Walt Whitman, or Oscar Wilde, or my favorite artist Leonardo Da Vinci, was gay. I didn’t know Maurice Sendak and Remy Charlip were both gay!” This absence of a history and community became a clear and powerful theme that Mr. Selznick explored with increasing width and depth.
During the second section, he focused on “The Need to Achieve – to do or be something worthy” and here the Selznick delved further in the topics mentioned in the lecture’s title: queerness and families in children’s books. Selznick defined that in this context, ‘queer’ is a slur re-appropriated by the people it has been used against and it has come to mean “any questioning of mainstream society’s received rules and wisdom.” He reflected on his complicated creative and personal struggle to create works that recognize and celebrate queerness. Then Selznick segued into an contemplation on “created family” as a growing theme in his work first in Hugo and later, in Wonderstruck, a story in which he intentionally explored both created family and the “queerness of being deaf.” Selznick saw a similarity between his experience as a young gay boy alienated from a community and history and the experience of many deaf individuals growing up in hearing families separated from a larger world of deafness and a history of deaf people. He referenced Andrew Solomon’s concept of horizontal identities–identities linked to others outside the families of our childhood.
This conversation transitioned perfectly into the next section,”The Need to Belong”– that human urge to be part of a group, a community, and a history. Arbuthnot’s original text explaining this topic holds a clear subtext: that sympathetic portrayals of minorities/underrepresented groups existed so that majority (in this case, white) children would learn to understand those different from them. Selznick noted that while this wasn’t necessarily a bad goal, it is not enough; it is important for the minority children to see themselves represented. We all need to know that we are not alone–that we are part of a larger history and community.
Selznick gracefully shifted to a discussion about AIDS, gay history, and young adult novels that represent shifts in these topics’ treatment in literature for youth. To audience’s clear excitement, he announced that his newest novel, The Marvels, will be his first with out gay characters and one of its two narratives takes place in the shadow of the early 1990s AIDS crisis. Selznick described his struggle to decide whether or not to use the word ‘AIDS’ in the book and, in turn, recalled a novel that made an intense impression on him: 2005 Edwards Award winner Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat–a story that he describes as “love in the time of AIDS” in which AIDS is never explicitly named. His love letter to Weetzie Bat was also a paean to research–he told an epic tale of tracing reviews and letters to editor about the novel, of tracking down a librarian seemingly intensely opposed to the novel and chatting with Francesca Lia Block herself. From Weetzie Bat, Selznick went onto discuss David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2004 Best Books for Young Adults) & Two Boys Kissing (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults) and the evolving history of LGBTQ teen experiences and generational shifts, gaps, and conversations as illustrated in those two novels. Again, Selznick emphasized the importance of knowing–and recording–communal histories of oppressed and underrepresented peoples. “Having a history gives you scaffolding, it builds you up,” he stated.
On the topic of shared cultural history, Selznick shared that he had recently read the Bible from cover to cover. He had come to see it as “a collection of stories about what it means to be human.” Selznick went on to share thoughts on the message of love in the New Testament and on the painful ways that the Bible has been used to justify hatred and violence–including the highly relevant example of the case of Loving v. Virginia. And again, Selznick brought it all back to his declared topics of discussion–queerness and families. We are reaching another moment in history when the question of who gets to decide the definition of a ‘family’ has returned to the Supreme Court and Selznick declared that the answer is very simple: families will decide what families are.
And with final references to Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, gay family history, queerness in books without any out gay characters, role models, and “The Need to Love and to be Loved,” Brian Selznick closed out his lecture, ending with these final poignant words:
“In the beginning was the word. The end is a mystery.
And in between, there’s love.”
Happily, the D.C. Public Library recorded the lecture and it is available online here. I really recommend that viewing it in full because it is a powerful and thought-provoking speech for anyone invested in literature for children and young adults.
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier