Often, I see people say that kids don’t understand a lot of things. They don’t understand sexuality yet, they don’t understand gender, they don’t understand the difference between those things, they don’t understand consent, they just don’t understand. In reality, however, kids very much do understand these things. In some ways, they understand them so much better than adults to, because they’re still forming their own opinions.
For many people, the way we form those opinions depends heavily on our parents for a long time. The information we take in makes a big difference in how we look at the world. Parents spend the most time with their children early on. They have influence on who they interact with, allow certain things to be read or watched or listened to. Later in life, children take in new information and form opinions that may be different from their parents, but for a long time when we’re kids, there’s no more influential of a person than a parent.
I bring this up because acceptance and rejection of so many differences aren’t something children inherently do. No child is born racist or sexist or homophobic. They learn these things from the people who are around them and, most often, that’s parents. The best illustration I’ve ever seen of this is the heartwrenching single-page story, Hand Me Down, by writer Daniel Beals and artist David Lafuente. It was published in the Love is Love anthology last year, as part of the tribute and fundraising for the victims of the Orlando Pulse Shooting. (It isn’t posted online, but if you have the chance to purchase Love Is Love, you absolutely should.) In this comic, you see the perspective of two children playing together. They both go home to parents seeing about the shooting on the news. One set of parents is accepting, teaching their son pointedly that the people he’s seeing are just like them. The other family is blind to their son learning slurs from their lips.
Comics are a vessel for learning. Comics, contrary to what people often think about, are another form of books. What you give to your children matters, and as much as they learn from the TV you watch and the things you say, they learn from the books you buy for them or allow them to buy. You can’t protect them from everything, but you can make conscious choices to give them material that will enrich their lives rather than poison it.
Working in a comics shop, I make it my job to know what I’m giving to people before I put it in their hands. I work with kids in the store often, so I make it my job to know as many of the kids books as I can and what I’ve seen lately is that children’s books are collecting a running theme – acceptance. More and more, there’s representation in the pages for kids that just a few years ago, parents would have shied away from for being “too much.” For being something they “just wouldn’t understand yet.”
Now, though, BOOM! Studios in particular has more than a handful of books that show purposeful acceptance and passive representation. The difference between those two is both interesting and important. Purposeful acceptance is something kids need to see, because this is something they need to learn for all kinds of people in all walks of life. Accepting people who are different isn’t always easy and going out of your way to learn about them is important, it’s good. Things like this happen, for examle, in Lumberjanes, when Barney and Jo have a conversation about what it’s like to not belong, to feel like you’re different. In some cases it can be more dramatic, used as a plot device for the characters to learn about themselves and about others, to learn a lesson.
The passive representation, however, is just as important, if not more. What I mean by “passive representation” is the characters and situations that aren’t explicitly pointed out and explained. These books and this representation does something beyond telling kids they should accept others who are different. It tells these kids that it’s not just okay to accept other people, but it’s okay to be different. In showing representation for characters who are young and bi or trans or gay or agender, creators are allowing kids to find those things in the world to be normal. Less drama is created for these moments because there doesn’t need to be any drama. When Susan from Jonesy confesses her crush on Nisha, it isn’t a big deal because there’s no reason for there to be. Jonesy breezes past it and continues.
For many people, this doesn’t seem important. For people whose only representation is often shown in the form of dramatic plot points, this scene can be legendary. For a child who has no point of reference for “normal” yet, this scene is the new normal.
These are the things that make representation, especially in children’s media, important. If all that a kid sees is one type of person, then that’s what they will think of as normal. When something is sensationalized, it becomes a sensation. Why is it that kids haven’t seen two boys holding hands? Why don’t they see black girls with natural hair represented every day? Why does it take outrage to get the representation that we want? Why did finding the panels I used for this piece take over an hour?
I don’t have answers to those questions, and I suspect I will never have answers to those questions. What I do know, though, is that it’s a new and exciting world out there for kids and it’s a world that will, hopefully, be better for them than it was for us. Lots of things these days make me scared, make me look to the future and see something bleak. These comics, though, and all they mean and represent for the future, give some hope into an outlook that’s already pretty dark. People out there are showing kids that it’s okay. People out there are letting their kids know it’s okay. These kids will grow up knowing that it’s okay. Nothing is perfect. Civil rights aren’t perfect, and they probably never will be, but if there’s a chance that we can have a generation who’s a little more accepting than we are, isn’t that something to keep looking forward to?