If the mind is a garden

A friend of mine on Facebook made the comment that if your favorite Disney movie in childhood was Hercules, as an adult you were either gay or a polytheist. (In their case, they are both.) The first time I saw this, it was merely funny; the third or fourth time Facebook showed it to me, a depth charge went off in my brain.

The question of one’s favorite childhood Disney movie is a frequent one in online memes and conversation. Is your heroine Ariel or Mulan? Do you favor The Emperor’s New Groove or The Lion King? Are you an outlier whose favorite was something by Dreamworks, such as Anastasia or The Road to El Dorado?

I don’t have a favorite childhood Disney movie. This is not solely because my father was of the opinion that Disney was evil and the original fairy tales were far superior to Walt’s bowdlerized versions. It’s not that I didn’t see any Disney movies, even. My Aunt Margaret took me to see Sleeping Beauty when I was four or five. I have a vague memory of seeing the one movie that Disney will never re-release or remake, Song of the South, and being so upset by it that I began sobbing hysterically and we had to leave the theater. I think I saw Bedknobs & Broomsticks in the cinema, and learned about the Magical Defense of Britain before I ever read what Gerald Gardner wrote about it. I saw the delightful short features based on the Pooh books of A.A. Milne on television, on The Wonderful World of Disney. And my dad and I went to see The Black Hole in 1979 and promptly pronounced it the worst movie we had ever seen, an opinion to which I hold to this day.

But my childhood took place during the dark ages of Disney, between the glorious animated features like Snow White and Dumbo and before the new golden age of the 1990s, when Disney began releasing their classics on video and making new films that children born in the ’80s and ’90s would think of as classics and childhood favorites. It took place before the VCR. How can I explain the difference it made to my imagination that gathering around the tv to watch the sole annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz? Or the sole broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas and those other Rankin-Bass animations that dotted the month of December? It was more similar to the way our ancestors gathered by the fire in winter to hear stories that were not permitted to be told at other seasons of the year than to our present bingeing of streaming content.

The dominant force in my childhood imagination was not Disney. Disney was not ubiquitous. The dominant forces in my childhood imagination were books: Mary Poppins, The Black Cauldron, Grimm’s fairy tales and Andersen’s, Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. The words of the writers, not cinematic versions. My idea of animation, of cartoons, came neither from Disney nor anime, but from Warner Brothers, from the Bugs Bunny cartoons that were rerun on television every Saturday morning, with their sly humor and references to opera. They made my father laugh as much as me, with a breathless tenor giggle, because he’d seen them in movie theaters when he was a kid, played before the main feature.

I saw the original Star Wars trilogy in the cinema, as a child and then a teenager (and remember vividly that my mother couldn’t believe Han Solo and Indiana Jones were the same actor). My sense of science fiction, however, had already been formed by Star Trek, the original series, watched in reruns on a big black and white console tv. My parents had quite different tastes in fiction, and my interests were different from theirs, but all three of us would sit down and watch a Star Trek rerun or any other science fiction drama. I think I probably saw every sci fi show that aired in the 70s: Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and, thanks to PBS and independent stations, classic Doctor Who, with Tom Baker as the Doctor. I am grateful to have lived before the era of grimdark sci fi and seen shows that were hopeful about humanity’s future among the stars.

My childhood imagination was a wild place, more like a secret garden than a theme park or a playground. Yes, it was sheltered and cultivated; my mother actually had some regard for movie ratings, and I didn’t see Jaws until I was an adult. But it was also unplanned, haphazard, open to multiple influences, teachers, librarians, grown-ups at my church, as well as my parents. My parents wouldn’t take me to an R-rated movie, but they put no such restrictions on my reading, and I read both adult-level books on comparative religion and racy novels stolen from the bookshelf behind their bed. Science fiction, fantasy, books, television, cartoons, hymns and the Bible and mythology, all planted their influences in my mind. When I think about that, and then I think about how whether you take your child to see a Marvel movie, let them watch The Little Mermaid on video, or take them to see the next Pixar film, it’s all the same thing… I see monoculture. I see minds like endless fields of soybeans or corn, planted with one thing, heaped with fertilizers as the natural fertility of the land is sapped by year after year of the same crap. I see wasteland.

I think I’ll close the gates and sow some new seeds in my garden. I don’t want any of the genetically modified stuff that only lets you grow that variety of the plant forever more.

The power of a good story

One of the most delightful things about e-book publishing, in my opinion, is the great number of children’s books that I read as a child which are now available on Kindle. Classics like Charlotte’s Web and Harriet the Spy have remained in print and on bookstore shelves for decades, but on Kindle you can find many of the lesser-known gems.

The Cricket in Times Square, for example, is still available in hardback and paperback print editions, but you can also purchase it on Kindle, complete with the exquisite Garth Williams illustrations. (I still have a tattered and yellowed trade paperback copy from the 1970s.) George Selden wrote six other books about Chester Cricket and his friend Tucker the Mouse, but he also wrote an unrelated book that I borrowed many times from the library and never owned: The Genie of Sutton Place.

I just finished re-reading this book on Kindle. I’m not sure I can summarize it without giving it all away, but it involves an orphaned boy whose dad was an eccentric interested in “the Occult Sciences”, the maiden aunt who takes him in, his dog Sam, and a genie. A genie who has been imprisoned for a thousand years not in a lamp, but in a tapestry that hangs in the National Museum. It’s set partly in Sutton Place, partly in Greenwich Village, with a lot of humor based on the contrast between polite society and the beatnik/hippie/artist culture of the Village. If you read children’s books, no matter how old you are, I recommend it to you. Many of the reviews on Amazon are by adults like myself who grabbed the Kindle edition to revisit a childhood favorite and were not disappointed.

When I first read the book, however, I did not know that it was based on an episode of an early television anthology, Westinghouse’s Studio One in Hollywood. As with the better-remembered Twilight Zone, each episode of the show was a self-contained story, essentially a short play performed in front of cameras. Two of the actors in that episode were people I recognized: Jonathan Harris and William Marshall. Harris, of course, is loved and remembered as the acerbic and wily Dr. Smith of Lost in Space, insulter of robots and occasional protector of Will Robinson. William Marshall, who played the genie, was an African-American actor who turned up years later on Pee-wee’s Playhouse as the King of Cartoons, introducing short clips from vintage cartoons.

To my mind, a story is a story. I don’t care whether it was written for paid publication or for fannish readers, nor do I care whether it was written for adults, children, young adults, boys, girls, or educated parrots. I only care if it’s A Good Story. Does the plot make sense? Do I care about the characters? Does it use language well? Gerald Morris’s The Squire’s Tale, the first of his novels about Sir Gawain and King Arthur’s court, was published in 1998, when I was 42. I’ve read the entire series, thirteen books, multiple times. I suppose they are technically young adult novels; all I care about is that they retell stories I’ve loved for most of my life in a way that makes sense to me. They pass those tests of plot, characterization, and use of language with flying colors.

Try this, sometime: Open up your Kindle app and go to the store. Search the title of a book you loved as a kid and don’t have a copy of. Buy it. Read it. Enjoy it. A good story is a good story, no matter what shelf it’s on.

Not without us

Recently the final book of a romantic fantasy trilogy was released. I had already read and enjoyed the first two books, which had come out a year apart; the third book took two more years. So when I bought the third book, I went back and re-read the first two, back to back, then plunged into the third.Recently the final book of a romantic fantasy trilogy was released. I had already read and enjoyed the first two books, which had come out a year apart; the third book took two more years. So when I bought the third book, I went back and re-read the first two, back to back, then plunged into the third.

The further I went into the story, the more difficult and the less enjoyable it became. While the first book introduced a pair of potential lover protagonists I liked and set up some delicious sexual tension between them, the second book separated them until the final chapters and ended on a cliffhanger. The third book took little if any time to resolve the sexual tension with a reunion and plunged into politics, intrigue, and battle. I vaguely remembered that when I bought the first book, I had thought of it as a romance, where the focus would be on the character development and emotional arc of the protagonists falling in love. Instead, the author became increasingly interested in the big picture, in world-building, and in magical and mundane fight scenes.

When I finished the trilogy, and contemplated having followed the hero and heroine through three books only to see them denied anything but a post-mortem happiness, literally, a reunion in a faery paradise, I was pretty disappointed. The author’s writing was good on the surface, but the story did not hold together well, and the romance had curdled by the end. There was something else nagging at me, however, which took a couple of days to surface. When I pinpointed it, it bothered me more than the deferral of the lovers’ happiness.

There was not a single queer character in any of the books. Not one.

Not a major character. Not a minor character. Not amongst the weird and decadent faery race. Not in the opera house where the heroine spent most of the second book. Not even a queer-coded backstage manager with flamboyant manners. Nobody. An entirely heterosexual world.

That, gentle readers, struck me as far more unrealistic, far more fantastic, than the premise of an arranged marriage between a human girl and a faery prince.

I thought back to two other novels I had read with a similar premise, Grace Draven’s Radiance and Eidolon. Again, an arranged marriage between a human woman, Ildiko, and a powerful prince, Brishen, member of a nocturnal, reptilian race called the Kai, leads to unexpected romance, as the protagonists transcend their races’ mutual repulsion at one another’s appearance. Ildiko and Brishen get lots of witty banter and steamy sex while the politics and magic of the plot roil around them. Moreover, many of the secondary characters, both human and Kai, are explicitly bisexual, with relationship histories involving members of both sexes. What is truly “queer” in this fictional universe is precisely the love which the protagonists have for each other, an attraction which crosses species boundaries and, on the physical side, might even be called kinky.

I’ve made a decision, then. I’m not reading any more fiction without queer people in it. Because I’m a queer person and I’ve no interest in living in a world without people like me. I’ve never lived in a world without queer people; such a thing doesn’t exist. As a child, my involvement in amateur theatre with my mother and the Episcopal Church on my own introduced me to gay men and to elderly women who were perfectly happy never having been married. Even when I was happily married to a man and identified as a heterosexual (well, sort of), we were surrounded by gay friends and lesbian co-workers. I certainly saw and interacted with trans people throughout my adult life, even though I didn’t make friends with any until recently. Tumblr is full of young nonbinary folks who happen to be interested in the same things I am, like pet birds or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To bring back an old slogan, we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it. I won’t accept stories where part of the world-building is erasing people like me. I’m not particularly interested in stories that erase Black, Latin, Native, Indian, or Asian people, either, because the world I live in has always contained those folks, too. Fiction should be richer than the real world, not poorer.