It might surprise you to learn how many of the most influential writers and illustrators of classic children’s literature have been LGBTQ+. Although they frequently couldn’t say so publicly, they could put their feelings down on paper, expressing themselves in words or in art. This has been true for just about as long as there have been popular books published just for children; we can find authors in the 19th and 20th centuries who wrote the most beloved stories, and who were also somewhere in the LGBT spectrum. Classic 19th and early 20th century creations like the Ugly Duckling and the Little Mermaid, Jo and Amy March, Mole and Ratty, and even Peter Pan all have bits of the rainbow in them.
This is particularly easy to see after the 1950s. In the second half of the 20th century – a time when many people were vocally fearful of any gay influence on children in the culture – a large percentage of the best American children’s literature was being written or illustrated by people who were gay and lesbian. They couldn’t say so – often they never even told their own parents – but they could put their ideas and feelings into books, and they created stories so wonderful that they have never fallen out of popularity.
Take a look through these pages to see many of your favorite characters from childhood, who may have taught you about what it means to be a friend, or how to get through hard times, or that life is an adventure – and who were created by artists who probably couldn’t share their whole selves, except underground, through these stories.
“...the authors of many of the most successful and influential works of children’s literature in the middle years of the last century — works that were formative for baby boomers, Gen-Xers, millennials and beyond — were gay. At a time when those writers wouldn’t dare walk hand in hand with a lover... they won Caldecott and Newbery Medals for books that, without ever directly speaking their truth, sent it out in a secret language that was somehow accessible to those who needed to receive it.” “The Gay History of Classic Children’s Books,” by Jesse Green, Feb. 7, 2019. The New York Times Style Magazine.
Sandak’s family life was overshadowed by the loss of many members in the Holocaust. At 12, he saw Disney’s Fantasia and decided he wanted to be an illustrator. All through the 50s Sendak created illustrations for books written by others. Then he started writing his own books, and gained fame with Where the Wild Things Are, which some people thought too scary for children. Sendak told this story: “A little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters – sometimes very hastily – but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said: 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
Another book, In the Night Kitchen, has long been controversial for its illustrations of a little boy running naked through the pages. This picture book is regularly challenged and hit #21 on the list of most-challenged books of the 1990s – despite being published in 1970. Sendak worked in many other areas, including television and set design, most famously for the Nutcracker ballet. Sendak lived for 50 years with his partner, psychoanalyst Eugene David Glynn, but never told his parents that he was gay.
Margaret Wise Brown has been called ‘the laureate of the nursery’ for her work. Most of her books are for very young children; her most famous by far is Goodnight Moon. Brown was born in New York City and spent much of her young life in boarding schools while her parents lived abroad. She was known for her love of beagles and her ability to keep up with them on foot.
She mostly dated, or had affairs with, men, but Brown’s longest relationship was with writer Blanche Oelrichs. They collaborated, shared a studio, and lived together until Oelrich’s death in 1950. Brown died just two years later, at the young age of 42, but wrote over 100 children’s books in her time.
Jansson was a Swedish-speaking Finnish author, painter, and comic-strip writer. She studied art in Stockholm, Helsinki, and Paris, and drew illustrations for many publications before starting her Moomin series for children in 1945. The Moomintroll books were her most famous works, and included novels, comic books, and eventually a TV series. She won the Hans Christian Andersen medal for this work, and is in the Will Eisner Hall of Fame for her comics. Moomins are still popular around the world. Jansson’s partner of nearly 50 years was the influential Finnish graphic designer Tuulikki Pietilä; the women also collaborated on joint artistic projects.
Woodson spent her early years in South Carolina and her later childhood in Brooklyn; the contrast between New York City and the South has shown up often in her writing. She always knew that she wanted to write books.
[I wanted] to write about communities that were familiar to me and people that were familiar to me. I wanted to write about communities of color. I wanted to write about girls. I wanted to write about friendship and all of these things that I felt like were missing in a lot of the books that I read as a child.
Her autobiographical novel, Brown Girl Dreaming, addressed all these things and won several prizes, including the Coretta Scott King award. Woodson has also taken on controversial topics in her books, including abuse, harsh language, and LGBT issues. She has commented that censorship efforts say more about what adults are uncomfortable with than what students should be thinking about. Woodson lives in Brooklyn with her partner, Juliet Widoff, a physician. They have two children.
Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish author best remembered for his fairy tales such as The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid. Born to a poor but literate family, he was read to as a child, and then sent to a school for poor children, where he was miserable. He had to earn his living from an early age by being apprenticed to a weaver and then a tailor. At 14, he went to Copenhagen to seek his fortune and become an actor; his soprano voice got him a job, but he soon matured and decided to try to be a poet. Although his ambitions were for travel writing, novels, and poetry, it was his fairy tales that gained him fame.
Hans Christian Andersen fell in love with members of both men and women in his lifetime, but whether any of his feelings were ever returned or fulfilled remains unknown. He was given to falling for people who were totally unattainable. Some scholars theorize that he had two relationships with men (never women), but most think it unlikely.
Marshall was best known for the George and Martha series of picture books, about two hippos who are best friends. In 2007, he was posthumously awarded the bi-ennial Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for "substantial and lasting contribution" to American children's literature.
Marshall grew up on his family's 85-acre farm in Texas near San Antonio. They later moved to Beaumont, about which he said: "Beaumont is deep south and swampy and I hated it. I knew I would die if I stayed there so I diligently studied the viola, and eventually won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory in Boston." He entered the New England Conservatory of Music but injured his hand, ending his music career. Marshall continued creating books for children until his untimely death in 1992 from AIDS-related complications. He was extremely close to his mother, who never did accept that he was gay, and in deference to her, Marshall’s obituary omitted his longtime partner and listed a brain tumor as the cause of death.
Lobel started drawing when he had a long illness in second grade. He was frequently bullied and found refuge at the local library, reading picture books. After attending art college, he found that he couldn’t support himself solely by writing and illustrating picture books and had to take on additional work in advertising, which he disliked. In 1955 he married Anita Kempler, a fellow art student, and they collaborated on several books together. They had two children.
In 1974, Lobel told his family that he was gay, but did not separate from his wife until the early 1980s, when he moved to Greenwich Village. During these years he was also producing his greatest works, and became one of the few people to win both a Newbery and a Caldecott award. Lobel is best known for his Frog and Toad books, about two friends who are very different. He said that the two characters were two sides of himself. His daughter has wondered if these books were the start of his coming-out process, but Lobel never commented on that himself. Arnold Lobel died in 1987, after suffering from AIDS.
Gorey was a writer, illustrator, costume and set designer, and all-around artist, famous for his characteristic pen-and-ink drawings. These often depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes in Victorian and Edwardian settings. People often assume that he was British, but in fact he was American and rarely traveled. Gorey was born in Chicago and attended school there. He spent 1944- 46 in the Army, which he hated. He then studied French at Harvard, and started illustrating books in the early 50s (he stated that his art education was ‘ negligible’). He did innumerable book covers, then started illustrating books, and produced his own works – usually in the form of small books with limited text. His first independent work, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953. He also published under various pen names, some of which were anagrams of his first and last names, such as Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, Ms. Regera Dowdy, and dozens more.
Gorey was noted for his love of the New York City Ballet. He attended every performance for 25 years, and eventually did set and costume design, most famously for a production of Dracula. Although Gorey illustrated and wrote many children's books, he was not fond of kids and did not work with them. Gorey disliked talking about his personal life in any way. When pressed, he would say something like “I suppose I'm gay. But I don't really identify with it much,” and professed something along the lines of asexuality. He preferred to keep it all private, but not because of fear or shame; this is a man who routinely walked around NYC in a giant fur coat dyed bright yellow, in the 1950s. He just liked his privacy. "What I'm trying to say is that I am a person before I am anything else."
Trina Schart Hyman read and drew from her earliest years. Her favorite story was Little Red Riding Hood and she spent an entire year wearing a red cape. As an adult, she started art school in Philadelphia but moved to Boston after marrying Harris Hyman, a mathematician, in 1959, and finished school there in 1960. They had one daughter but divorced in 1968, after which she partnered with women, in particular Jean Aull.
Hyman was the art director of Cricket magazine through most of the 1970s, and from there launched a stellar career in illustration. She received three Caldecott Honors and illustrated innumerable books, most famously retellings of St. George and the Dragon and other fairy and folk tales. You can spot her distinctive style all over books published in the 80s and 90s.
Tomie dePaola (1934 – 2020) wrote and illustrated over 260 children’s books, the most famous being Strega Nona. He was honored with the Children’s Literature Legacy Award for lifetime contribution to children’s literature in 2011. DePaola was interested in art from the age of 4, and credited his Italian and Irish family with encouraging and inspiring him. He went to art college and taught at several colleges before stopping in 1978 to pursue book creation full-time. His writing career spanned over 50 years, during which he worked on more than 270 books.
DePaola was gay. He came out later in his life, saying that, for much of his career, "If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest... and schools wouldn’t buy your books anymore."
Alcott was a prolific American writer best known for her novel Little Women. Her parents were transcendentalists who ran a commune and Louisa grew up knowing many eminent American intellectuals such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Longfellow. But her parents also had severe financial problems and she worked to help support the family from a young age. She wrote popular pulp fiction guaranteed to pay. Alcott’s more serious fiction also became popular, and Little Women, based on her own family life with her sisters, gained a permanent place in classic literature.
Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist, and spent her life active in such reform movements as temperance and women's suffrage.
Alcott did not define herself, but she was almost entirely uninterested in men and said, “I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” In Little Women, she didn’t want to make Jo (based on herself) get married, but audiences demanded it, so she invented Professor Bhaer to be a friend and professional partner kind of husband, instead of the romantic marriage with Laurie that fans wanted. She pulled a similar trick in her novel Work, where the heroine does marry a man, but only at the last second before he goes off to war to be killed in a suitably heroic manner (while saving a woman and child). This way she can have a child and end up in an all-women commune at the end.
Written by Jean Ping. Designed by Rachel Arteaga.
"An ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are." Where the Wild Things Are