Published on April 16th, 2019 | by Ellen Baxt1
Daddy, What’s a Dyke? How I Co-Created Little Rainbows Storytime, and You Can Too
We are five artists and educators, Catalina Schliebener, Alexis Clements, Luciana Pinchiero, Elvis Bakaitis and Ellen Baxt, and we run the monthly Little Rainbows Storytime at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, NY.
When you go to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, an unmarked brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, you’ll find three floors of pins, posters, dildoes, VHS tapes, lots and lots of boxes of letters and papers, photographs and combat boots sent in from around the world.
This is Lena, the first time she went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, learning what a dyke is before taking a pit stop next to the life sized cardboard Gertrude Stein in the bathroom. If your three year old doesn’t know what a dyke is yet, today is as good a day as any.
Of our coordinator pack, one is a parent, four are not; one works in Early Childhood, four do not; two are affiliated with the Archives, three are not. All of us think having kids in herstoric queer spaces is an excellent idea.
As a parent, I wanted to start this storytime because 1. I’ve been a poet since I was six years old, and I know the power of words, and I know that most of that power is not represented in most children’s books. Which is odd, since children believe most things come from magic. 2. I’m a single dyke mom and that’s lonely, mostly because of reason number one, and also the institution of mommies, which is to say sexism. 3. There are now great books about freedom fighters and quiet changemakers and besties with disabilities and bullying, but they’re not the ones that get read at storytimes. The ones that get read in public are about dragons and the moon and badgers. I wanted to read in public the books that I seek out for my own kid, to teach her about the truths of the world, and I wanted her to listen to books with other kids who were grappling with the horrifying and beautiful truths that some of the best children’s books unveil. Books about the way things really are. And ones about brown people and gay people doing regular things, because having two dads is not actually a plotline, though we are grateful to the brave ones who wrote those books three decades ago, because to say our family compositions out loud in print was revolutionary, but it’s not the 80’s anymore.
We began in March, 2018, and we decided if four people came we would consider it a success. Seventy people showed up and we definitely did not have enough cheddar bunnies. Every month we have returning families and new families come to hear stories about gay pride, soup kitchens, exclusion, self authorship, non-traditional families, flamboyance, women in male-dominated professions, activists, how to be a badass friend who defends the underdog, and the beautiful quietude of thoughtful nerds.
Here’s how we did it, and you can do it too.
1. Don’t do it alone. We are 5 organizers, and while you don’t need that many, it’s worked in large part because each has their role. One schedules the space. One brings the snacks. Two choose the books. Two read the books. One makes the flyer. One gets the families to come. One is sometimes a silent partner. Four set up the space together. All are important. Could you do it with fewer? Sure. But don’t do it alone.
2. And this is really important, four of the five do not have children. Which means they enjoy being around kids for two hours a month, they’re not as bleary as you are, and children may be a novelty to them. I highly recommend having some child-free friends. They will definitely not talk about pouches.
3. Keep expectations low. We planned to do it just once. We kept doing it because people kept coming. Don’t get fancy. Don’t do it more than once a month. Keep it real and realistic. A picnic blanket is a fine space. Though if there is some underutilized space of historic importance in your town or neighborhood, use that. The kids should know about it.
4. Keep it in the same space every time or most of the time, to establish routine. It should be accessible to all, including wheelchair users, welcoming to all, including all stripes of queers, all races, religions, etc. Have a bit of space for wiggly kids to burn off steam. It should be a baby friendly space — okay for breast/chestfeeding, bottle feeding, and diaper changing — and free of judgment.
5. People will come for two reasons — the books, and the people the books attract. Choose good books. This is the hardest and most time consuming aspect because so many children’s books suck. Why? Because our society, from which books spring, sucks, which is to say it’s full of white supremacy, classism, sexism, and all the violences against humanity. We choose the truth. We choose books about solidarity (Click, Clack, Moo), nontraditional images of gender (Jane Fixes Cars), taking a stand (I Am Rosa Parks, The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade), people of color doing regular stuff (When I Am Old With You), acceptance (Benny Doesn’t Like to be Hugged, Frog and Toad), difference (Lovely), gay pride (This Day in June), poverty (Maddi’s Fridge, The Last Stop on Market Street), inclusion and finding chosen family (Strictly No Elephants), being true to yourself (Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina), and being a badger. Just kidding. We do not read books about badgerhood.
6. Where can I find books that don’t suck? There are lots of great book lists out there. One is Books for Littles. I follow it religiously and joined as a member to keep it going. Ashia Ray reads every children’s book on the planet and applies a strict lens of Is it oppressive? Is it boring? Usually the answer is yes, but she finds the exceptions. I rely on her lists. There are lots of other lists out there. Search for lists of children’s books about disability, hair, bicultural families, and more.
7. Even the best books are often imperfect and have some problematic lines. Change them. This is your storytime. The point is to relay the messages you think are most important and most missing. When the book says that Rosa Parks did not give up her seat because she was tired, what do you say? You say, “Rosa Parks was fed up with being harrassed, brutalized and bullied, and also was a trained and talented community organizer and worked for an organization called the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (which is what black people were called at the time, which is another story) and remained in her seat as a form of protest, as an activist, as a black woman, and as a person who was probably afraid but took courageous action anyway, supported by many colleagues, because heroes do not act alone. Do you know how to shout No? Let’s do it together.”
Do kids understand this? Yes. They understand fairness, cruelty, skin color, bravery and using a strong voice. How do they know this? Because when you use a strong voice, they fall into line.
Do not be afraid to tell
the truth. Think of all the things you wish your parents had told you.
8. Logistics. If you are the reader and have a child with you, put someone else in charge of your child so you can read without being scaled like a mountain. It’s hard to read when you are a mountain, and harder for little people to see the pictures when a climber is between you and them.
9. Don’t make it too long, or ambitious. We read three stories. Two stories, then snack break, then one more story. And afterwards, we hang out, until the snacks are gone and each kid peels off one by one in a diagonal blur of nappishness. Isolation makes us weaker.
10. Introduce the storytime. Include the Who, What, When, Where, Why. Who we are, what this is, when and where we meet, and why we do this. We do this because of all the reasons mentioned above. Say it every time, concisely.
11. This is and is not a queer format. This format could be used for a storytime for Muslim families, kids with disabilities, two-home kids, three+-parent kids, and more. There’s nothing especially queer about it. Then again, it is powerful to gather our children in a building, collectively purchased, and brimming with lesbian pins and photos and books and papers and combat boots and VHS tapes, as we read stories about justice or just stories that represent us, in our multiplicity, or the multiplicity not represented among us. You may not have such a space in your neighborhood or town, but you may have an underutilized space of historic importance, and the babies should know about it, and you deserve to find your people. Or use the library or the park.
12. “This is really for us. The kids don’t even understand, right?”
Wrong. Last week, Lena and I were walking home and we saw In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall, a book of poems and collages, homages to black fathers. After flipping through a few pages, Lena exclaimed, This would be perfect for Little Rainbows! They get it.
Do it once. In the park, at your house, at the library, anywhere. Pick your three favorite books that don’t suck — one for babies and two for toddlers (or whatever your kid age bracket is). Get a friend to host with you. Take photos (with permission). Repeat.
Photos by Ellen Baxt and Catalina Schliebener.