“LGBT books for kids should be considered endangering the wellbeing of a child!” Those were the words that leapt off my laptop’s LCD screen when I fired up my Twitter feed one morning last spring. It was only a few days after I had launched a Kickstarter campaign to help bring my first picture book to life, Square Zair Pair. The story — a tale about magical round- and square-shaped animals called Zairs that always pair in twos (one of each shape) and learn a lesson about the importance of diversity after they reject a pair of square Zairs — is an obvious LGBT allegory. But the themes of kindness, acceptance, love, friendship, diversity, and community reach so much further than the label “LGBT children’s book” conveys on the surface.
Nevertheless, none of that appeared to matter to the Twitter user hiding behind the anonymous handle @speaktruth22 and a photo of a government building. This person hadn’t read the story, yet the fact the picture book I was trying to bring to life suggested — even through allegory — that same-sex relationships could be viewed in a positive light was enough to hurl hateful posts at me through cyberspace that implied creating Square Zair Pair was akin to child abuse.
In the days that followed several others fired similar potshots on social media that included terms like “fag marriage” (thanks, Westboro Baptist Church!), the hashtag #nohomo, and one claim that the book was “the devil’s work.” However, the cyberbullying didn’t discourage me from my goal. It encouraged me to redouble my efforts and reminded me how much many kids need stories like Square Zair Pair. I know, because I used to be one of them.
Pictured above: Peeples (left) reads to his brother, Troy, in 1981
I grew up in a small town in California’s Central Valley, where my mother was the head librarian. I spent hours exploring the book-lined shelves of our local library and acquired a love of reading long before my first day of kindergarten. My mother read to me often and encouraged me to read too, even when some of the books I chose were well above my reading level at the time.
The “kids’ table” at the center of the library was an oasis in the sea of adults that sailed through the building during the afternoons I spent there, lost on an island of comics and picture books that usually included favorites like the adventures of Superboy and Krypto the Superdog, Where the Wild Things Are, and numerous stories by Dr. Seuss. I was also obsessed with all things Star Wars, thanks in large part to my childhood crush on Luke Skywalker, and regularly listened to many “stories on cassette” from a galaxy far, far away, which I played on my tan-and-brown Fisher-Price tape recorder in a back corner of the building. This was also the spot where I would play with other kids who regularly hung out at the library — a place where we’d act out parts from our favorite stories and make up our own adventures pretending to be the characters we loved most. The library was a place that opened doors to wonderful worlds, and the stories I read freed my imagination. I never thought it would also become a place where I was taught to be ashamed of who I was.
One afternoon while playing Star Wars with my classmate Craig in the back of the library, we began to reenact the scene where Luke and Leia swing across a chasm on the Death Star to escape a group of Stormtroopers. Like the plucky princess, I kissed Craig on the cheek, “for luck,” and threw my arms around his waist. That’s when a pair of hands gripped my shoulders from behind and pulled me away from my playtime companion as a voice boomed overhead.
“What are you doing?” asked one of the library assistants, as she spun me around to face her.
Inches from my face, she shook me and continued, “Boys don’t act like girls, and they certainly don’t kiss other boys!”
“Why?” I asked as I winced. “We were just playing.”
The truth was, innocently kissing Craig felt as natural to me as breathing. There was nothing sexual about the situation, but as the assistant’s eyes widened with anger I realized this was a part of me I should hide.
“It’s not right,” she said, and then asked, “Have you ever read a story where boys do that?”
“No,” I said, dropping my eyes to the ground.
“That’s not how normal people behave, and you don’t want other kids to think you’re a funny boy, do you?” she asked.
I shook my head, embarrassed, not fully understanding what she meant by “funny boy.”
Pictured above: Square Zair Pair author Jase Peeples
Her question, “Have you ever read a story where boys do that?” bounced around in the back of my brain for years following that incident, and soon what I didn’t see in the stories I read shaped me as much as her homophobic scolding did.
But what if I had read stories where different types of couples were a natural part of the world? And what if they were tales people like that library assistant read to kids like me? How would my life be different today if the energy I spent hiding parts of myself throughout my childhood was instead used to fuel my imagination and explore my personality without fear?
These are the questions that motivated me to write Square Zair Pair more than three decades after I was told a part of me was “not right” for the first time. I wanted to create a fairy tale that highlighted the ridiculousness of homophobia in a way that was both simple and profound. Today, with the help of artist Christine Knopp the support of others who also feel such tales need to be told, I’m proud to say that story is now available as a hardback, eBook, and upcoming audiobook read by Samantha Newark (the original voice of Jem from the ’80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms).
Zairs are neither male nor female. Instead, they are simply round or square, and the bonds they form in pairs of the two different shapes (which occurs when their tails fuse together after they’ve made a connection) is a part of nature in the magical land where they live. When two square Zairs pair for the first time, they’re mocked and forced to leave the village. The ignorance and fear of the square-and-round pairs causes a hardship for the entire village the following winter when the Zairs are faced with a problem only the square pair can solve. It’s only after they learn to accept the pair of squares that their hearts and minds grow. They then discover each pair has a unique ability, and their village is actually stronger because “each pair is special in their own way.”
It’s my hope that by presenting a tale where the concepts of sexuality and gender are replaced by something as simple as two shapes, the underying message celebrating diversity may be able to reach both young children and the adults who might reject the same story if it took place in an environment with more traditional labels in place.
Like the village learns in Square Zair Pair, “All happy pairs of Zairs are quite good,” and as this story is shared, perhaps it can help create a real world where library assistants don’t belittle 5-year-old boys for acting out crushes on their heroes, but instead encourage them to love themselves for who they are.
At a time when picture books about two male penguins raising a baby in a zoo (And Tango Makes Three) as well as stories of two princes in love (King and King) are still banned in places around the globe and the concept of diversity in books is met with hateful tweets on the Internet, it’s clear there’s a lot of work yet to be done before we come close to that kind of world. However, with each story that’s created we move one step closer to a better future — and that’s a reason to celebrate.
Upcoming reading and signing events for Square Zair Pair will be taking place:
Saturday, February 6 at 11 a.m.
Books Inc. in the Castro
2275 Market St.
San Francisco, CA 94114
Saturday, February 13 at 11 a.m.
County of Los Angeles Public Library – West Hollywood
625 N. San Vicente Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Friday, March 18 at 7 p.m.
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
JASE PEEPLES is the arts and entertainment editor of The Advocate and the author of Square Zair Pair. Follow him on Twitter @JasePeeples.