Life can be scary for a young, gay, Black boy growing up in a society full of fear and intolerance. The star of a new graphic novel, however, has the love of family, friends, and educators to help him navigate the challenges as he finds his empowered voice.
In What You Don’t Know: A Story of Liberated Childhood (Dottir Press) Anastasia Higginbotham uses her signature collage artwork to give us the first-person story of a young boy named Demetrius. Demetrius begins by observing that “What you don’t know is that life was great before kindergarten…. Then school happened.” He asks, “What are we even learning here besides all the things we have to be afraid of and all of the things we can’t do?” Despite the scariness of school, however, he has friends and protectors who include another queer student, a “radical librarian,” a loving teacher, and a queer counselor. “But even they are a little bit scared,” he notes observantly.
He is also grateful that he doesn’t have to hide his true self from his dad, a Black man who “loves me completely.” His mom, too, has “her own sense of justice and her own ideas about God.” We see her reading something on her phone, getting angry at those who are “endangering the lives of trans kids.” She stresses to Demetrius that he matters and is not the problem. (The mom could be read as a light-skinned Black woman or Latina, although Higginbotham says on the credits page that the mom is White, and modeled after herself, her mother, and others.)
Despite the support he has, however, Demetrius feels that “the world’s ugliness toward gay people lands right ON me,” and asks, “And what about the ones who aren’t loved at home? What about the kids whose own families reject them?” (Here’s what we know about that.) He sits in church with his mother and notes that all he feels there is shame—“But the shame isn’t mine and it’s not coming from ‘God.’” He imagines his spirit floating up to Jesus, depicted as a Black man, and asking, “Does it hurt your feelings if I don’t believe in you?” Jesus replies, “It’s my job to believe in you, and I do.”
Demetrius asks Jesus if there are other gods. Jesus replies, “Divinity is everywhere, in everyone and everything,” and says he loves everyone, from Billy Porter in a dress (who floats by in several images) to those who are homophobic. When another churchgoer confronts Demetrius’ mom and tells her to stop dressing him in flowers because he’s a boy, however, the mother apologizes to Demetrius for bringing him there and says she will immediately stop going to that church. Higginbotham deftly shows how Demetrius can be “cool” with Jesus while also rejecting an institution that perpetuates homophobia.
We will rewrite the rules we live by and love the world into balance.
A secondary plotline that we see play out is that Demetrius and his friends are recording a podcast, one that further affirms everyone’s right to be themselves and reinforces young people’s power to create change. “We will rewrite the rules we live by and love the world into balance,” they narrate. At the end of the book, Demetrius’ parents continue to encourage his own style and voice as he and his friends celebrate the launch of the podcast. “What you don’t know is I’m always gonna love myself and find others who do, too,” he asserts, dancing into his future.
Higginbotham manages to acknowledge the bias that Demetrius faces, put the emphasis on the love he receives, and make him an empowered and confident protagonist who is grateful for help but not a passive victim. He knows the world can be harsh, and acknowledges that some things scare him, but also knows where to find the support he needs to be the person he knows he is. It’s a tricky balance, but Higginbotham nails it.
I should note, too, that while the format at first looks like a picture book, Demetrius is in middle school and the vocabulary level, length (140+ pages), and nuances place the book for me in the middle grade category as a graphic novel. (Obviously, some older elementary school students are ready for middle grade books; this is just a guide.)
Much as I have long waved the flag for more LGBTQ kids’ books that aren’t “about” being LGBTQ, there’s still a place for some that thoughtfully and directly address being queer in today’s society. This is one of them, which presents an inspiring vision of what queer kids can be with the love and support of family, friends, and educators.