As It Happens

These kids' books depicting 'joyful, queer stories' are being censored in Hungary and Russia

Spanish-American writer and translator Lawrence Schimel says pushback to his colourful board books has only made him more determined to get them into the hands of the "rainbow families" that need them most.

Lawrence Schimel says his characters' same-sex families are entirely incidental to their plots

Spanish-American author Lawrence Schimel poses with a Russian translation of his children's books Early One Morning and Bedtime, Not Playtime! (Submitted by Lawrence Schimel)

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As the author of both kids' lit and gay erotica, Lawrence Schimel likes to joke that he writes "books for children and books you don't want your children to find."

His two latest titles fall firmly into the former category. 

The colourful board books tell stories of "everyday domestic adventures." And the fact that the young girl in Bedtime, Not Playtime! has two dads and the young boy in Early One Morning has two moms is incidental. 

That hasn't stopped both titles from generating significant pushback in countries with anti-LGBTQ laws.

Over the summer, a Hungarian bookstore selling the books was fined for displaying "content which deviates from the norm." And in Russia, an LGBTQ rights charity is distributing the books in defiance of the country's so-called gay propaganda law. 

Schimel spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off in anticipation of the children's books' North American publication on Sept. 14 by Orca Book Publisher. 

An incidental, but all-important detail

Schimel says while he and illustrator Elīna Brasliņa were keen to depict LGBTQ+ families, they were equally determined to ensure that the parents' sexuality wasn't central to either child's story. 

"We thought that there was a need for [kids'] books that weren't about overcoming homophobia or anything like that," he said. 

On this page of Schimel's book Bedtime, Not Playtime, the main character's fathers read her a bedtime story. (Ocra Book Publisher)

"In Early One Morning, [a] boy wakes up early and his moms and his sister are still asleep. The only one who's awake is the cat. So they have adventures together. And in Bedtime, Not Playtime!, a girl is getting ready for bed and her dog wants to play. And so when her two dads are reading a bedtime story, the dog gets jealous, jumps on the bed, steals [her] bear, and adventures ensue." 

Schimel says children's books depicting what he calls "rainbow families" are few and far between. 

"Our lives are not things that need to be hidden from children," he said. "It creates this climate of fear that affects any child who either is in a same-sex family or is wondering about their own sexuality." 

Hungarian bookseller fined

Authorities in Hungary have been doing what they can to suppress Schimel's work.

The Hungarian edition includes both books in a single volume, translated from the original Spanish. Schimel says as soon as it came out, the backlash began. 

"The state-controlled press was very negative," he said. "There was actually a 40-minute television program about the books. And I'm like, OK, there are 16 rhymes. I don't know how they got 40 minutes out of attacking these poor little books." 

Schimel's board book Early One Morning tells the story of a young boy with two moms and an adventurous cat. (Orca Book Publisher)

Just days after the book's release, Hungarian lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting the dessemination of LGBTQ content to minors

"The day before [the law] went into effect, the government [fined] a bookstore for having sold the books without warning customers that the books contained 'families not that were not traditional,'" Schimel said. 

In Hungary, the books are published by the Foundation for Rainbow Families, which advocates for diverse families in the country. 

Marton Pal is a representative for the Foundation and was Off's guest on As It Happens in December 2020, after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán amended the country's constitution to effectively ban same-sex adoption. 

Schimel says it's same-sex families like Pal's that he and Brasliņa are hoping to reach. 

"Shortly after the books were published, Marton went into one of the major children's booksellers and asked the clerk behind the counter if they had any books that showed rainbow families. And he had done this a number of years ago. And, you know, there was nothing," Schimel said.

"Now ... he is able to go in and find books that show his family." 

Russian books for toddlers labelled 18+

In Russia, meanwhile, Schimel and Brasliņa have donated a translated edition to their book to the LGBTQ charity, Sphere, which is distributing it for free, since selling the book to minors would be illegal. 

They've also placed an "18+" label on the books. 

By branding a book that is so clearly for toddlers in this way, Schimel says Sphere hopes to draw attention to the absurdity of the country's gay propaganda law and spur its repeal. 

"These books have nothing that is offensive," Schimel said. "They're not about sexuality." 

On the left, a Russian edition of Schimel's book displays an '18+' label. On the right, a Hungarian bookseller posts a warning that it sells titles such as Schimel's. (Submitted by Lawrence Schimel)

While the backlash has been troubling, Schimel says he's also been touched by displays of allyship in both countries. 

"Many people in Hungary who might have otherwise been indifferent … have really stepped up and, you know, gone out of their way to fight against this." 

The result is that the books are published in approximately 30 editions and nearly as many languages already. 

"That's one of the things that I've been humbled and amazed by, is all of the people all around the world [who] are working to make these joyful, queer stories available for kids in their countries." 

Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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