As a boy in the 1950s, my life had more than a passing resemblance to the Norman Rockwell covers of the Saturday Evening Post. White, middle-class, Christian, a member of the Cub Scouts and captain of the Safety Patrol, I was the epitome of small-town, white-bread, mainstream American life.
Except that I wasn’t. I was different from other boys—a dreamer who liked to play with dolls more than trucks. These differences made me an outsider and a target for name-calling and bullying. Luckily, within my family I was loved and accepted for who I was.
This acceptance was no small thing in an era of such extreme social and political conformity. It helped having a father who was a liberal minister and outspoken social activist. From him, I learned to speak out for what I believe. But the taunts of my peers taught me lessons as well—to be wary of being seen as an outsider, to hold tight to my insider status.
It wasn’t until I was 32, and converted to Judaism, that I had a taste of what it was like to live openly as an outsider. My first wife, Debbie, with whom I wrote Bunnicula, was Jewish, but that wasn’t why I converted. It was because I found myself at a complete loss for meaning in the face of Debbie’s diagnosis of terminal cancer at the age of 31.
Facing the death of the person I loved most in the world, I turned to religion. When I told an older Jewish woman I was going to convert, she said, “Don’t you have enough tsuris already?” I began to see what she was getting at when confronted with the assumptions of others that I shared their Christianity. Where did I go to church? Was I spending Christmas with my family? I now had to say, “I don’t go to church.” “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” “I’m Jewish.” I’m not proud to say it, but it wasn’t always easy proclaiming myself an outsider.
And then, almost 20 years later, I proclaimed myself an outsider again, giving up a majority position I’d held—outwardly, at least—my entire life. After 16 years in a second marriage, I came out as a gay man, reclaiming that little boy who loved to play with dolls, refusing to believe the taunts that equated “different” with “less than,” standing up to the bullies at last. This time there was tsuris for sure, and sadness, but there was also relief—and deep happiness to be myself, fully.
Before one can feel like an insider in the world, one has to feel like an insider inside oneself in books like the Pinky and Rex series, Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores, I Wish I Were a Butterfly, and The Misfits, I say to my readers what the author of one of my favorite childhood books said to me: that it is good and necessary to find your own way, to be yourself only then will you be happy.
The book? Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, which has been continuously in print for almost 70 years. I guess the story of the little bull who refused to fight like the other bulls, but only wanted to sit under his favorite cork tree and quietly smell the flowers, still has something powerful to say. Perhaps it’s in the last four words of the story: “He is very happy.”
James Howe has written over 70 books for children. The Misfits (Atheneum 2001) is a novel about seventh-grade friends who mount a political campaign to end name-calling in their middle school. Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus’ name amen, (Atheneum, 2004) is a picture book about a young girl’s observance of her grandfather’s death in two religious traditions.