ANIMAL CONNECTION: Welcome Home, Rodney: A Lost And Found Story

Before Stonewall, though, authors including Brown and Gorey, like Lobel later, had to find a way to express their own vulnerabilities and their quest for belonging in terms that would not startle the horses or set the pedophile canard a-quacking. (“If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest,” dePaola recalls, “and schools wouldn’t buy your books anymore.”) The traditions of children’s literature, in which toddlers are presexual and often not even human, provided the camouflage they needed to write about real things without offense. Brown’s two most famous tales, both illustrated by Clement Hurd, are powerful evocations of parental attachment and separation — as experienced by bunnies. Gorey doesn’t use animals but rather the conventions of the macabre to represent the terrible loneliness of his youthful characters. Indeed, it’s the contrast between horror and doggerel that produces his characteristic deadpan humor: In “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” an abecedary of solo children who meet bad ends, “E is for Ernest who choked on a peach.” Take that, T.S. Eliot!

Happier variations on the theme of connection and alienation (with its undercurrent of life and death) inform much of the work by these gay authors. Oliver Button is a multi-enthusiast who doesn’t understand why his oversize talent (he’s a tap dancer) makes him a target for bullies. (He is rescued, as dePaola says he himself once was, by an unknown benefactor who crosses out the word “sissy” scrawled on a wall and replaces it with “star.”) And in Marshall’s “George and Martha” series, a loving pair, not unlike Frog and Toad, works through a number of wry adventures that turn their conflicts into companionship. But George and Martha, being hippopotamuses instead of amphibians, are huge; they sometimes threaten the edges of the frame. Rereading the books now I see how their size stands in for the problem of personality; Marshall named them for the main characters in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” His loving, light line, encompassing but also dignifying their volume, suggests the delicacy it takes to be large in the world.

That delicacy, for Marshall as for many of the others, was a stopgap solution to the existential problem of the closet: How do you grow up when you cannot fully and genuinely present yourself as an adult? (In deference to his mother, Marshall’s 1992 obituary omitted his longtime partner — and listed a brain tumor as the cause of death instead of complications from AIDS.) Even the gloomy Jeremiah of children’s literature whom Marshall lovingly called Morose Sendak was too cowed by his parents to come out publicly until long after both were dead. You can feel the crosscutting energies of that conflict at the wild heart of his greatest works, which are full of rage at punitive elders but also a grudging respect, because their restrictiveness is what forces the child’s imagination to flower. Nor is that imagination asexual; Mickey, the stark naked hero of “In the Night Kitchen,” is baked into a cake batter by three adult men. Sendak presses right up against the taboo, allowing him to write about sexuality and to access its energies and disappointments safely. Otherwise he would never have dared to publish such a story or, for that matter, needed to write it.

CLOSETS TEND TO be small, lonely places — a fine fit for children playing hide-and-seek, if not always comfortable for adults. Yet they are also, it seems, conducive to literature, in the way almost any constraint is. Today, Mickey would just go to Bennington and wind up marrying that hunky fireman.

Back then, though, if Sendak and the others got any pleasure from their secret identities, they suffered for them as well. How often did they have to put masks on in public, then take them off to live and write? Masks were, in fact, the main motif of Marshall’s “Miss Nelson” series, written with Harry Allard between 1977 and 1985, about a grade school teacher’s increasingly unorthodox methods of maintaining order and morale. In the first book, “Miss Nelson Is Missing!,” she decides to teach her ungovernable class a lesson by vanishing — only to reappear, the next day, disguised as the worst substitute ever. This Miss Viola Swamp is a “real witch,” complete with fright wig, honker and wart: “If you misbehave,” she warns, “you’ll be sorry.” At the end, once the class is tamed, Miss Nelson retires her Swamp costume, hanging it in her closet and saying, with a smile, “I’ll never tell.”

Not many descriptions of gay “passing” get deeper than that: There’s the delicious victory and, unspoken, the realization that maintaining the victory means maintaining the ruse. Yet because these authors were out to entertain children — it’s no accident the books remain popular — they never tip into the maudlin; if anything, they lean into camp. By the end of the “Miss Nelson” series, even the school principal is in drag.

Such winks may be useful in distracting adults. While studying the Easter eggs in Mickey’s night kitchen (Sendak has even hidden the Brooklyn address of his childhood home in the gutter between two pages), a parent may not focus so much on the weirdness of what’s going on. But children aren’t distracted by such things. Instead, they track the jokes and the emotions, which in the hands of these authors are much the same thing. Another of Lobel’s characters, the bachelor owl of “Owl at Home” (1975), is almost a caricature of loneliness: His only friend, the moon, is inconstant; he makes tea from his own tears.

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