“There's only one of you on this planet, why be like the rest?” This question could be the fuel for a million separate existential crises but, for Australian writer Louis Hanson, it’s become the foundation for his newest project: a collection of children’s books celebrating gender and sexual diversity, called the Be You Collection.
As a freelance writer for The Washington Post, The Guardian, SBS Sexuality, and other publications around the world, Hanson has already become a leading voice for gender and sexuality education in schools, but it was in an encounter on a train that set him on the path towards creating Ben, The Boy Who Paints His Nails, the first book in his planned five-part series. “I was 19 or 20 at the time, and he must've been about 3,” he described in an email. “We were sitting across from each other when we realized that we were both wearing the same bright, red nail polish. It was an instant connection and, when they left, I told the little boy to keep painting his nails.”
With that idea in mind, he set to work on writing the book and soon teamed up with illustrator Daisy Squires to design the visuals for Ben. Squires, a self-described "full time designer, part time mind reader,” helped realize Hanson’s big queer dream of bringing a dose of diversity to children’s books. Now, in the final push for manufacturing, he’s turned to Kickstarter to help fund the project. Between juggling his writing, the project, and a full course load at the University of Melbourne, we talked to Hanson about his childhood, the Australian marriage equality vote, and the beauty in being unique.
An excerpt from Ben, The Boy Who Paints His Nails (Photo courtesy of Louis Hanson)
OUT: Your book is about a boy who paints his nails. Is this a reflection of your own childhood or a new story?
Louis Hanson: I very much see a lot of Ben in my younger self, in terms of feeling a bit out of place with the boys in school and not really knowing where to fit in. I loved dolls and dancing and ballet and singing Spice Girls. I felt like I was alone because I couldn't find any books, or anything in the media, telling me that I was okay.
In a way, I wrote the book with this little boy in mind because I wanted him to read a story that he could see himself in. In another way, I wrote this book for my own, younger self, a kid who wished he could have painted his nails.
What sparked the creation of the Be You Collection?
Last year, I was a guest speaker at Victorian school conference, advocating for the need to implement more diverse texts in the school curriculum. It made me realize that, in 13 years of schooling, not one class was dedicated sexuality or gender diversity or, more so, anything that reassured me that being feminine was okay.
There's only a certain narrative that is being told, re-told and reproduced to children. The world is such a magnificent, diverse place, and children deserve to see this. Children, whose hobbies or identities deviate from the supposed-norm, deserve to see themselves in beautiful stories.
A poem from Ben, The Boy Who Paints His Nails (Photo coutesy of Louis Hanson)
As an Australian, how has the marriage equality vote impacted your own life?
It's been a pretty tumultuous time over here for queer people, to be honest. Australia is literally putting an already-marginalized group up on a pedestal, and allowing everyone else to stare, point and decided whether they accept us or not. I'm lucky enough to have an incredible support system around me, but I know that others don't have that luxury—and this is what scares me. I'm worried about at-risk, questioning youth who already feel silenced.
Despite the assumption that this would be a "respectful debate", the 'no' campaign has been pretty brutal and I've seen some pretty deplorable things. That being said, with hate comes love; this debate has seen some truly beautiful moments of solidarity and unity with and for the queer community. It is important, now more so than ever, to be loud, to use your voice, to express your individuality and to be unapologetic about it.
How do you hope to inspire a new generation of LGBTQ kids with the Be You Collection?
At the end of the day, The Be You Collection hopes to inspire the younger generation to express themselves unapologetically, transcending gender, race, sexuality and religion. When they're stripped back, the moral of each story is so simple: be yourself, love yourself, stay true to yourself, you are important.
In reading these books, I hope that children will learn to praise each other for their differences, instead of tearing each other down. And for the kids reading the book who fall between the gender binary, or who feel misunderstood, I hope they see themselves in Ben, and understand that there's such beauty in being unique.
To help fund the Be You Collection, visit their Kickstarter.