Being empathetic in all aspects of our lives with David LaRochelle

Welcome to our LGBT podcast This Queer Book Saved My Life! In this episode, we talk with award-winning children’s author David LaRochelle (he/him) about the LGBT book Conundrum by Jan Morris. David shares with us, “So, on one hand this book taught me a lot about transsexuals and that experience but the bigger impact that this book had on me was the feeling that just because I don’t experience something, doesn’t mean that it’s not true.” The episode transcript is below!

We have a fascinating conversation about expanding our empathy and LGBTQ themes in children’s literature.

Buy the LGBT books on this LGBT podcast at our Bookshop!

Join us for our first ever recording in front of a live studio audience on August 24, 2022 at Lush Lounge and Theatre in NE Minneapolis. We’re celebrating our first season and calling the event Toasting Twin Cities Historic Gay Nightlife. Get more details here!

Visit davidlarochelle.com to read David’s books and to invite him to speak at your school!

Here is the link to Dr. Sarah McKay’s neuroscience about empathy that I referenced in the podcast: https://drsarahmckay.com/this-is-your-brain-on-empathy/

A big thank you to Natalie Cruz., Archie A., Bill Shay, and Paul Kaefer for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services that ensure this LGBT podcast is accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Patreon supporters help keep us on the air and promote accessibility. They receive a variety of benefits, including shout outs in our episodes, social media mentions, access to live-streaming events, virtual lunch with me, or even better, bring me to work day where I can do a talk and Q&A around queer diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook.

TRANSCRIPT

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Hey everyone! We only have one episode left until our season one finale on August 23rd! And to celebrate. And to celebrate our first season, we will be at Lush Lounge and Theater in Northeast Minneapolis on August 24th. 

We’re calling our event Toasting Twin Cities Historic Gay Nightlife. Because we will record our first ever episode in front of a live studio audience featuring OutFront Minnesota’s Policy and Organizing Director James Darville. Where we will discuss the book that saved James’ life: The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s. This memoir, written by Minnesota author Ricardo J. Brown, is about the first bar in St. Paul, MN bar that drew an LGBTQ crowd in the 1940s.

Lush will offer their full menu, plus a signature cocktail inspired by The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s. Quatrefoil Library will also be on hand to present and have a table of LGBTQ books for you to peruse. The event starts at 6pm. Here is a link to our Facebook page. Click that link and let us know you’re coming!

Speaking of Quatrefoil Library, thank you Quatrefoil for all of your continued support for this LGBT podcast. Quatrefoil Library is a community center that cultivates the free exchange of ideas and makes accessible LGBTQ+ materials for education and inspiration. Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visit them at qlibrary.org.

That’s q library.org.

On today’s episode…

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DAVID LAROCHELLE: So, on one hand this book taught me a lot about transsexuals and that experience but the bigger impact that this book had on me was the feeling that just because I don’t experience something, doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I’m talking with David LaRochelle about Conundrum by Jan Morris. Published in 1974. Conundrum is one of the first memoirs written by a trans author. For David, it taught lessons in empathy.

DAVID LAROCHELLE: Just because I have never felt that way doesn’t mean that nobody feels that way and I take this mindset from this book. I have applied it throughout my whole life.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: My name is J.P. Der Boghossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life!

Let’s meet David LaRochelle.

[plucky pizzicato music]

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: His pronouns are he/him. Asking a children’s author to pick their favorite book growing up, in retrospect doesn’t seem like a fair question, but David shared with me that he adored The Chronicles of Narnia and the Beverly Cleary books. He also loved the series Half Magic by Edward Eager. In it ordinary kids had magical adventures happen to them. And David so wanted that to happen for him that he went around looking for magic coins. And if he found something on the ground he would practice wishing on it, thinking it might be a magical object like the kids in the books found.

David grew up in a reading household and I love this before summer vacations, his mom would take him and his sister to the library to get a big stack of books to read. My kind of mom.

David is a former 4th grade teacher. While teaching, a friend convinced him to send in a story he had written to a publisher. The editor loved it and in 1988 his first book A Christmas Guest was published. Since then he has written or illustrated over 30 books and written a YA novel.

His books have the best titles like: See the Cat: Three Stories about a Dog, the Haunted Hamburger, and my personal favorite Moo! The entire book has just one single word. Moo. It is amazing. 

David is not only a prolific writer, he is a celebrated one. He is a four-time Minnesota Book Award winner and won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. In 2021, he won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. The Geisel Award is given every year to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished American books for beginning readers.

David told me kids deserve good writing as much as adults do. And that it is great challenge, because he has about 500 words to instill a love of reading and that takes excellent writing because if you can get young kids excited about books then you’ll have them in their whole life.

Here’s my conversation with David.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: So, David, what’s the book that saved your life?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: The book that I chose to talk about is a book called Conundrum by Jan Morris and I would not say that this would be a book that saved my life but it is a book that had a huge impact on my life and that was the reason why it came to my mind.

First of all, for many years I was part of a Gay men’s reading group and I think we met for probably 20 years. The only stipulation on the books that we read were that they had to have some sort of connection to the LGBTQI plus canon of books. This book was by Jan Morris who was born as James Morris back in 1929 and it is the story of her life. She was born into a male body but she realized that that was not the right body for her and that she was in fact, a woman inside and I don’t remember exactly what I thought about Transsexuals before I read this book. I didn’t have any negative feelings about them. But I’m not sure if my mindset was that all their transsexuals are people who decide that they want to be the opposite sex. But this book was so powerful for me because it showed, so clearly that this person knew without a doubt that they were in the wrong physical body.

The very first line or first 2 lines of the book are ‘I was 3 or perhaps 4 years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body and should really be a girl I remember the moment well and it is the earliest memory of my life.’ The author does such a powerful job of describing that it was an innate feeling inside her that she was this other sex. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not having some sort of empathy for somebody who has that situation in their life. So, on one hand this book taught me a lot about transsexuals and that experience but the bigger impact that this book had on me was the feeling that just because I don’t experience something, doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

Just because I have never felt that way doesn’t mean that nobody feels that way and I take this mindset from this book. I have applied it throughout my whole life and it comes up in so many instances.

I used to be a teacher and you may have a student who is having trouble reading. Maybe they’re dyslexic and if you’re not dyslexic you might think, but you just need to work harder. I mean that’s it but just because reading might come easy to me, it is not necessarily the case for that person because they have dyslexia. It can apply to people who have different life experience and who have experienced discrimination or oppression.  Just because you haven’t felt it, doesn’t mean that that’s not their life story. Jan did an amazing thing for me just to try and make me a more empathetic person in all aspects of my life.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: And real quick for folx listening, David and I, we’re using terms, like transexual, those are the words that Jan Morris uses in her book. So, we want honor that, but also be mindful that the book was published a few decades ago and terms and concepts of gender identity have changed since then. David I think it’s interesting how you’re saying that Conundrum expanded what empathy could be for you, if I have that right?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: I think that is a pretty good statement and hopefully I was an empathetic person before this but it really solidified for me in this book that people can have very different life experiences. And they’re no less valid than what I’m experiencing. It’s no less true either and that can of course be very hard because it’s easy for us to make judgments about people and sometimes we want people to be like we are. To accept that they might have a different life experience is important.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Tell me about the reading group that you were in.

DAVID LAROCHELLE: It was a wonderful experience for me and I became part of it probably when I was in my late 20 s. I was an English major in college. But,I don’t think I ever read a book with a Gay character until I graduated from college. I’m 61 years old but I certainly never read any children’s books that had Gay characters in high school. We never read any in college as an English major! We never read any books with Gay characters. I think the first book I ever read that had a Gay character might have been the Armistead Maupin Tales of the City series.

This Gay men’s book club introduced me to so many authors in the gay canon that I wasn’t familiar with and just showed me a whole wide range of literature that I had never been exposed to before. So that was wonderful. I read many books I would have never read otherwise and we met for about 20 years! There were 5 of us in the group and no one ever missed a meeting which was pretty good! We had a sixth member for a while. But then he was sick with AIDS at the time and then eventually died but he was a great member for that year. We read a book every month. And we would meet for a potluck dinner. We would talk about the book and then we would rate the book. We had a stamping system about what we thought of the book and I think in the 20 or so years that we met, the number of times that somebody had to use the stamp that said they did not finish the book was probably a total of maybe less than eight times over those 20 years! We were pretty dedicated to finishing the book every month.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: How did you select books for each month?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: Each member of the group took turns choosing a book so it just rotated amongst us and we read books ranging from fiction to nonfiction to poetry to photo essays to graphic novels. I remember that I chose a young adult book way back then which would have been one of the first books that ever had a gay character in it. It was called Whatever Happened to Mr. Forster which is a story about an elementary school kid who has this favorite teacher who ends up being fired because they find out that the teacher is Gay. So many wonderful books.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Do you recall how Conundrum got suggested to be that month’s book?

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Ok, that makes me think about Florida today where you can’t even mention the word gay for elementary school kids without a similar threat. And that’s impacting, I was reading one article about how teachers don’t know what to do if students have parents who are queer, like can they not talk about that? And…I’m not an expert in LGBTQ children’s lit, but you’re a children’s author, so how do you navigate that terrain?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: I can see over the past twenty years in the children’s literature arena there have been many more books. Publishers are dealing with those issues and they’re continuing to be written now. They’re also, especially at this moment in time as you mentioned John they’re starting to run up against some real backlash with a lot of banning of books that have Gay or Lesbian or Transsexual characters in them. A lot of books are being banned of Bipoc authors as well too. They’re talking about race issues. There’s also a lot of fighting back as well. It seems like publishers are still very much publishing these books and are trying to be supportive of them. It’s just the battle is being fought in schools and libraries where there’s a group of people who don’t want these books to be out there. I think they’re just afraid about things. They don’t understand and afraid of what effect they might have on their children. The opposite is really true and has just a positive effect for children to see themselves or to be empathetic towards people who are not like them. What is bad about that?  I don’t know.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: I guess what’s resonating with me right now is empathy as life-saving. Did you see that playing out in your own YA novel?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: I wrote one young adult novel that did have to do with being Gay. Most of my books are picture books and those books haven’t had any gay characters in them. Although there are some wonderful books that do. But I wrote a young adult novel called Absolutely Positively Not which was a humorous story about a sixteen-year-old boy who was absolutely positively not Gay or at least that’s what he was telling himself. When I sat down to write the story I wasn’t trying to write a story about a Gay character. I was trying to write a story, a funny story and the main character story just happened to be Gay. For me it ended up being a very positive experience to take so many of the things that happened to me when I was growing up and those feelings which were so challenging and a lot of tough times and turn it into a book that was funny and turn it into something that was positive.

The book came out about fifteen years ago and at that time there was very little for  LGBTQI+ youth out there. There were hardly any books at all! I remember when I was working on this book, a couple of the very first books that came out were Geography Club and Rainbow Boys were some of the very first books. I remember telling my friends: Oh I’m too late. I was thinking I was going to write one of the first books about Gay characters and somebody else did it! So I should just quit. I remember my friends said, well you know DAVID LAROCHELLE, there can be more than one book about Gay and Lesbian characters! But that’s how few there were at that time. With my book, it was different in that it was one of the first books that took a humorous viewpoint on it. It was very light.

Some of the other books were kind of heavy and angst ridden which a lot of teenage books are. Because that’s the time period. Do you have a lot of angst in it? But that ended up being what made the book so popular. I heard from adults who said it was your book that was a lighthearted book. It was one that was very easy for our whole family to read and then to talk about our teenage daughter who was Gay. It was a nice segue into discussing this with her, or people who would not have wanted to pick up a Gay book were willing to pick up THIS book because it was a funny book and they enjoyed it. I just heard some very touching feedback about it. I thought the only people who are going to be interested are middle aged Gay men like me. I don’t know. I can never write a book for teenagers. I did hear from middle aged Gay men who said, oh this is a wonderful book!

But I heard from teenagers who even said you know I was actively thinking about committing suicide until I found your book and I read your book every day for a month just to make myself feel like I was less alone….. and that was very touching of course heartening to hear that my book connected with people like that. I also heard from straight people who said I read your book and it reminded me of the someone in junior high that I did not treat very well and we teased them badly. Because of reading your book I contacted this person and apologized to them for what I did because I didn’t realize what they were going through. That made me feel very good as well which is the reason why we need books like this out there. So straight people as well can get a glimpse into what it might be like if you’re not straight.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: After the break, David will share about a LGBTQ book archive for kids that has the pretty much the best title ever.

[music]

Ruth Ann Berdahl: Hi I’m Ruth Ann Berdahl.

Robert Berdahl: And I’m Robert Berdahl.

Ruth Ann Berdahl: We met doing a production of Beauty and the Beast.

Robert Berdahl: Guess who played Beast?

Ruth Ann Berdahl: (laughs) Now we are married and have two kids – with one more on the way.

Robert Berdahl: And I’ve been selling real estate with Edina Realty for many years. So if it’s moving time for you, give us a call to start your marketing plan with an accurate evaluation of your home.

Ruth Ann Berdahl: We’ll start marketing to qualified buyers faster than you can say “Be Our Guest.”

Robert Berdahl: Call or text us at 612-306-5138 to get your house on the market.

Ruth Ann Berdahl: We help buyers find their dream homes to.

Robert Berdahl: 612-306-5138. It’s your move. 

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Do you remember that rad alarm clock you had growing up? I do. Well, guess what? I found that exact clock at Alley Cat Antiques. They have games, pictures, clothes, furniture, kitchenware, pottery, toys, and all kinds of cool stuff. You can shop Alley Cat Antiques within the Mall of St. Paul, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and within Almelund Mercantile in Almelund, Minnesota. Tell them JP sent you. But don’t you dare buy that Thundercats lunch box. That’s mine!

Bookshop.org mission’s is to help local, independent bookstores thrive in the age of ecommerce. And Bookshop.org partners with over 1,400 independent bookstores to support their businesses to sell us the books we cannot live without. And, This Queer Book Saved My Life! is an affiliate with Bookshop.org. That means if you purchase the books discussed on this podcast through our Bookshop page, you will directly support this podcast as we receive a commission from your purchase. Buy books, support local bookstores, and benefit this amazing podcast! Here’s how to get started. Go to bookshop.org/shop/thisqueerbook. Links are in this episode’s description and on our website!

A big thank you to Natalie Cruz, Bill Shay, Paul Kaefer, Archie, and Stephen for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services that ensure the podcast is accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Patreon supporters help keep us on the air and promote accessibility. Patreon supporters receive a variety of benefits from this podcast, including shout outs in our episodes, social media mentions, access to live-streaming events, virtual lunch with me, or even better, bring me to work day where I can do a talk and Q&A around queer diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook

[music]

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Anti-queer parents and politicians have polarized our schools by banning books, amongst a whole slew of other anti-LGBTQ policies. As he’s a children’s author, I’ll ask David about his perspective of LGBTQ children’s books as we move into the future.[

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J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: We talked offline about a book directory called, and this is the best, I’m here, I’m queer, what the hell do you I read? Can you share with our listeners more about about Lee Wind who created it? 

DAVID LAROCHELLE: Lee Wind who is a member of the children’s literature community and he’s just had a couple of his own books published. But even before that he was a huge champion of books for young people on the LGBTQI+ spectrum. He had this blog where he reviews all kinds of books there. This was a great resource for anyone who’s looking for books that deal with that experience. He just recently had a book come out called No Way They were Gay: Hidden Lives and Secret Loves. It’s a book about historical people who may have been gay or whose love lives have been hidden because people didn’t want other people to know the truth. His website has lots of past reviews of books in that regard.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: What is something that you’d like to see moving forward in children’s literature or young adult literature as it relates to the Queer communities?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: I am starting to see, which I really like a lot, the first books dealing with communities and the stories are about challenges people have with their sexual identity and sexual identity ends up being the main part of the book. I think it’s so wonderful that there are now so many. There’s starting to be some children’s books where that isn’t necessarily the main theme but where some of the characters just happen to be gay or lesbian or bisexual This past year a couple books, one was called Mr. Watson’s Chickens and it’s about a couple who start with three chickens and they just get more and more until they have hundreds of chickens and that’s what the story is but the couple in the story is Mr. Watson and Mr. Nelson! It’s two men and they’re just portrayed as a very loving couple. These chickens just take over and Mr. Nelson is going to move out. Mr. Watson says, well he loves his chickens but he loves Mr. Nelson more so they figure out a way to deal with this. It’s just portrayed as a loving couple not as a Gay book. I should always really say the author’s name. That’s shameful of me not to do so. Mr. Watson’s Chickens was written by Jarrett Dapier and illustrated by Andrea Surumi. Another book called Love Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wilde and illustrated by Charlene Chua is about this little girl who has a crush on someone in her class and she’s just too afraid to tell this person how she feels. She makes this Valentine and she doesn’t know if she wants to give it to her or not and eventually she’s able to do so and she has her affection returned and it just happens the person that she has this crush on is another girl. But, it isn’t focused on that necessarily. The same sex attraction is there but it can be just as easily read as a story of that scared feeling of letting somebody know that you care for them. When we’re getting children’s books that contain Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual characters that are just treated as people out in the world and not necessarily as a problem or an issue, I think that’s the direction that a lot of books for young people are now going.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Do you feel publishers are buying those types of stories?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: I think they are now I really do. I see on Publishers Weekly the latest books that are being published and there seems like there are a lot of titles dealing with those issues now and that’s very heartening to see. Hopefully they can reach the kids and the people that need to read them and see them.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: So what is next for David LaRochelle on the writing front?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: David LaRochelle is always working on new books. I have new picture books coming out next year. I feel very fortunate that I have 5 books under contract and that certainly doesn’t always happen to me. So, the next two books that are coming out for me next year I have one called 100 Mighty Dragons all named broccoli and that will come out at the beginning of 2023 and then later next year I have a book called See the Ghost: Three Stories About Things You Cannot See and it’s the third book in a series that Mike Wenuka the illustrator and I have done. The first one was called See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog. So we’re so happy to have another book in that series coming out.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: And you do visits and presentations at schools, right?

DAVID: LAROCHELLE: Yep. I visit many schools every year and now that things are opening up more with the pandemic I’m able to do some in-person school visits again and that’s great, um, doing a Zoom visit with. Kindergartners is not the same as doing a Zoom visit when you can see them in person with some of these Zoom visits. The kids were actually at home and if you’re zooming with a kindergarten or the kindergartner is probably playing with their dog or eating spaghetti or hiding underneath. Bad and it’s so much so much more fun to actually be in the classroom with the kids now.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: On the school visits, do you do writing exercises with them? Storytelling?

DAVID LAROCHELLE: Yep I will do all sorts of things sometimes I do storytelling and drawing but sometimes schools have me do writing residencies where I have the kids ah work on their own stories and work on their own illustrations.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: This has been great David. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know more of your life story, and Conundrum, and your writing! Thank you so much for your time.

DAVID LAROCHELLE: My pleasure, I’m glad you asked me to be on the show. Hopefully, I can give was able to give your readers some ideas of books, especially some of the young adult books or books for young people out there. There are so many good ones now. I just want to encourage people to check out at their library or their bookstore.

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: You can find more about David’s books at davidlarochelle.com. The link is in the show description. And if you work in an elementary school or are the parent of a kiddo in elementary school, then reach out to David on his website to have him come to your school!

As I was editing this episode, I got an email from Dr. Sarah McKay. I’m on her email list because I had the great opportunity to attend her Neuroscience Academy a few years ago and I highly recommend it.

The subject of the email was fortuitous. The subject line: This is your brain on empathy. I’ve included a link to the article in the show description.

In the article she talks about the neuroscience of empathy. How there is one process called mentalizing – which is the process of how we understand someone else’s perspective.

But then there is empathy. Which is understanding someone else’s feelings.

And what are brains are doing when they are empathetic is they are creating an emotional map of the other person or other community we are interacting with. With more information our brains are able to create a more detailed map. And a map with strong details leads to us feeing more empathy.

And in the debate between nurture and nature, empathy lies on the nurture side of the equation. We learn the skill of empathy.

I’m not going to get into the details, but Dr. McKay lays out the general skills: We switch on our empathetic brain and say we want to learn. We make an imaginative leap. We seek experiential adventures. Practice the craft of conversation. Travel in your armchair through literature, art, and film. And finally, engage curiosity.

So much of this was reflected in my conversation with David as we discussed Conundrum. In the reading group they were deliberately switching on their empathetic brain to queer experience. They practiced the craft of conversation. They traveled in their armchairs through the book. They engaged their curiosity.

And the strength and beauty of Jan Morris’ writing certainly helps engage and takes the reader along – but the skill of empathy is on the reader. The author can be a brilliant writer, but the reader has a responsibility to engage.

I hope as your listening to our podcast, that you deliberately choose to listen to episodes about the books that at first you think I don’t think I’ll connect to that book. Switch on that fascinating empathetic brain. Take the imaginative leap. Take the trip on your armchair. Engage in the conversations you’re hearing. You’ll hone your empathy skills. It’s not something you have. It’s something you practice. And empathy is life-saving.

[theme music]

J.P. DER BOGHOSSIAN: Thank you for listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life! Our new episodes drop every Tuesday until our Season One finale on August 23. Season two starts October 4th. Join us at Lush Lounge and Theatre on August 24 to celebrate Twin Cities Historic LGBTQ nightlife.  For all podcast updates follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Transcripts of this episode are available on our website. Please don’t forget to support our sponsors Robert Berdahl at Edina Realty, Bookshop.org, Alley Cat Antiques, and Quatrefoil Library. Please consider becoming a Patreon supporter. And most importantly, keep writing, and keep reading!