Maya Christina Gonzalez: Self love, activism, and LGBTQ+ Storytelling

Maya and I first crossed paths in the early 2000s. I was fresh out of publishing studies, working at Children’s Book Press* with dreams of starting a publishing house for underrepresented stories told from personal experience. Maya was a veteran illustrator (on the verge of authorship) at Children’s Book Press. An adept educator, she had a long list of books to her name, and a growing collection of awards to boot. I was a baby sprout in the meadow; Maya was already a towering redwood.

Fifteen years later, Maya has rocketed ahead, starting Reflection Press and School of the Free Mind with her partner Matthew, and independently releasing over half a dozen books in the past year alone. Her wisdom and deep self knowingness are both rooted and ahead of the times. Making ripples of healing wherever she goes, Maya is changing the children’s book world (and beyond) for the better.

JM: You’re a mother, a publisher, an educator, an artist, and infinitely more. What values are you seeding and tending with your child, Sky? How does activism show up in your lives as a family?

MCG: I hold the belief that every moment must be an act of radical self love if we want to create a new reality. If we want to live freee in an unfree world we must counter literally everything that the current, dominant culture perpetuates. Supporting Sky in developing that kind of freeedom means addressing gender, ethnicity, class, separation from nature, linear/polar thinking, suppressed history . . . everything that Western culture touches inside and out. Literally. Everything. It means creating a whole new world, of thinking and being.

I stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Gloria Anzaldua when she says “I change myself, I change the world.” Power and responsibility are centered within through self love. This activates the natural artist as the inner self is empowered with agency to know their truth in the world. Self love opens up the pathways, sets the tone, allows the self to see through the falsehoods and inspires unity. This is exactly what Western culture fights and tries to dominate out of us: our empowered, creative unified SELVES connecting with nature and each other.

Self love opens up the pathways, sets the tone, allows the self to see through the falsehoods and inspires unity.

So activism becomes every breath when we love ourselves. In my imagination, self love is the way of activism. That’s what I want to pass on to Sky. How to live in this world freee. This inner terrain changes everything. This must be the bedrock of our earthly experience if we want to create lasting equity and respect outside of ourselves. It’s a long dance. Not a short fix. It’s a deep commitment, but Sky staying freee and aware is sane and I know is part of a larger shift in consciousness coming into being.

JM: You’re literally a parent, and I also see you as a mother and midwife to a grassroots ground swell of storytelling empowerment. You’ve put an immense amount of love and generosity into School of the Free Mind and other efforts, offering trainings and education in self-publishing. Why is storytelling important, and why alternative roads of storytelling, like self-publishing?

MCG: Silence has been a great teacher of mine. I’ve learned how it keeps us safe, how it’s used to control us and how walking out of it can revolutionize our heart and spirit and ultimately change the world.

I’ve seen from the inside out how storytelling heals our deepest selves, our ancestral selves and each other. This is revolutionary.

In order to hold a space for this we need new stories, our truth. And the only way stories and truths like these can be freee to come OUT and into BEing is in a fully supportive, loving environment. That’s what I’ve tried to create through SFM, hard core publishing support and massive love. I share everything I’ve learned in the industry and in my heart about making children’s books. It’s important not to hold information like this close to the chest, but SEED IT OUT if we want to create change. In one program we literally walk folks through creating their own press because we know having all the power changes how and what stories we can tell! Having your own press contributes to a new world!

There’s also the fact that the children’s book industry literally doesn’t have the capacity to equitably reflect our communities. We need to see the truth of this and know that we can seed our own industry.

JM: How has starting Reflection Press with your life partner, Matthew, affected your creativity and approach to making books?

I literally couldn’t do what I do without Matthew. Having our own press and school is completely contingent on his fabulous expertise! It’s been amazing and expanded my work exponentially. I’ve taught and lectured for over 20 years, but having a press and school has allowed me to gather, consolidate and disseminate in a whole new way.

Initially I wanted the press for my curriculums to support educators, but now we’re using it to publish anthologies and materials for the school and FINALLY we’re publishing my children’s books and some of the folks I’ve mentored. The feeling of being powerful and self directed feels amazing and strangely normal. It frees everything up and I find that I can’t stop. I feel limitless and driven to create the dozens of books I have in my cue. The path keeps rolling OUT in front of my feet. All I have to do is dance freeely! Freeedom begets freeedom.

JM: You’ve had an outpouring of new books this year. What project(s) are you most excited about right now?

MCG: I’m looking at getting The Rainbow Alphabet with Mami Q up and out in the world this spring. I’m deeply stoked about this book because it’s tied to our They, She, He, Me, Free to Be and The Gender Wheel books. We’re in desperate need of not one, but a series of books that can hold Sky and her freeedom as she grows up. Gender in particular is aggressively policed by both kids and adults. This book playfully languages educators, parents and kids about the LGBTQIA2S of our community, freeeing ALL OF US to speak about and express who we are.

JM: There’s been an increase in LGBTQ+ themed children’s books in recent years. What’s at stake when authors create stories with Queer and Trans characters? How does an author’s identity up the stakes, especially if they are not Queer or Trans themselves?

MCG: There’s been some increase in YA LGBTQ+ books in the last few years, although it still falls FAR below anything even approaching equitable reflection. But I’m not seeing much of a similar increase in children’s books. In fact, I recently had to stay firm when even referencing myself and another person as queer in my artist note in a traditionally published children’s book.

Queers and kids are still generally kept separate and presses that step in the queer direction are still taking a risk not just financially, but also politically and socially. As a consequence the LGBTQ children’s books that tend to make it through are often ‘the safest ones,’ which means that they either follow acceptable tropes and/or are authored by cis, white, straight parents, teachers and caregivers, usually women as is common in the children’s book industry. While providing a less risky, more familiar public face to the dominant culture, it takes representation away from an LGBTQ+ author and can prove highly problematic in other very real ways.

With all marginalized peoples in a society, truth, context and respect are at stake when someone outside of a community creates characters meant to reflect.

With all marginalized peoples in a society, truth, context and respect are at stake when someone outside of a community creates characters meant to reflect. Just like with IPOC characters written by white people, nonLGBTQI+ authors often miss the mark. The situation becomes especially acute when writing nonfiction. In fact, without lived experience, nonLGBTQI+ authors often unconsciously perpetuate the very thing they think they’re dismantling and can do real harm to kids when positioning their selves as Queer and/or Trans experts or authoritarians of any sort. And because it’s coming from an unconscious place of privilege, this is exactly the kind of misinformation that is easily passed off to other cis, white, straight people and actually firms their privilege from yet another direction.  This may be part of why plagiarism and distortion of Queer/Trans people’s work is common. Even my own gender work was twice plagiarized this last year by two cis, white, straight parents who flattened, distorted and misrepresented it through their own unconscious lenses. This is not solid, sane support for our kids.

Because there is so much misinformation, suppressed history and prejudice against LGBTQI+ people it can be challenging even for queers to sift through all this, especially while still negotiating a homo/transphobic society.

JM: In 2010 you created the Gender Wheel, and we’re beginning to see terminology developed in this book pop up around internationally. What is the Gender Wheel? What is its role in the world?

The Gender Wheel is at the heart of my Gender Now Coloring Book (2010) and Gender Now Activity Book (2011). Two of my closest queer family members are trans and I couldn’t find any books to talk to Zai, a child I co-parent, about it. I wanted a go-to place that included multiple areas of information and support to show that this isn’t just about what I think, this is a much bigger story. The book includes history, multiple cultures and nature. The Gender Wheel is the symbol that embodies all of it by showing inclusion of all bodies and all genders. Gender Now was documented as the first book to talk about and include trans and intersex people for kids.

This year we deepened the work and made the Gender Wheel into a storybook. It had been on our minds to create for years but with Sky turning 4 the time was definitely now. I dropped deeper into the Gender Wheel with this book and further developed it in alliance with my holistic framework that has evolved since 2010. I’m currently in alliance with two other gender educators to gather our work to create a holistic frame of gender for our IPOC communities.

I’ve always been deeply committed to gender freeedom. I believe that by dismantling the foundations of the gender binary we can ultimately dismantle everything oppressive.

JM: What does it take to tell LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented stories responsibly? What happens when these stories are told irresponsibly?

I am a deep advocate of first voice or what is currently called own voice. Beyond that I’m going to respond to this by referencing what I’m going to do to empower us to stay aware about LGBTQI children’s books. I’m creating a worksheet. It will include a number of contexts to keep in mind, a basic checklist and what may need to be researched about a book before introducing it to your child, classroom or including it on an LGBTQI+ recommended reading list.

I often think of Debbie Reese and her site American Indians in Children’s Literature. Heartbreaking, amazing, unfortunately necessary work. In my heart of hearts I wish there was a similar site for LGBTQI+ children’s books to be responsibly vetted. In my section of LGBTQI+ children’s book reviews in School of the Free Mind I’ve begun the process, but as Debbie knows it’s a full time job.

I’ll be sharing the worksheet for the first time Jan 2018 at the LGBTQI Family Formation Symposium in Santa Rosa and of course sharing it widely through my blog as well as at Keep an eye out for it!

JM: What guidance do you have for adults who want to nurture the next generation of healers and transformers (aka, the kids in their lives)?

MCG: Profoundly, radically LOVE YOURSELF of course! Let your kids see you love yourself, even struggle with loving yourself.

And show them my statistics about the children’s book industry and share that they have the power within to change this trend of silence and invisibility.

Maybe even create a story with art together. If you feel like create your own press! Make a book of it to share with everyone.

I believe you can change the world. I believe we all can.


I know

Voice is a revolution.  


*Interviewer’s Note: Founded in 1975, Children’s Book Press was the first and longest standing independent children’s publishing house in the US dedicated exclusively to first voice, multicultural and bilingual children’s books. In 2012, CBP was absorbed by Lee & Low Books, who continues to publish CBP as an imprint.

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