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Christian writer's new book reminds kids what makes them different makes them special

In Jonathan Merritt's new book <em>My Guncle and Me</em>, a little boy's gay uncle helps him understand that being different makes him special.
Hachette Book Group
In Jonathan Merritt's new book My Guncle and Me, a little boy's gay uncle helps him understand that being different makes him special.

Evangelical Christian writer Jonathan Merritt has written books with titles like Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined and A Faith Of Our Own aimed at younger evangelicals looking to distinguish their faith from that of their parents. Merritt’s new children’s book is something of a departure. It’s called My Guncle and Me.

The guncle — a portmanteau of the words gay and uncle — comes to visit his awkward nephew, who tells the story:

"My name's Henry Higgleston, and kids think I'm strange.
My hair, clothes and voice - there's a lot I would change.
But right now, I'm excited, because today's Saturday,
and my most fabulous relative is coming to stay."

That "fabulous relative" teaches Henry that being different isn’t just okay, it makes him special.

"You write the book you wish you had as a child,” says Merritt, “and when people read this, they immediately say, OK, I get it - you're the guncle. I mean, the guncle even kind of looks like me.”

Illustrator Joanna Carillo drew the guncle as a bit of a dandy, with a five o'clock shadow and a French bulldog named Jimmy Chew.

“The present-day me was able to travel back in time to a past version of me,” explains Merritt, “and to get down on one knee, and look that kid in the eye and tell him what I know now he needed to hear.”

But Merritt didn't always know what he needed to hear. He's the son of a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a former pastor himself. Coming out as gay meant rethinking his life — though not, it turns out, the core of his faith.

Merritt doesn’t shy away from addressing his Christianity directly in the story:

"At church the next morning, my guncle sings loudly.
He prays and gives thanks, and he does it devoutly.
His bright-colored outfit makes two women stare.
When we pass, they both snicker, but he doesn't care."

Merritt says not many children's books include LGBTQ characters who are clearly Christian.

“A lot of people today are told by the religious people in their lives,” says Merritt, “that they can either be people of faith or they can be gay. That is a false choice, and I think it's important for children to know that.”

Odd man out to Christians and LGBTQ+ People

Increasing numbers of people of faith agree that it’s a false choice. But what’s surprised Merritt are the reactions he's been getting while reading from My Guncle and Me during queer story times at bookstores and libraries.

“I'm so used to very religious people looking at me strange because I'm gay, and now I'm in the opposite situation,” says Merritt, “Where I have my queer brothers and sisters who are looking at me with those same weird faces because of my faith.”

Merritt wants to be clear, his book isn't just for kids with guncles or for kids who might be LGBTQ+. He says it’s a story about accepting yourself in whatever way you might be different from everyone else.

That message resonates with 6-year-old Phoebe Riddle, who noticed the expression on the guncle's face as he sings in church.

“He looks like he doesn't notice, and he's like, ‘Oh, I don't care. I'll just move along,” says Phoebe.

She relates to the emotions the nephew experiences and appreciates how the guncle encourages Henry not to be so worried about what other people think.

“I really liked that part,” says Phoebe, “because sometimes, at school, I feel sad, but then I just get back up.”

The lesson is slightly different for Phoebe's 11-year-old brother, Thomas.

“I don't think ‘gay’ is funny,” he says, “I think it's something that people actually like. LGBTQ people don't want to be made fun of.”

Merritt's message is that God is love

To a certain extent the lessons in My Guncle and Me aren’t just for kids, many of whom have grown up in environments where LGBTQ+ people aren’t considered that unusual. The adults who are reading the book to their kids, says Merritt, might have something to learn as well.

“All of us come to understand the what of our identity: What are we like? What do we feel? What are we attracted to?” he says. “But there's always a why behind the what. Why are we this way?”

That "why" for Merritt, isn't based on endless arguments of nature versus nurture — whether being LGBTQ+ is based on biology or environment. Rather, the why is grounded in his faith.

“The driving force that's making us who we are, at least in the Christian conception, is God. And God is love,” says Merritt. “That means that love is making you who you are — gay or straight, cisgender or transgender. Love is the driving force that is making you that way, and that love is loving you always.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.