In the span of its three-year run, Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe has singlehandedly shifted the way we talk and think about LGBTQ representation in media aimed at kids.
What began as a series of 11-minute-long cartoons about a boy adventuring around the world with his non-nuclear family of Crystal Gems has since evolved into a sprawling space opera exploring issues like love, loss, and abusive relationships all depicted through a decidedly queer, inclusive lens. This year, just as the series has begun to delve into heavier, more emotionally complex plotlines, Steven Universe received an Emmy nomination in the Short-Form Animated Series category.
The Answer, the nominated episode, tells the story of how Ruby and Sapphire, two of the Crystal Gems, first met one another and fell in love. When Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fuse together into a new gem known as Garnet, they go on the run in an attempt to escape from other gems who consider their fusion to be a taboo.
As far as episodes of Steven Universe go, The Answer is exactly what fans have come to love about the show: beautiful, music-filled storytelling centered around intimate relationships between characters you actually care about.
In her new literary adaptation of The Answer, though, Steven Universe creator Rebeca Sugar turns Ruby and Sapphire’s unique love story into a subversive fairy tale that both upends and queers the storybook canon.
In a recent interview with PBS Newshour, Sugar, who came out as bisexual at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, explained that she wanted to use The Answer‘s connection to fairy-tale storytelling to tell the sort of story about explicitly queer romance that’s often missing from LGBTQ-themed children’s books. Fairy-tale love, Sugar continued, is an important element of childhood that all kids deserve to have access to regardless of their gender identity or sexuality.
“Everyone tells stories of attraction to kids, everyone tells these fairy tales to kids. And it’s just like, the air you breathe, it’s so normal that it’s completely invisible,” Sugar said. “What you learn as a kid when you don’t see any of those stories or relate to any of those stories, is that you are denied the dream of love. You should get to appreciate and love and trust your own feelings.”
The Answer isn’t the first children’s book that makes a point of normalizing queer relationships and teaching kids that same-sex attraction and love are natural, healthy things, but it manages to do something that other titles like Square Zair Pair and Worm Loves Worm don’t.
The vast majority of LGBTQ-themed children’s books rely on anthropomorphized animals to stand in as substitutes for kids who might feel different than their straight counterparts. In Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three, for example, two male penguins in a zoo form a close bond together before deciding to build a nest together and raise a chick (with the help of friendly zookeepers).
The story, which is based on two real-life penguins, is charming, but there’s a point at which a book about two animals falls short of capturing the complexity of human love that kids are perfectly capable of understanding.
While Gems aren’t technically human, they’re human enough that when Garnet describes herself as being the living embodiment of Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship, it’s clear that she’s talking about the same kind of love that could be shared between two women or two men. Fusions, Sugar explained to PBS, are one of the most important aspects of The Answer‘s approach to illustrating just what love entails.
“I think part of the goal of having these fusions being characters is that you care about them as people, and part of the way that I want to convey these parts of consent is that this relationship, this living relationship, if you don’t have that, it will damage this person,” Sugar said. “Our bond could be stronger, or weaker, depending on whether or not I care about what’s going on and respect what’s going on with my partner.”