Clippinger, Aaron (author) and Shea, Mika (illus.). A Different Dolphin. Meadows Metropolis, LLC. 2016. $21.99. 50p. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0692751527.
A Different Dolphin tells the story of a young, gay dolphin who is ostracized by his community. After contemplating suicide, the main character comes to accept himself. Will his family ever come to love him for who he is?
Overcoming adversity and bullying are common themes in picture books about LGBTQIA+ characters. Clippinger takes this familiar theme and transports it underwater via incredibly strained verse. The main character’s identity is as murky as the rhyme scheme (“Instead of wrestling with boys or trying to kiss girls, I like pretty things, playing softly, jumping in swirls and twirls”), but the consequences are explicitly dire: the main character considers drowning himself apparently out of shame. However, as he sinks lower in the water, some sort of translucent deep sea creatures convince him to love himself and he surfaces for air. The main character comes face to face with his pod again when they are captured by human fishers who apparently want to stop the dolphins from eating all the fish. While this encounter allows the author to moralize about overfishing and human impacts on ecosystems, it does not flow naturally from the plot. Also, while dolphins do get caught in fishing nets, they are not deliberately targeted by fisherman.
The description of the main character’s difference is not only confusing, it is potentially damaging to the very population the author wants to empower. By collapsing gay identities into a rejection of stereotypically masculine pursuits (like wrestling), Clippinger conflates gender expression and sexuality. Better explorations of young boys who don’t conform to gender stereotypes abound: Try Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino or Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. For a lovely representation of love between two boys, read Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto.