February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

LGBTQ Diversity: Building a Collection for Independent Readers

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Being able to easily locate LGBTQ-friendly materials for children is an important task for school and public librarians seeking to support their diverse reading communities. Kids must be given opportunities to explore literature from multiple points of view, yet it’s sometimes challenging to meet this need, especially for students in grades 3 to 5. We’ve identified dozens of recommended titles in the hopes of spreading the word about what books are available for this age group.

In some areas, school libraries have not been at the forefront of purchasing books with LGBTQ characters because of concerns about potential challenges, but their inclusion in these collections is extremely important. Analysis of the 2010 Census demographics shows nearly 2 million children live in same-sex parent homes; they are no longer an exception in the diversity of family constructs.

Additionally, many educators advocate that all children should see themselves and their families in books they read, so excluding LGBTQ-friendly books from the literature available in school classrooms and libraries would be a disservice to all learners.

While books with LGBTQ characters for very young children and for older kids seem readily available, there are few books containing LGBTQ characters for students in grades 3–5. In fact, we found only 57 titles published between 1993 and 2012. They fall into a few different categories: stories with LGBTQ secondary characters; stories about non-gender normative people; books about LGBTQ people that don’t mention that they are LGBTQ; and nonfiction books mentioning LGBTQ identity.

Although we have actually found no books with LGBTQ main characters for readers in grades 3–5, here are the very best books we have discovered for this age group. All have been positively reviewed by the major library review sources we usually consult, and we recommend them highly.

I, Emma Freke. By Elizabeth J. Atkinson. Carolrhoda Books. 2010. $9.95. ISBN 978-0761385004. Gr 4–7.

Growing up near Boston with her free-spirited mother and old-world grandfather, 12-year-old Emma has always felt out of place. She is too tall, too shy, and her hair is too red. When she attends her father’s family reunion far away in Wisconsin, she is in for some surprises—including a better understanding of who she is. Emma’s friend’s parents are lesbians.

We Are One: The Story Of Bayard Rustin. By Larry Dane Brimner. Calkins Creek. 2007. $18.95. ISBN 978-1590784983. Gr 5–9.

This biography tells its story using Bayard’s own words, archival photographs, and the spirituals and protest songs that Bayard often sang. A member of the Civil Rights Movement who was instrumental in its early organization, Rustin was a non-violent gay activist whose contributions should not be  overlooked. This inspiring biography is an easy read. The author’s note mentions that Rustin was gay.

The Skull Of Truth: A Magic Book Shop Book. By Bruce Coville. Harcourt Brace. 1997. $6.99. ISBN 978-0152060848. Gr 3–6.

This fourth title in the “Magic Book Shop” series introduces Charlie, a sixth-grader with a compulsion to lie, as he is removing a mysterious skull (Shakespeare’s Yorick) from a bookstore without permission. The skull forces its owner to tell only the truth, causing some awkward moments for Charlie before he understands its power. Among the revelations that come out during Charlie’s truth-telling spree is the fact that his uncle’s roommate is really his boyfriend.

My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer. By Jennifer Gennari. Houghton Mifflin. 2012. $15.99. ISBN 978-0547577395. Gr 4–7.

Twelve-year-old June Farrell spends the summer at her Vermont home getting used to the woman her mother is planning to marry and practicing her pie-baking skills, as she hopes to win the blue ribbon at the fair. An anti-gay element in the community makes life difficult for the family, while June just wants to be “normal” and spend time with her friends.

Family and Friends. By Honor Head. Sea-to-Sea Publications. 2013. $26.77. ISBN 978-1597713979. Gr 2–4.

The clever questioning format of this title leads children to explore the concepts of family, friendship, and bullying via colorful two-page spreads with quality photos. Each spread introduces a topic with a primary question and two additional thought-provoking ideas. This book has just enough depth to generate good discussion and may best be used with an adult rather than for independent reading. It also offers a glossary and an index, while accompanying materials (such as a writing exercise and an anti-bulling poster) are available for download online.

Addie on the Inside. By James Howe. Atheneum. 2011. $6.99. ISBN 978-1416913856. Gr 5–8.

Outspoken 13-year-old Addie Carle learns about love, loss, and staying true to herself as she navigates seventh grade, enjoys a visit from her grandmother, fights with her boyfriend, endures gossip and meanness from her former best friend, and is friendly with a gay student. This unique voice of book, written in verse, is Addie’s internal dialog.

The Misfits. By James Howe. Atheneum. 2001. $6.99. ISBN 978-0689839566. Gr 5–8.

Four seventh-grade students who do not fit in at their small-town middle school decide to create a third party for the student council elections to represent all students who have ever been called names. This movement doesn’t sit well with the student council advisors, leading the group of five—including a gay student—to prove their worth and maturity.

The Popularity Papers: Research For The Social Improvement And General Betterment Of Lydia Goldblatt & Julie Graham-Chang. By Amy Ignatow. Amulet. 2010. $8.95. ISBN 978-0810997233. Gr 4–7.

First in a series, this book features two fifth-grade friends who want to learn how to be popular before entering middle school. It documents their misadventures as well as their families and day-to-day life through a journal format written and drawn by the two main characters, with each of the two main protagonists having a different writing and drawing style.
This is more than just a funny book: the plot and incidents reflect the realities of fifth-grade girls trying to figure out how to begin the transition to young adulthood. The character of Julie has two dads.

Newsgirl. By Liza Ketchum. Viking. 2009. $9.99.
ISBN 978-0670011193. Gr 4–7.

In the spring of 1851, San Francisco is booming, and 12-year-old Amelia Forrester has just arrived with her family, eager to make a new life in Phoenix City. The mostly male town is not that hospitable to females and Amelia decides she will earn more money as a boy. Cutting her hair and donning a cap, she joins a gang of newsboys, selling Eastern newspapers for a fortune. This intriguing tale features a gender nonconformity and a lesbian couple.

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux. By Geraldine McCaughrean. Harper. 2010. $16.99. ISBN 9780061836657. Gr 5–8.

Pepper Roux takes the reader on a series of outrageous adventures, all in the guise of eluding his own death at age 14 as predicted by his Aunt. A dark comedy—or rip-roaring adventure, depending on your point of view—this well-written book has excellent vocabulary and word play. The episodic adventures, featuring a cross-dressing ship’s first mate, will keep avid readers guessing what comes next.

Luv Ya Bunches. By Lauren Myracle. Amulet Books. 2009. $7.95. ISBN 978-0810989825. Gr 4–6.

This first title in the “Flower Power” series is a fun story about four girls, each with their own family issues, who become friends in elementary school.The story is told in a variety of text formats, with each  girl getting some face time. It addresses more than just the usual fifth-grade angst; rather, it confronts issues of religion, race, mental health, bad-girl behavior, and homophobia. There is also what some might find as objectionable topics such as the definition of “dingleberry” and a student report on Greek satyrs. Notably, previous challenges to this title have centered on the homophobia rather than any of the other possible targets.

Riding Freedom. By Pam Muñoz Ryan, illus. by Selznick, Brian. Scholastic. 1998. $5.99. ISBN 978-0439087964. Gr 3–6.

Charley (Charlotte) Parkhurst, a gender nonconformist, lived life as a man for many years, working as a stable hand and stage coach driver. His female birth gender was discovered only upon his death. This historical fiction novel is set in the mid-1800s, telling about how Charley left an orphanage in New England and made his way to California to become a highly celebrated stage coach driver. Brian Selznick’s drawings bring a special life to this already rich story.

Penny Dreadful. By Laurel Snyder. Random House. 2010. $7.99. ISBN 978-0375861697. Gr 3–6.

The almost-10-year-old Penny keeps wishing for some excitement in her privileged life. When her father suddenly quits his job, the family soon runs out of money and her family leave life in the city for a ramshackle property in the eccentric town of Thrush Junction, Tennessee. Is it necessary to say the newly inherited home in Tennessee isn’t what anyone in her expected it to be? Penny’s friend is parented by a lesbian couple.

The Center Of Everything. By Linda Urban. Harcourt. 2013. $15.99. ISBN 978-0547763484. Gr 4–7.

This story filled with circular shapes shows the reader how events cause ripples: its main character, 12-year-old Ruby, sees donut shapes everywhere, in a town obsessed with donuts. This is a short book, plot-driven, with a strong voice. The story emerges through flashbacks, with all the action taking place in one day. The resolution is satisfying, and Ruby and her two best friends, Lucy and Nero, act and sound like tweens. Their estrangement, part of the book’s plot, is typical of the age group. The LGBTQ characters are Lucy’s fathers. One of them is the owner of the town’s martial arts school. This is a story about putting things right. This book was a fun read and should be well-liked by girls in the target grade levels. It may also be a candidate for best book lists at the end of the year.

We also can highly recommend these two additional titles, although they have not received star reviews from the major library review sources that we usually consult:

Respecting the Contributions of LGBT Americans. By Anna Kingston. PowerKids Press. 2013. $8.95.
ISBN 978-1448875191. Gr 3–7.

This compendium examines the struggles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, including Maurice Sendak, Harvey Milk, Chaz Bono, and Ellen DeGeneres.

Boy Talk: A Survival Guide to Growing Up. By Caroline Plaisted. QEB Pub. 2011. $14.99.
ISBN 978-1609920852. Gr 4–7.

Intended for kids just hitting preadolescence, this frank-but-brief answer book covers almost everything that an upper-elementary or early middle-school boy (and perhaps curious girls) could want to know about male puberty. Illustrated with cartoonish pictures, colorful block text, and an informal layout, this book is perfect for browsing. The narrative voice is supportive, reinforcing that everything is normal; it’s a nearly perfect book for its intended audience. A section about dealing with crushes discusses feelings toward both girls and boys.

And if you’d like additional guidance in building and developing your LGBTQ-friendly collection for elementary and middle-school children, we highly recommend Rainbow Family Collections by Jamie Campbell Naidoo. Libraries Unlimited, 2012. $50.00. ISBN 978-1598849608.

This very readable and outstanding reference book discusses why LGBTQ book collections are important for children to have access to, and examines some of the challenges that librarians face in developing them. It includes an extensive annotated bibliography of books, periodicals, media, and sites.

Barbara Fiehn is an assistant professor of library media education at Western Kentucky University. She was a media specialist for nearly 30 years in three states before becoming a full time university professor. She has been involved in intellectual freedom issues her whole career.

Tadayuki Suzuki is an associate professor of literacy education at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. His academic interests include literacy, multicultural education, and the use of multicultural literature in K–12 classrooms.

Do you have any titles to recommend specifically for grades 3 to 5? Please tell us in the comments!

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  1. This is such a great list! “Drama” by Raina Telegemeier (a graphic novel with gay characters that’s very 4th and 5th grade friendly) and “Better Nate Than Ever” by Tim Federle (funny gay main character) should be noted as well. I’m also building an ongoing list on my site – and I’m happy to find new-to-me titles on your list to add to it!

  2. The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister by Charlotte Agell stars an irrepressible 4th grade girl, adopted from China, sharing life in Maine with her divorced mother and her father who lives nearby with his new partner, Richard.

  3. “All I Want To Be Is Me” is an illustrated children’s book and song that reflects the diverse ways that kids experience and express their gender identity. It is part of the Inclusive Schools curriculum used for 3rd and 4th grade classes in Alameda, CA, and has been used in schools throughout the country and internationally, to help children learn about gender differences and to offer a positive reflection to children who are transgender, or gender non-conforming. To learn more about the book and to hear the song, please visit, http://www.alliwanttobeisme.com. Please consider adding it to your list. Thanks very much!