LGBTQ+ Books Reflect a Changing Society

Books that feature LGBTQ+ characters and experiences are part of a larger effort to reflect the full diversity of the human experience, which is something school librarians have been requesting.

Driven by a younger generation that’s more open about who they are, a growing number of people in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+, a new Gallup poll suggests. So it’s not surprising that publishers of books for children and teens are coming out with more books focused on LGBTQ+ characters and experiences.

According to the Gallup poll, released in February 2021, 5.6 percent of adults ages 18 and older identify as LGBTQ+, up from 4.5 percent in 2017. Among respondents ages 18 to 23, one in six—16 percent—identify as LGBTQ+.

The increase “reflects what we are seeing in society and the way society is changing,” Gallup senior editor Jeff Jones told USA Today. A dramatic example of this change is the Equality Act, one of President Biden’s top priorities, which would amend the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The legislation passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in late February.

Publishers are reflecting this growing diversity and acceptance with more LGBTQ+ main characters and books about the LGBTQ+ experience. For the school market, these books meet a critical need. “There are many kids from marginalized genders experiencing something very different from a cis-gendered experience and thinking about what that means,” says Leslie Bootle, marketing director for Orca Book Publishers. Reading about others with similar experiences is affirming for them and helps them process their own experiences.

Here’s a look at new LGBTQ+ books for the school market this year.

Lerner Publishing Group

Lerner has been publishing books for students in prekindergarten through 12th grade for more than 60 years. In 2018, the company acquired Zest Books, a publisher of lifestyle-related, newsworthy nonfiction titles for teens. This imprint publishes about 16 titles per year, many of which are irreverent in tone; for instance, a fall 2021 book about female empowerment will be called How to Be a Difficult Bitch. Zest Books is releasing two new LGBTQ+ titles this spring.

No Way, They Were Gay? Hidden Lives and Secret Loves by Lee Wind, April 2021, ISBN 9781541581586, examines primary-source documents such as letters, poems, and memoirs to uncover the “hidden” romantic proclivities and gender-fluid identities of historical figures from around the world, such as Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Lincoln, Queen Anne, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

History has often ignored or glossed over the details about men who loved men, women who loved women, and people who lived outside gender boundaries. With this book aimed at students in grades six to twelve, Wind—an LGBTQ+ blogger and founder of the website “I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read?”—takes an in-depth look at the identities and loves of two dozen famous people who many readers would be surprised to learn might be classified as queer.

“If kids today know they have a place in the past, then they’ll feel more confident knowing they deserve a place at the table,” Wind says.

Dr. Robert Garofalo is a physician who treats HIV-positive youth. His work took on new meaning when he tested positive for the disease himself in 2010. He was spiraling into depression when he got a dog the following year, and its unconditional love gave him a reason to reconnect with the world.

Garofalo has teamed up with dog photographer Jesse Freidin, LGBTQ+ advocate and journalist Zach Stafford, and his niece Christina Garofalo, a food and travel writer, to create When Dogs Heal: Powerful Stories of People Living with HIV and the Dogs That Saved Them, March 2021, ISBN 9781541586734. The book profiles 36 people who discuss their experiences coming out, the challenges they’ve faced, how they contracted HIV, and the difficulties of living with the disease.

“In all cases, the love of a dog has helped them get through,” says Lois Wallentine, school and library marketing director for Lerner. “It’s a book to be read with a box of tissues nearby. The stories are very moving.” A portion of the sales of When Dogs Heal will go to Fred Says, a Chicago-based nonprofit that Garofalo created to support HIV+ teen health care. (Fred is the name of Garofalo’s dog.)

Orca Book Publishers

As an independent publisher out of Canada, Orca has the freedom to create books that model the type of community the company would like to see and inspire kinder, more compassionate citizens, says Bootle.

A good example is Pride: Celebrating Diversity & Community by Robin Stevenson, which came out in 2016. The author released an updated version last year, Pride: The Celebration and the Struggle, ISBN 9781459821248, to reflect the political backlash against LGBTQ+ rights experienced in recent years and to underscore the need to keep fighting for equality.

Now, Stevenson has written a new picture book for preschool-age children. Pride Puppy!, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin, May 2021, ISBN 9781459824843, is both a rhyming alphabet book and a “seek and find” book that follows the story of a non-gendered family who lose their puppy while attending a Pride parade.

The book’s colorful, whimsical illustrations are packed with items starting with each letter of the alphabet for children to find. For instance, the page with the text “F is for feathers, for flags, and for fun” also contains images of farmers, fairy wings, fruit, and more.

Intended for readers ages 10 and up, Growing Up Trans: In Our Own Words, edited by Dr. Lindsay Herriot and Kate Fry, August 2021, ISBN 9781459831377, is a collection of stories, poems, essays, and art from transgender youth ages 11 to 18. Through their works, these youth describe the challenges of being a young trans person, from facing rejection from family members or bullying at school to their perceptions of their bodies and struggles with mental health. At the end of each chapter, a “What Can I Do Now?” section includes advice from experts on how readers can become effective trans allies.

Growing Up Trans grew out of a series of workshops held in Victoria, British Columbia, to bring together trans youth with community mentors. All royalties are being donated to the Gender Generations Project, which empowers gender-diverse youth by fostering connections with adult mentors who have similar backgrounds and can inspire them to live their truths in spite of adversity.

Red Chair Press

Founded in 2009, Red Chair publishes both fiction and nonfiction to give children “the knowledge they need to make good decisions and feel better about themselves,” says president and publisher Keith Garton.

The company initially targeted students in kindergarten through third grade. In 2018, it established a middle grade imprint, One Elm Books. Last year, One Elm published its first LGBTQ+ book, Second Dad Summer by Benjamin Klas, illustrated by Fian Arroyo, ISBN 9781947159242. Aimed at readers in grades two to five, the story follows 11-year-old Jeremiah, who just wants a normal summer with his dad in Minnesota. But his dad has moved in with his new boyfriend, Michael, who rides a bicycle decorated to look like a unicorn.

“Michael is very comfortable in his own skin,” Klas says. “Jeremiah is still exploring his own identity and is just learning how to be comfortable with who he is.” Although he’s embarrassed at first by Michael, Jeremiah soon learns what it means to be a family—and that families can take many forms.

When Klas himself came out, he found that many LGBTQ+ books focused on the difficulties of the LGBTQ+ experience. He wanted to write a book showing kids that being LGBTQ+ can be a positive experience—a “celebration of authenticity,” as he describes it.

This year, One Elm is publishing a sequel to Second Dad Summer, called Everything Together: A Second Dad Wedding, August 2021, ISBN 9781947159655. Jeremiah is back in Minnesota with his dad and Michael. As they prepare for their wedding, Jeremiah feels like a third wheel. Looking for a distraction, he volunteers in an English class for refugees.

“Whereas the first book explores what makes a family, the second explores what makes a community,” Garton says. Teachers and librarians can find discussion guides for both books on Red Chair’s website.

Importance of diversity

Books that feature LGBTQ+ characters and experiences are part of a larger effort to reflect the full diversity of the human experience, which is something school librarians have been requesting. A 2018 School Library Journal survey revealed that a large majority of librarians, 81 percent, consider it “very important” to have a diverse book collection for kids and teens.

“These stories are asked for in libraries,” says Lerner’s Wallentine. “Kids want to read them.”



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