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LGBTQ+ children’s books can not only be useful tools to educate youngsters about different gender and sexual identities, human rights issues, and challenges of the queer community, but also help parents and educators talk about gender roles and identity with them. Yet, the existence of such publications is not without controversies. While sometimes they are welcomed and gladly used in schools, it is not uncommon that LGBTQ+ books face backlash and may even get banned. Uproars against such books are not surprising in the current political climate, where anti-gender sentiments are increasingly visible. The publication of LGBTQ+ children’s books started in North America in the 1970s and became widespread in the past decade, receiving attention from different social science disciplines, such as pedagogy.
One of the first books was Barbara Danish’s The Dragon and the Doctor (1971), published in New York City, about a doctor who helps a dinosaur with an injured tail and is rewarded with a party invitation. Although the picture book does not focus mainly on LGBTQ + characters, it is highlighted as an early work of LGBTQ representation, as the author included a character with two mothers in the second edition. A few other publications in the 1970s that specifically challenge gender stereotypes were William’s Doll (1972) and Oliver Button Is a Sissy (1979). William’s Doll is the story of a young boy with a strong desire to play with a doll, which none of his family members supports until his grandmother eventually buys him one. She consoles his irritated father by explaining that a doll will teach William to become a good father. Oliver Button Is a Sissy (1979) chronicles the tale of a boy who is bullied because he doesn’t like typical boy things. Oliver’s parents then enrol him in a dance class, where he gains confidence and even acceptance from his peers because of his talent.
In the 1980s, more LGBTQ + themed children’s publications appeared, and this decade marked a time when books not only discussed gender roles but also introduced stories of queer families. Jane Severance published When Megan Went Away (1979), a story from a little girl’s perspective about the separation of her mother and her female partner. Severance also wrote Lots of Mommies (1983) about a girl raised by several women in the community with diverse mother figures, who are carpenters, school bus drivers, and healers. Severance wrote these books when she was involved in the women’s rights lesbian movement. She observed that parents were looking for books presenting children with different families, children making non-traditional choices, and them being supported for making those choices. Her books, however, depict queer families in a negative light, emphasizing how counter-normative and often-times troubled they are. With the publication of Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies in 1989, a new trend in LGBTQ+ children’s literature started, as this book represented a happy and healthy lesbian family.
Trends in the 1990s reflected the struggles of the LGBTQ+ and women’s rights movement of the time, and several books were published that helped children understand HIV/AIDS. For example, My Dad Has HIV (1996) is an accessible text told from the perspective of a seven-year-old child.
Children’s literature published in the 2000s revisits ideas introduced in the previous decades, such as challenging gender stereotypes, especially in relation to boys, and introducing lesbian parents, and gay extended family members, often uncles. At the same time, more stories of gay parenting appeared, while new themes were introduced, most notably transgendered children. Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy (2009) introduces the gender-creative protagonist, who is never named but referred to as my Princess Boy. This book was the starting point of a popular theme that explores representing boys who enjoy toys and activities associated with girls, not only considering gender roles, but also gender expression and gender identification.
But the most striking changes in LGBTQ+ children’s books in the past two decades are not the introduction of new narratives, but rather the shift in publishing opportunities, which also reflect queer persons’ cultural visibility. This does not mean that publishers finance and support all queer stories equally, and books with BIPOC characters still face more adversity. Many of these books have been crowd-funded, for example, Myles E. Johnson’s Large Fears (2015) tells the story of Jeremiah, a queer black boy who loves pink and wants to go to Mars.
The Internet plays a critical role in the visibility of nonnormative gender and sexual identities, and queer community building. Unsurprisingly, blogs by book reviewers, parents, and teachers became the hot spot for virtual community campaigns to spread the word about LGBTQ+ children’s books. An important step in the professionalization and recognition of the genre is the introduction of Lambda Literary Awards, which acknowledges LGBTQ+ authors since 1989, and created a category for Children’s and Young Adult Literature already in 1992. The Stonewall Book Awards were established in 1971, but a Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award was only created in 2010, reflecting the increasing visibility of the genre in the past decades.
But the conversations surrounding LGBTQ+ children’s literature are an important part of the history of the genre. Despite increased visibility and the growing number of publications, teaching about gender and sexuality remains controversial in schools, and LGBTQ+ children’s books still face backlash. The American Library Association states that the top ten most disputed books of the 1990s included Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite, and Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies. Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s illustrated a true story about same-sex penguin parents, And Tango Makes Three, which is still banned today in many schools. It became the fourth-most banned book between 2000 and 2009, as well as the sixth-most banned book between 2010 and 2019. In March 2022, Florida signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, popularised as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, declaring that “classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate”.
Pedagogy research shows that teachers and parents can introduce these themes into the lives of all children through carefully selected children’s literature and related curricular activities, and by providing positive examples, especially young queer people and those who live in diverse families. LGBTQ+ children’s books are not only important educational tools but also important artifacts that mark the history and development of the LGBTQ+ rights movement and reflect on the struggles and dominant issues of the queer community of their time.
The inclusion of these narratives in children’s daily lives helps them to establish a firm set of life skills based on equality and respect. These books challenge the dominant, normative constructions of gender, sexuality, childhood, and family and therefore, can help children understand the world outside normative gender and sexuality constructs, and make this world-making process more accessible to young people.
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Brand, S. T., & Maasch, S. L. (2017). Updating classroom libraries and cross-curricular activities: Celebrating gender identity and diversity through LGBTQ books. Childhood Education, 93(5), 430-439.
Haynes, S. (2020, October 8). Hungarian PM attacks children’s book for LGBT fairytales. Time. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from https://time.com/5897312/hungary-book-lgbt-rights/
Miller, J. (2020). Profile: LGBTQ Children’s Picture Books. In LGBTQ+ Studies: An Open Textbook. essay, Lumen Learning.Winter, J. (2022, July 11). What should a queer children’s Book do? The New Yorker. Retrieved August 11, 2022, from https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-education/lgbt-books-kids-ban
Acting out gender identity — Self-portrayal in digital media (Germany)