A New Wave of LGBT books for Children
Peter Olson, California State Polytechnic University—Pomona
In 2011, California passed the FAIR Education Act which requires “instruction in social sciences to include a study of the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans… to the development of California and the United States” (FAIR Education Act of 2011). Many teachers across the country would like to expand their curriculum to include Lesbian, Gay and Transgender people. Fortunately, and possibly in response to the California legislation, there appears to have been in the past few years a noticeable increase in the publication of quality books for children that focus on the LGBT experience.
Many researchers have explored children’s literature that contain characters that are Lesbian, Gay, or Transgender. Wickens (2011) found that there has been a “progressive inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) characters [in young adult literature], highlighting some of the sociocultural shifts toward acceptance of LGBTQ individuals” (p. 149). Naidoo (2017) examined LGBT books written for younger children and advocated for their inclusion in the elementary grades. Cruz and Bailey (2017) argued the importance of an LGBT-inclusive curriculum: “Diversity in sexual orientation [and other personal attributes] are a part of the human experience…and because our students will necessarily be citizens in a diverse society, these topics deserve a place in the social studies curriculum” (p. 297). In this article, I attempt to build on the work of these researchers. I will analyze ten recently published books—each released in the past four years—that can be used by classroom teachers to discuss the roles and contributions of LGBT people in our society.
The topic of family diversity is an important concept in early grades. Decades ago children’s books about families rarely depicted LGBT individuals. However, it is estimated that almost 6 million children and young adults have a parent or caregiver who identifies as LGBT (Naidoo, 2017). “With shifting demographics in the U.S. that include more children and families from diverse background, it is incumbent upon educators to create inclusive curricular experiences that take into account various forms of diversity, including children or caregivers who identify as LGBTQ” (Naidoo, 2017, p. 308). Recently, many books are depicting families with LGBT parents and relatives. Each of the books in this section would be appropriate for elementary grade teachers to use when discussing families.
An excellent book for young children that explores family diversity is Families, Families, Families! (Lang & Lang, 2015). This book shows humorous pictures of personified animals in different family configurations. The book contains sixteen pictures of families with different attributes, such as children who live with their Mom, their Dad, their Mom and Dad, their grandparents, their two Moms, or their two Dads. On one page, two roosters wearing neckties are standing with their three little chicks. The caption reads, “Some children have two dads” (p. 6). A few pages later, an illustration of a family of koalas contains the caption, “Some children have two mothers” (p. 13). The book ends with a grand picture of all of the characters and declares that all families have love. One positive aspect of this book in comparison with other books about family diversity is that it does not directly contrast children with same-sex parents from children with opposite-sex parents. Having two Moms or two Dads are just two out of many features that can occur in a family.
While books about family diversity are useful, these books often provide only a snapshot of different types of families. Therefore, books that focus on one LGBT family (even if fictitious) can provide a more in depth look into the experiences of these families. Stella Brings the Family (Schiffer & Clifton-Brown, 2015) is about a young girl named Stella who lives with her two fathers. When her classmates find out that Stella has two dads, one classmate asks Stella who makes lunch for her since she does not live with a mom. Other classmates ask Stella who reads her a bedtime story or kisses her when she gets hurt. Stella confidently states that her dads do these things for her. Stella’s classmates have the misconception that since their mothers perform these nurturing tasks, then only mothers are capable of providing this assistance. This book can be helpful for students to better understand families with same-sex parents. Furthermore, this story could start a rich conversation about the variety of parenting styles in all types of families as many children with opposite-sex parents may have fathers who are caring and nurturing or mothers who are strong and protective.
Possibly in response to the legal victories and increased public support for marriage equality in the past decade, several recent children’s books highlight the marriages of same-sex couples. In The Flower Girl Wore Celery (Gordon & Clifton-Brown, 2016), a young girl named Emma is asked to be the flower girl in her cousin’s wedding. Emma does not know what a flower girl is, and she imagines herself in a large flower costume. She is also told that there will be a ring bearer, and she imagines an actual bear holding two rings. Emma is also told that her cousin Hannah will be marrying Alex, and Emma is later surprised to find out that Alex is a woman. At the wedding Emma asks Hannah, “Does this mean that there are two brides?” (p. 17). Her cousin says yes, and Emma—seemingly unfazed—starts to play with the ring bearer. The rest of the story depicts the wedding, which includes several Jewish traditions such as the couple standing under the wedding canopy and stomping on wine glasses.
Another story highlighting the marriage of same-sex couple is Willow and the Wedding (Brennan-Nelson & Moore, 2017). This story begins by showing the close relationship of the main character, Willow, and her Uncle Ash. Willow and Ash like many of the same things—going to the park, playing with dogs, and eating donuts. But, there is one thing that Willow loves to do that Ash does not like to do—dance. Partway through the story, Uncle Ash and his partner David announce to the family that they are getting married. Everyone is excited. Plus, they ask Willow to be the flower girl, which gives her great joy. But, Willow has an additional plan. She wants her uncle to dance at his wedding. So, she takes him to her dance class and convinces him to try dancing. At the wedding Uncle Ash surprises everyone when he and David start dancing. The book ends with all the wedding guests dancing and having a great time. This book is an example of LGBT children’s books in which there is no conflict or tension about the characters being Lesbian, Gay or Transgender. Every character in this story is happy that the couple are getting married. The conflict simply revolves around whether Willow can successfully convince her uncle to dance at his wedding.
Biographies about LGBT individuals can also enrich a curriculum about diverse families. Students can benefits from reading about real-life individuals and their partners, spouses and families. Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space (O’Shaughnessy, 2015) is a detailed biography of American astronaut Sally Ride. The book, which is appropriate for upper elementary grades, explores Sally’s career as a scientist and astronaut. Furthermore, it provides an in depth look at her personal life from childhood to her death. The book is written by Sally’s life partner Tam O’Shaughnessy. Although they knew each other since they were teenagers, the author recalls a key moment about twenty years later: “When I looked back at Sally…my heart skipped a beat. She was in love with me—and I was in love with her” (p. 121). The book also states, “Fortunately, much of the fear that Sally felt about being gay was gone. Society was changing…. Sally was changing, too. She was becoming more accepting of herself” (p. 121). Another book that delves briefly into the personal life of a famous LGBT individual is U.S. Women’s Team: Soccer Champions! (Jokulsson, 2015). This book reveals the history of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team from its World Cup Championship in 1991 to its Gold Medal at the 2012 Olympics. It contains many photographs and short biographies of players, including star forward Abby Wambach. Wambach’s bio details her prolific goal scoring and her selection as World Player of the Year in 2012. In addition, it includes a picture of Wambach with her wife, Sarah Huffman, and identifies Huffman as her wife in the caption of the picture.
Some recent children’s books explore the issue of gender expression. Often, society pushes boys to act a certain way and girls to act a different way. Wickens (2011) states, “Having learned cultural and social mores regarding [gender], individuals perform in that manner, e.g., girls playing with dolls and boys playing with footballs, because that is what they learn is appropriate for their gender” (p. 150). The following books show examples of children expressing themselves in ways that may be different from how other people in society express gender.
In Jacob’s New Dress (Hoffman, Hoffman, & Chase, 2014), the main character, Jacob, likes to wear dresses. At school, he frequently takes a dress from his classroom’s dress-up center and puts it on over his “boy clothes.” His teacher is supportive of students wearing whatever they like regardless of their gender. Jacob also likes wearing dresses at home, and his parents are supportive of him wearing dresses in the house. One day, Jacob asks his mother if he can wear one of his dresses as his main outfit to school. His mother says that he cannot because those dresses are only for dress-up at home. Jacob asks if they can get him a school dress, and she does not have an answer. The next day, Jacob asks his mother again if they can get him a school dress, and she remains silent. “The longer she didn’t answer, the less Jacob could breathe” (p. 18). Finally, Jacob’s mother agrees to make him a new dress which he wears to school the next day. Jacob shows his class his new dress during sharing time. His classmates all have pleasant faces, except for one student who scowls and shouts, “Why does Jacob wear dresses?” The teacher replies, “I think Jacob wears what he’s comfortable in. Just like you do” (p. 26). In addition to addressing the issue of gender expression, this book shows interesting character development as Jacob’s mother at first is hesitant to let Jacob wear a dress to school but later supports him. Teachers and students can discuss why Jacob’s mother was reticent to let Jacob wear a dress to school even though she was supportive of him wearing dresses at home.
Annie’s Plaid Shirt (Davids & Balsaitis, 2015) has a similar theme as Jacob’s New Dress, but in this book the main character is a girl, Annie, who hates wearing dresses. The tension of the story starts when Annie’s mother tells her that they will need to go shopping to get clothes to wear for their uncle’s wedding. According to their mother, they are going to buy a new suit for her brother and a nice dress for Annie. Annie grudgingly goes to the store with her family, tries on several dresses, and hates each one. After the family arrives home with a new dress for Annie and a new suit for her brother, Annie angrily runs into her room and lies face down on her bed, clearly distraught. Her mother is concerned, but does not know what to do. On the morning of the wedding, Annie has an idea. She puts on her brother’s old suit with her favorite plaid shirt underneath. Her mother looks overjoyed, and says that it looks perfect. In addition to her choice in clothing, Annie displays other behaviors—such as swinging a bat and riding a skateboard—that are implied to be typical boy behaviors. The illustrations show some of her classmates with confused or disapproving looks in reaction to Annie’s behavior. Teachers and students could delve into how society often pressures girls to behave in a certain way which can inhibit them from acting athletically and assertively.
It is important that teachers expose students to some books in which a character’s nonconformist gender expression does not elicit a negative reaction from family members. An example of a completely supportive family is in One of a Kind, Like Me / Unico Como Yo (Mayeno & Liu-Trujillo, 2016). This story, with text in English and Spanish, is about a young boy named Danny who wants to wear a princess costume for his school’s costume parade. When Danny tells his family his costume choice, each member of Danny’s family is supportive of his desire. His younger sister immediately exclaims, “Oooh, princesa” (p. 6). His mother replies, “Okay. Let’s go find your princess dress” (p. 6). Even his grandfather gives Danny a warm wink and adds, “Try Nifty Thrifty. They have everything” (p. 6). The conflict and tension in the story surrounds the challenge for Danny and his mother to find a purple dress for the outfit. At the thrift store, they find several items which are purple—a robe, necktie and shower curtain—but no purple dress. Then, Danny comes up with the idea to create a purple princess dress with these items. It is important that students understand that many parents, relatives, teachers, and friends may react in a positive way toward their nonconformist expressions of gender. Also, these portrayals can serve as models for how children can act towards their classmates or siblings who display nonconformist expression.
Elle of the Ball (Delle Donne, 2018) is a young adult novel written by Olympic Gold Medalist Elena Delle Donne. In the acknowledgements section at the beginning of the book, the first person that the author thanks is “Amanda, my wife and best friend” (p. vii). The book is about a very tall twelve-year-old girl who loves playing basketball. Much of the book focuses on the athletic adventures of Elle and her middle school basketball team. But, the book also delves into Elle’s discomfort with certain gender norms. One of these issues arises around the Formal Dance Cotillion at her school. The cotillion is mandatory for the students. Furthermore, the required attire is gender specific—suits for boys, formal dresses for girls. Elle, who never wears dresses, expresses to her parents that she would rather wear a suit. Her mother does not agree to this suggestion and requires Elle to go shopping with her. When Elle complains, her mother replies, “Honestly, what twelve-year-old girl doesn’t want to go on a shopping spree?” In her head Elle thinks, “This twelve-year-old girl….” (p. 26). The story also explores Elle’s emotions when she is asked to dance with one of her female classmates during a dance practice session a few days before the cotillion. Elle and Amanda are paired together because their male partners are sick that day. Elle finds that she enjoys dancing with Amanda more than she had with any of the boys. For the first time she starts to look forward to the cotillion. Although she did not get to dance with Amanda at this cotillion, her mother tells Elle after the dance that she had spoken with the principal about some of Elle’s concerns. At future cotillions the school will not require girls to wear dresses, and they are considering allowing students to dance with any student regardless of gender.
Since many Lesbian, Gay and Transgender adults—such as author Elena Delle Donne—have noted that they displayed gender expansive behavior as children, gender expression is an important issue for many in the LGBT community. However, as mentioned by authors Sarah and Ian Hoffman (2014), children who show gender nonconformity do not always grow up to be Lesbian, Gay or Transgender. When discussing story characters who exhibit gender expansiveness, teachers should guide the conversations in a way that keeps open the possibility that any child might relate to these characters. Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Heterosexual individuals should feel free to identify with any aspect of these characters that ring true to themselves.
The ability to identify with a book is one of the most satisfying aspects of reading. As Tunnell and Jacobs (2008) state, “Almost all readers want to find an occasional title that reflects and confirms their lives” (p. 129). I hope with the help of this article, teachers can find some LGBT books that will be useful in their classrooms.