(Originally appeared with slight variation in Bay Windows, March 6, 2008)
Where can children, teens, parents and librarians find new LGBT-themed children’s and young adult books of merit? Starting now, they can turn to the annual Rainbow List published by the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association in the world.
It can be very hard for kids to discover LGBT-themed books, explains retired librarian and schoolteacher Nel Ward, chair of the Rainbow List committee. Even a helpful librarian may have trouble locating titles of interest, since the Library of Congress cataloging information will often use a phrase like “best friends” instead of a description indicating an LGBT relationship. Certain electronic searches will only yield titles on how to prevent homosexuality. “Librarians want lists so they can help kids access these books,” Ward asserts.
Ward and fellow librarian Jane Cothron chose the Rainbow List committee members for both their interest and expertise. They were all recommended by people who had been on book-selection committees for some well-known lists and awards, such as the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Stonewall, and Best Books for Young Adults. Some, such as Ward, had served on these committees themselves. The nine members then received over 250 books to review, all published between 2005 and 2007. In subsequent years, the list will focus on books from July of the previous year through the current year, and the ALA will release it each January.
Not all books received in the first batch made it to the final 45, however. The list has three requirements, Ward says: “That books have significant [LGBT] content, that they have sufficient quality, and that they have interest for any readers age 18 or below.” The finalists, chosen by consensus, include six fiction works for beginning readers, seven fiction and three non-fiction ones for middle readers/early young adults, and 19 fiction and 10 non-fiction ones for young adults. Among the young adult works are two graphic novels and one graphic non-fiction book. Although graphic novels are often from small presses, Ward says, “They are something we really want to find, because they’re something that kids love.”
That, to her, is the main point of the list. “This list is not for [library] collection development,” she says. It won’t contain the encyclopedias and academic works that librarians might want for reference. “It’s for kids. Obviously, with the very young people, parents will use it as a device to find books on diversity, but when we talked about the books, we said ’Will the kids read them?’ When we wrote the annotations we tried to direct them toward kids. We assume librarians, parents, friends, etc., are smart enough to use this if it is kid-oriented.”
The list skews towards young adult books, only because that is the bulk of what was published in the time frame. Ward sees censorship as “a huge issue” in the lack of books for the youngest readers.
“And Tango Makes Three was the most censored book in 2006 according to the ALA,” says Ward, referring to the 2005 children’s book telling the true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo that lived as a couple and raised a baby penguin together. “It’s just been removed from a library in Virginia, and there seems to be a struggle every time something like it comes out. I think for that reason, mainstream publishers are perhaps more hesitant to publish these books. I feel encouraged because there are more books now that address this kind of diversity. What I see among the publishers is a great deal of interest in this list. In addition to making the books accessible, we hope it will encourage publishers to come out with more books surrounding this issue.”
Despite being pleased with the committee’s selections, Ward still sees room for more diversity within the list. She’d like to see more on transgender issues, noting, “There were only two books about transgender people on [this year’s list], one informational, one fiction.” She would also like to see a young adult book dealing with intersex issues, a subject she has never seen covered for that age range.
Ward’s personal favorites? “Julie Anne Peters’ grl2grl. It’s a book of short stories and it’s absolutely outstanding. It’s my nature to avoid short stories, and I picked this up and I couldn’t put it down. The diversity of it was fabulous. The other one that just blew me away was Freak Show, by James St. James, about a very flamboyant gay boy who ends up in Florida, going to a very conservative private school there. It’s from his point of view, and it’s hysterically funny with great darkness in it.” Both are among the four books starred as worthy of special notice, along with Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron, and Breathing Underwater, by Lu Vickers.
How have librarians reacted to the Rainbow List? “All we’ve heard,” relates Ward, “is, ’We are so grateful to have this list, because in order to select books, we need a list or a review to make our purchases credible.’ For the books to be on an ALA list, I think, is going to be a great boon.”
Ward and her committee are now working to get word of the Rainbow List out to LGBT organizations and community centers, as well as to mainstream parenting magazines. The power of the list will be in helping LGBT families and youth find quality books that represent us, but also in opening windows onto our world for those outside it.