New Book Compiles Decades of LGBT Children’s Literature

(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.)

Books matter. “Children feel unimportant and invisible when they do not see representations of their lives and families in books,” asserts librarian Jamie Campbell Naidoo. He knows this firsthand. Growing up in the Bible Belt in the early 1980s, he says, there were no books that “mirrored my life and the lives of other queer children.” If there had been, he says, he “I would not have felt so alienated and ashamed of being different.” His classmates, too, might have understood his queerness was not strange. Such books, however, were not to be found.

Fast forward to today and Dr. Naidoo, now an assistant professor of library and information studies at the University of Alabama, has written a book of his own, Rainbow Family Collections, to help guide librarians, parents, teachers, and others seeking LGBT-inclusive titles.

And there are more than you might think. Naidoo has compiled an annotated list of more than 175 LGBT-inclusive picture books, 30 chapter books, and 40 informational or biographical books for children up to grade five, published in the U.S. and in 12 other countries.

Naidoo, who has served on several national and international book-award committees including those for the prestigious Caldecott, Pura Belpré, and Américas awards, intends his book as a resource for librarians—but it should also be of great value to LGBT parents and parents of LGBT children. (At $48, it may be beyond individual family budgets, but you can ask your local and school libraries to get copies.)

By “rainbow families,” Naidoo means those with children, caregivers, or relatives who are LGBT, gender variant, queer/questioning, intersex, and two-spirit. “Children formulate their understanding of family structures from the world around them,” he explains, noting that most print and electronic images of families are of a nuclear family with a mom and a dad. This can lead many young children to believe that “any other composition, even if it reflects their own, is wrong.”

On the other hand, “when librarians and educators select and use high-quality children’s literature that accurately and authentically represents diverse cultural groups,” he says, “they are assisting children with their identity development.” Not only that, but LGBT-inclusive books “can also provide non-LGBTQ children and families with a window into the lives of rainbow families, thereby fostering cultural literacy” and reducing homophobia.

Such books can be hard to find, however, even for librarians, Naidoo explains. The international library cataloguing standard has few subject headings or keywords that indicate LGBT content.

Naidoo therefore spent several years creating the annotated list of books, films, and song collections that forms the heart of his book. He gives a short summary of each item (often noting if it complements another one) and ranks it on a scale of “Highly Recommended,” “Recommended,” “Additional Selection” (may have flaws but still be appropriate for certain families’ needs), and “Not Recommended.” The latter category could mean books that reinforce stereotypes about LGBT people or gender, or that are simply poorly worded or illustrated.

Naidoo also includes lists of coloring books, blogs, and other resources, including an extensive bibliography of books and articles for adults about LGBT families.

With the thoroughness one expects from a librarian, Naidoo has indexed his book by author, title, subject, and keyword, making it easy not only to look up a particular title, but also to find books that deal with “surrogacy,” “mixed-race families,” or are in Spanish, among other things.

In addition to the list, Rainbow Family Collections also contains a thoughtful, clear introduction to rainbow families, including demographics and a debunking of common myths.

Naidoo shares many practical suggestions from librarians around the country for how to select and arrange LGBT-inclusive materials. He includes a lengthy evaluation sheet to help librarians choose quality, inclusive books free of gender stereotypes. He also gives further ideas for how to create a welcoming library environment through outreach, workshops, film series, discussion groups, author visits, and other events.

In addition, Naidoo provides a brief history of LGBT-inclusive children’s literature, from Munro Leaf’s vaguely LGBT and gender-non-conforming The Story of Ferdinand (1936), to Jane Severance’s When Megan Went Away (1979), the first U.S. picture book to depict a lesbian relationship, through the didactic 1990s, when LGBT-inclusive children’s books tried so hard to “normalize” LGBT families that “the end results are books that neither young children nor their families find interesting.” In the 2000s, however, he says there has been a greater focus on family relationships, additional family structures such as ones with multiple siblings, and more books in which the parents’ sexuality is clear but not an “issue.”

Recently, too, self-publishing, e-books, and print-on-demand services have increased the ability of authors and publishers of LGBT-inclusive books to reach an audience, Naidoo says. But overall, he asserts, “LGBTQ children’s literature is still in its infancy.” There remain relatively few titles, as well as gaps such as a lack of bisexual, transgender, and elderly characters, among others.

All the more reason his book is needed. Rainbow Family Collections is a major new resource that should become well-thumbed by librarians and educators looking to start or bolster their collections, parents seeking materials for their children, and LGBT organizations and community centers. It offers an in-depth look at the current state of LGBT-inclusive children’s literature, while also providing a plethora of useful tools and ideas to help librarians, authors, and publishers navigate into the future.

I am a member of the Amazon Associates program, and get a small referral fee from all purchases made at Amazon.com via links on this site. You are under no obligation to purchase through them.

I also realized after I wrote this review that my blog is listed in the book as a resource. I did not know this in advance, and receive no payments or royalties from the author or publisher.