A recent article calls for more picture books featuring characters with same-sex parents—specifically, ones that are less issue-driven and more about our everyday stories. That’s an approach I’ve been uplifting for years, and I couldn’t be happier to see others pick up the call. Her piece has inspired me to offer some additional thoughts on the state of LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books.
Alli Harper, in “We Need Everyday Books With Families Like Ours” at M Is for Movement, writes:
Most of the very few of such [LGBTQ-inclusive children’s] books that do exist are issue-based, meaning the book is about or focused on the existence of the same-sex parents in one way or another. Without undervaluing the importance of these more issue-oriented books, with this post, I point out that what’s almost entirely missing in this picture book market are everyday children’s books—featuring everything from superheroes to dreamland adventures—that include our families.
She makes a good point, in that many of the first LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books, including Lesléa Newman’s seminal Heather Has Two Mommies, did focus on LGBTQ parents (usually same-sex parents) as an “issue,” even if the story resolved positively. Some books still follow that approach today. Back in 2010, however, I noticed a slight shift towards more of the “everyday” books, building on a few books I’d highlighted in previous years that also took a less issue-driven approach, including Jennifer Bryan’s The Different Dragon (2007), Sarah Brannen’s Uncle Bobby’s Wedding (2008), and Newman’s two 2009 board books, Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me. I wasn’t the only one to notice this. Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner at Critical Masses Media also wrote in 2010 about the small surge in queer-inclusive children’s books where “the same-sex aspect of the story is not the central theme.” (The publication is no longer online, but here’s my post about it.)
Harper rightly calls for more “everyday” LGBTQ children’s books from major publishers, however, which can reach more people through their larger distribution networks. Of the above, only Uncle Bobby’s Wedding was from a major press (G. P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin). Harper writes, “I know of only two everyday picture books [featuring same-sex parents] published by major American publishers—one in 2008 and one in 2017.” I know of just a few more in that category that have been published since 2008, in addition to the ones Harper mentions:
- Donovan’s Big Day, by Lesléa Newman (Penguin Random House), about a boy getting ready for his moms’ wedding. Newman told me in 2011 that she explicitly wrote this as a non-issue-driven book. Despite being about the wedding of a same-sex couple, it could be about any wedding.
- Home at Last, by Vera B. Williams (Greenwillow/HarperCollins). This could arguably be considered an “issue” book since it is about a boy who has just been adopted by two dads, but the focus is on the everyday adjustments he must make to feel comfortable in his new home, rather than on the fact that they are a same-sex couple. They could be a mom and a dad and the plot would remain the same. For me, that puts this into the “everyday” category.
- Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, by Dav Pilkey (Scholastic). In this volume of the wildly popular series, protagonists George and Harold at one point travel to the future, where Harold is seen sitting with his husband and kids.
From slightly smaller but established presses, there are also a few other “everyday” children’s books with same-sex couples, such as A Crow of His Own, by Megan Dowd Lambert, published by Charlesbridge, and Over the River and Through the Wood: A Holiday Adventure, by Linda Ashman, from Sterling Children’s Books. In terms of reach (and therefore reader access) these sit between Harper’s two categories of major publishers and grassroots efforts.
Harper still acknowledges the “heroic grassroots efforts” that have brought us many of the “everyday” LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books to date. I fully agree, as many have been written specifically as non-issue, everyday stories. Just in the past two years or so, they include Rumplepimple and Rumplepimple Goes to Jail, by Suzanne DeWitt Hall; Keesha’s South African Adventure, by Cheryl N. Clarke and Monica Bey-Clarke; Yetta and the Fantastic Mom Suits, by Jano Oscherwitz; Two Moms and a Menagerie, by Carolyn Robertson; and Promised Land, by Adam Reynolds and Chaz Harris (though the last verges towards issue-y with the one line describing the setting as, “A place where no one cared if you were straight or you were gay.”)
Harper also mentions a few “concept books” that simply show same-sex parented families doing family things. She calls them “hybrid issue/everyday” books because they focus on families as a concept, even though they show “everyday” activities—but says they could also be considered “the first wave of everyday books.” I believe another important related category, however, consists of books that include families with same-sex parents as part of an exploration/celebration of many types of families. These now make up a fair number of the children’s books today that include same-sex parents. They could also be considered hybrids, but first five below in particular focus on celebration more than explanation, and thus tilt towards the “everyday” category. They also all fit Harper’s definition of everyday books as “the stories in which families with same-sex parents are present . . . and that presence is simply okay—from beginning to middle to end. Not the issue to be addressed in the story. Not giving rise to the problem to be solved in the story. Not the focus of the story in any way.”
- Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender, an adaptation of the singer’s lyrics, with illustrations of various families, including a two-mom one (Dial Books/Penguin).
- Littles: And How They Grow, by Kelly DiPucchio. Includes a two-mom family (Doubleday Books for Young Readers).
- Monday is One Day, by Arthur Levine. A poem from a working parent to a child, showing many types of families with working parents (Scholastic).
- Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers. A celebration of babies and their parents, including same-sex ones (HMH Books for Young Readers/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
- Blanket of Love, by Alyssa Satin Capucilli. A board book that includes many kinds of families, including ones with two mom and two dads, in a simple exploration of the many kinds of comforting blankets in the world (Little Simon/Simon and Schuster).
- One Family, by George Shannon. Uses simple counting verses to show the ways that many can be one, whether they be the bananas in a bunch or the members of a family (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
- All Kinds of Families: 40th Anniversary Edition, and All Families Are Special, by Norma Simon. Includes families with same-sex parents (Albert Whitman & Company).
- Families, Families, Families! by Suzanne Lang. Straightforward in explaining different family configurations, for example, “Some children have two mothers” (Random House).
- The Family Book, We Belong Together, The Mommy Book, and The Daddy Book, by Todd Parr. All include families with same-sex parents (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers).
- The Great Big Book of Families, by Mary Hoffman. Includes families with same-sex parents (Dial Books/Penguin).
These broad-based family concept books are critical, both at home and in schools, where “Family” often forms a curriculum unit in younger grades. Despite this, Harper’s main point—that we need an even greater variety of books from major publishers about our families having everyday adventures—remains true.
A few other observations from where I sit:
Publishers Need to Widen Their Scope
Even as major publishers have produced few “everyday” books that focus on same-sex parented families, there has been a recent rise in the number of children’s books from them that explore gender identity, including Jacob’s New Dress, by Sarah and Ian Hoffman (Albert Whitman), I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (Dial/Penguin), My Princess Boy, by Cheryl Kilodavis (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster), Introducing Teddy, by Jess Walton (Bloomsbury USA Childrens), and Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall (Greenwillow/HarperCollins).
Harper does not touch on books about gender identity, and that’s fine insofar as the topic deserves a piece of its own—but I have to wonder if the reason major publishers have been producing few books about families with same-sex parents is that they have been busy publishing books on gender identity and they feel that suffices for LGBTQ content. I’m not complaining about the publications of books about gender identity—they are vital, too, and had been sorely lacking, so some focused time to address that imbalance makes sense. At the same time, I hope publishers recognize the many aspects of the LGBTQ community, and in the future are able to publish multiple books within a year that cover different (and sometimes overlapping) parts of our spectrum.
Also, publishers need to remember that “same-sex parents” doesn’t even cover all LGB parents (much less transgender ones), who may be single or have a different-sex spouse/partner. While their queerness might then be invisible, I think there are ways for writers to make it visible, should they wish, and still avoid making it an “issue”—a married/partnered parent could speak about or encounter a person they dated in the past, or a single parent could be dating someone new, of any gender, for example, without making it the heart of the story.
And we need more books about LGBTQ children themselves, although at the moment, trans and genderqueer children are better served by major publishers than cisgender LGB ones are, and feminine-identifying trans/genderqueer children are better served than masculine or nonbinary ones. We need more for all LGBTQ children. We could also use more picture books about kids with trans parents, in addition to the ones about trans and gender creative kids. Another need is for more books about trans and genderqueer kids that don’t center around the main character’s desire to wear a dress. That’s been done a lot already, and books should explore other aspects of these children’s lives. Make the dress (or jeans! or leggings!) a given, and have the character just go solve a mystery or something. A Princess of Great Daring, by Tobi Hill-Meyer, from LGBTQ micro-press Flamingo Rampant, is a good example of this type of story.
There’s a Catch-22 of Everyday and Invisibility
The difficulty with “everyday” books that include LGBTQ characters, as crucial as they are, is that they may not be found by many who want them. As I wrote in my recent column, the charming little Tinyville Town: I’m a Librarian, published in March 2017, has garnered little notice by the queer community, apparently because its queer content is so “everyday” as to escape mention. Nel Ward, the librarian who led the launch of American Library Association’s Rainbow Book List (see below) in 2008, explained to me then that many queer-inclusive kids’ books don’t get cataloged as such, making it hard for librarians, much less queer families, to find them. I think things are getting better in this regard, but some books still avoid notice. (The OCLC WorldCat entry for I’m a Librarian, for example, gives no indication there is a same-sex couple in it.) The upside, of course, is that the books may find their way into the hands of non-queer families who could benefit from the windows they open and who might not otherwise pick up a book with obvious queer content.
What to do? I’m going to kick the cataloging question over to the librarians, who have much more knowledge than I, but hope this post helps open up the discussion among librarians, queer parents, teachers, and others. In the meantime, in addition to asking publishers to produce more LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books across the spectrum, we need to make sure they know of and market to the organizations, community centers, media outlets, and other channels that serve LGBTQ families (as well as to mainstream bookstores, schools, and other venues). As I explain more below, we shouldn’t be the only audience, but we’ll be an enthusiastic cheering squad.
We Need to Encourage Big Publishers—and Support Smaller Ones, Too
I agree with Harper that big publishers have the distribution and marketing power to ensure LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books make it into many more hands—but would also stress (not that she seems to disagree) that there is still a role for smaller presses (and self-published works, although the quality there can be highly variable). Such publishers have often been at the forefront of cutting-edge content, such as Seven Stories Press, whose books include What Makes a Baby? and Sex Is a Funny Word, by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth, two groundbreaking all-gender inclusive children’s books about sex and reproduction. I’m not surprised, either, that the first children’s book I know of to feature a three-parent family, Super Power Baby Shower, by Tobi Hill-Meyer and Fay Onyx, is also from the Flamingo Rampant micro-press.
Looking back at the history of LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books, we see that the small, feminist Lollipop Power Press was responsible for the very first one, Jane Severance’s When Megan Went Away (1979). These are all issue-based books, to be sure—but my point here is that sometimes smaller publishers may feel more able to take a chance on content that is potentially controversial or that may (at least initially) speak to a niche audience. Even though what was once controversial may now seem blasé, we need to think to the future and ensure that smaller presses still survive to keep pulling us toward that next cutting edge, whatever it may be. Consider, too, that Lesléa Newman and a friend self-published Heather Has Two Mommies before it was picked up by the small press Allyson Wonderland. The updated 25th anniversary edition is now published by Candlewick, part of the Walker Books Group, the world’s largest independent publisher of children’s books—but it rests on the shoulders of the earlier efforts.
We Need to Nurture Children’s Book Writers
There are some self-published books that I love. There are others I like because they feature a type of family or situation I haven’t seen before, but the writing makes me cringe. Sometimes the plot plods. Sometimes it veers erratically. Sometimes the vocabulary or length doesn’t seem geared to the age that the storyline targets. Sometimes the illustrations are dreadful. Children’s books are not easier to write because they’re short. Like good haiku, the short form often demands more thought from the writer in order to make every word the right one.
Still, many LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books have been self-published because the author felt a need, often stemming from their own family. I’d love to see more ways for published children’s authors to mentor new ones and for new ones to find agents and publishers willing to champion LGBTQ-inclusive content. I’d love published authors and editors of LGBTQ children’s books to put together lists of resources for aspiring authors (such as this list of LGBT and LGBT-friendly publishers from Lambda Literary). I’d love publishers to hold contests for LGBTQ-inclusive books (as Kar-Ben publishing did for The Purim Superhero), and to seek out crowdfunded book projects to help edit and elevate, should the author wish. There are probably other ways, too, to connect people who have stories to the editors and publishers needed to polish them and help market them more widely. What are your ideas?
We Shouldn’t Abandon Issues Entirely
Although Harper urges publishers to “allocate significantly more attention and resources” to “everyday books,” she also acknowledges “We must increase content across the board.” That bears repeating. Children can still benefit from thoughtfully written books that do explicitly address some of the specific issues and challenges that kids of LGBTQ parents (and LGBTQ children) may still encounter. For example, it seems like every month, I see a new queer mom somewhere online asking if a children’s book exists that explains donor conception in the context of a same-sex-parented family—and I refer them to Zak’s Safari, by Christi Tyner. Children can benefit, too, from nonfiction books that explore aspects of queer culture, such as Pride Month and LGBTQ history (especially since California now requires an LGBT-inclusive history and social studies curriculum in K-8 classrooms).
Some of these “issue” books might have a smaller audience, but we shouldn’t discount them. That niche audience will snap them up, if the content is decent (and even sometimes if it’s not, just because it’s all there is). And the audience may be broader than we expect. Parents whose children are friends with a child created through donor insemination might also value a book that helps them answer their kids’ question about how their friend came to be. If they’ve had fertility challenges of their own, they may have used a donor as well. They might also purchase books about Pride Month if they live in a community with a Pride celebration, or if they have an LGBTQ relative or friend.
Resources Are Out There
I’ve mentioned a lot of books above, but followed Harper’s lead and focused on ones from major publishers. Here are a few other sources for finding LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books from publishers big and small, as well as self-publishers:
- My own extensive annotated list of LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books (as well as books for older children and ones about LGBTQ families for adults).
- Rainbow Family Collections: Selecting and Using Children’s Books with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Content (about which more here), by Jamie Campbell Naidoo, 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. A great resource, although it does not capture the many books after its 2012 publication date.
- Rainbow Book List: From the American Library Association’s GLBT Roundtable, “an annual bibliography of quality books with significant and authentic GLBTQ content.” Not a comprehensive list of everything published, but rather a thoughtful, librarian-chosen selection.
- Welcoming Schools book lists: Extensive lists from this long-running project, including Books for LGBTQ-Inclusive Schools, Books to Embrace Family Diversity, Books to Prevent Bias-Based Bullying, and Books that Look at Gender and Support Transgender and Non-Binary Students.
What to Do
As I wrote in 2010, we need more LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books and media “showing families of color, known donors, transgender parents, working class parents, and anything with more diversity than the white, middle-class, two mom/dad families who have dominated so far. We need engaging stories and compelling characters no matter what.” That still holds true—even though it really only scratches the surface of possible people and stories.
Harper is asking people “to sign up to be counted in our efforts to organize our collective market demands for these books.” That’s important—and I hope those efforts include stories with parents and children across the LGBTQ spectrum and not just the ones with same-sex parents that she focuses on in her piece.
Additionally, I would offer these actions and ideas:
- If you’re a children’s book author, write books that include LGBTQ people and families. First, however, read what’s already out there. (See resources above.) I’ve seen a number of LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books that closely (but apparently inadvertently) mirror the plot of another. We need variety. Seek advice from other authors and professional organizations. Self-publish if you must, but don’t be afraid to attempt publication through an established press.
- If you’re a teacher or librarian, get these books into your collections. Welcoming Schools has some good advice if you’re worried about negative reactions to LGBTQ content from parents or administrators.
- If you’re a parent (or an aunt, uncle, or anyone else with a kid in your life), and have the means, buy them for those kids and their friends, regardless of whether you or they are LGBTQ. Ask your local library and/or bookstores to stock them. Make a point, too, of buying books across the LGBTQ spectrum and other aspects of identity, so your children can see both themselves and the wider world around them.
- If you come across any new, LGBTQ-inclusive titles that you like, submit them to the ALA’s Rainbow Book List for consideration. (Note that this is up to us in the public. They specifically say, “Recommendations for books to consider will not be accepted from the publisher of a proposed book, agents or representatives of the author, or anyone else who may stand to gain directly from the recommendation of the book.”) This list is used by librarians to build their collections and make recommendations—and I’ve long been awed by the support librarians show for the LGBTQ community.
- Additionally, rate and review these books at your favorite online bookstore(s) to help others evaluate them and be encouraged to buy.
- If you work at a literary agency or children’s publisher, actively seek stories that feature LGBTQ people and families. Not sure how? Reach out to Family Equality Council, PFLAG, COLAGE, Welcoming Schools, or other local LGBTQ parent groups or community centers to connect with families who can act as a sounding board and source of ideas. Also let them know of any LGBTQ-inclusive titles you’re publishing. LGBTQ-inclusive books can and should be read by more than just LGBTQ families, but we’ll be a loyal and fervent core cheering squad.
Any other ideas? Leave a comment and continue the conversation!
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