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Legislation like Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act—known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—and increased attempts to ban books censor discussions on sexuality and gender identity with young people. But many kids today are growing up with queer parents and other extended family members, as well as in communities with queer families and classmates. Silencing basic information prevents them from understanding their world, fictionalizes reality for all kids—and further erases those who are LGBTQ.
I would know. In 1993, my school district drew nationwide attention for removing and banning Annie on My Mind—one of the first young adult novels about two girls who fall in love—at a time when I was beginning to struggle with my own identity. Reading books about LGBTQ life and identity shows all children how others live, while also holding up a mirror for some kids to see themselves, said Nicole Champoux, a Montessori school administrator and teacher in Washington state. And today there are hundreds of age-appropriate children’s books exploring queer families, history, gender expression, and more.
But for those of us who grew up in eras when those books didn’t exist—or in communities where they weren’t yet accessible—it can be hard to know where to start in choosing books for our own kids. We asked Champoux, as well as a dozen other queer librarians, educators, and booksellers, for their reading recommendations for kids of all ages. Here are their picks, along with options to support independent, queer-owned bookstores.
Bodies Are Cool written and illustrated by Tyler Feder (about $13 at the time of publication)
Also available at Charis Books & More ($18 at the time of publication)
Bodies Are Cool is a body-positive picture book that takes a casual approach to queer representation. It depicts a diverse array of bodies—of all shapes, sizes, races, and genders, including post-top-surgery trans bodies—paired with playful rhyming text. The book doesn’t focus on LGBTQ kids specifically, but Sara Luce Look, co-owner of Charis Books & More in Decatur, Georgia, found that it had the perfect inclusive message about anatomy. “The biggest need we were having was for books on puberty or how to talk about bodies,” Luce Look said. “We love this one—it’s important for all kids to see different kinds of bodies, and to see fat bodies and disabled bodies and different types of people interacting with each other in all different kinds of ways.”
Federico and All His Families by Mili Hernández, illustrated by Gómez ($10 at the time of publication)
Also available at Unabridged Bookstore ($10 at the time of publication)
As kids with LGBTQ parents begin socializing, they learn early that their family structures aren’t the norm. In my family’s experience, this growing awareness came from both media and simple observation of the larger community—but also from other young children’s repeated insistence that it’s impossible to have more than one mom or dad. That’s why picture books that serve to normalize different family structures—like Federico and All His Families—are so important for all toddler- and preschool-age kids. The colorful board book tells the story of a helpful neighborhood cat who visits different families as they prepare to start their day, including families with two moms and two dads, a single-parent family, and one with grandparents raising a child. Kate Wilson, children’s book buyer at Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago, recommends it as a form of “incidental representation” that introduces the concept of family diversity without making it the sole focus of the story.
A Family Is a Family Is a Family by Sara O’Leary, illustrated by Qin Leng ($18 at the time of publication)
Also available at Unabridged Bookstore ($18 at the time of publication)
For a more straightforward depiction of family diversity, Naomi Socher-Lerner, children’s librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, said A Family Is a Family Is a Family is “a bit on the nose, but very sweet.” The picture book tells the story of a class of kids asked to share what makes their families special. A young narrator is initially afraid that her family might be too different to include, but she’s soon proved wrong by other kids’ comical depictions of their own diverse households, including families with divorced parents, foster kids, lots of grandparents, two dads, and two moms who are “terrible singers” but nevertheless “love to sing really loud.”
When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita ($11 at the time of publication)
Also available at Women & Children First ($19 at the time of publication)
When Aidan Became a Brother is recommended by multiple queer librarians and booksellers for its heartwarming tale of a family navigating their son’s emerging trans identity while they prepare to welcome a second child. “When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl,” the book starts. But as Aidan grew older, he began to realize he was “a different type of boy.” Although “it was hard to tell his parents what he knew about himself, it was even harder not to.” Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of the Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago, said parents of trans kids have picked up the book and really responded to its generous spirit. “(Aidan’s) parents have this beautiful moment of accountability with their child about having made some mistakes by raising him in the wrong gender,” Hollenbeck said. “I am so grateful to have that kind of message in the world.” Wilson agreed that the book portrays family support of a trans kid with empathy and depth. “It has such emotional intelligence—I can’t recommend this one highly enough,” they said.
Julián Is a Mermaid and Julián at the Wedding written and illustrated by Jessica Love (about $10 and $13 at the time of publication)
Also available at BookWoman (each book is $17 at the time of publication)
Julián Is a Mermaid and Julián at the Wedding are two more picture books depicting kids exploring gender expression with family support. With scant dialogue and dazzling illustration, the first book tells the story of Julián, a young boy who has some apprehension about sharing his love of makeup, flowy hair, and mermaid role-play with his abuela. But to his surprise, she embraces and celebrates his interests by taking him to the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade in New York City, where Julián struts down the boardwalk in makeshift mermaid regalia as his glamorous authentic self. The book’s sequel shows Julián making delightful mischief at a lesbian wedding with a new friend named Marisol, a little girl who’s equally authentic to herself. Audrey Kohler, senior bookseller at the feminist bookstore BookWoman in Austin, Texas, recommends both. “The books show family embracing gender expression, which is really important for children,” Kohler said. “They’re just a nice look at the different ways children can explore their genders—and the artwork is so gorgeous.”
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steven Salerno (about $12 at the time of publication)
Also available at Giovanni’s Room Bookstore ($18 at the time of publication)
So many kids have encountered the rainbow equality flag, whether posted in the window of a local shop or flying from a neighbor’s porch. But because LGBTQ history is so rarely taught in school, most don’t have a sense of the history of that flag or the context—and recency—of modern Pride movements. Picture books like Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag help introduce young kids to some of those early struggles for queer rights in a way that’s “bright, cheerful, and really relatable,” said Nicole Champoux, head of Arbor Montessori School in Sammamish, Washington. The book tells the origin story of the Pride flag through welcoming text and colorful, panoramic illustrations. “It engages children on an imaginative level and lights up their empathy and understanding,” she said.
My Maddy by Gayle E. Pitman, illustrated by Violet Tobacco ($9 at the time of publication)
Also available at BookWoman ($15 at the time of publication)
In the world of LGBTQ picture books, Gayle E. Pitman is probably best known for This Day in June, a joyful, rhyming ode to Pride parades. But in 2020 Pitman published another winning celebration of queer life and families, My Maddy, which introduces kids to a nonbinary parent while highlighting the beauty of other things that defy easy categorization, like sporks, motorcycles, and hazel eyes. Austin, Texas, bookseller Audrey Kohler said it’s among their favorite books showcasing diverse family structures for young readers.
A Princess of Great Daring! by Tobi Hill-Meyer, illustrated by Eleanor Toczynski ($16 at the time of publication)
A Princess of Great Daring! is a favorite of Lee Steube, YA librarian at the Upper Darby Township & Sellers Memorial Free Public Library in Pennsylvania. Ostensibly, the book is about a trans girl coming out to her friends for the first time while they’re playing a make-believe game involving princesses and dragons. But the coming-out process isn’t the narrative’s primary focus. “The book models several things well—it models her parents being supportive, her friends being positive and supportive, and it fights back against the idea of, ‘Oh, you’re a princess, you’re going to sit back and be rescued.’” Jamie gets to be a princess and save the day in this imaginative adventure. The book comes from publishing house Flamingo Rampant, a great source of picture and middle-grade books that center on LGBTQ identities, Steube said. “They have such a wide range of books that highlight queer families and include the joy, just by showing queer people living their lives in ways that are fun and interesting.”
The Every Body Book: The LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids About Sex, Gender, Bodies, and Families by Rachel E. Simon, illustrated by Noah Grigni (about $18 at the time of publication)
Also available at Charis Books & More ($20 at the time of publication)
For late-elementary and early middle-school kids, there’s a real need for explanatory nonfiction books that challenge some of our traditional thinking about bodies and gender, said Remy Timbrook, a librarian at the Oakland Public Library in Oakland, California. “We’ve had a lot of caregivers asking for books that explain these topics without being quite so binary or old-fashioned, so they don’t make people feel bad about themselves when reading them.” She praises The Every Body Book: The LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids About Sex, Gender, Bodies, and Families for its gender-inclusiveness in approaching big topics like puberty, hormones, pregnancy, and childbirth—and briefly even miscarriage, abortion, birth control, and safer sex. “Nobody wants to be erased, right?” Timbrook said. “Kids are always getting handed these classic books about growing up—having one that includes matter-of-fact descriptions and discussions of what it means to be cisgender or transgender is really important,” she said, for validating and celebrating kids’ realities.
This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, and Us edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby (about $11 at the time of publication)
Also available at Giovanni’s Room Bookstore ($17 at the time of publication)
For similarly broad-sweeping representation, This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, and Us is an “all-inclusive anthology of fiction geared toward middle-grade readers,” said Katharine Milon, manager of the long-running Giovanni’s Room Bookstore in Philadelphia. “Usually when you find queer fiction, one identity is showcased per story—and I understand that as a teaching tool,” Milon said. “But in reality, friend groups are much more complex.” She describes the book as a playful set of stories about kids from various identities under the queer umbrella, written by some notable authors. But any education about queerness or gender identity is purely secondary to each chapter’s plots. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, here is a nonbinary character, this is how the character would like to be addressed’—but more like, ‘Here’s a nonbinary kid that gets to be a pirate.’ Kids want to see themselves in a story, but more than that, they want to be told a story.”
The Tea Dragon Society written and illustrated by K. O’Neill (about $16 at the time of publication)
Also available at A Room of One’s Own ($18 at the time of publication)
Kids who are drawn to graphic novels will likely find a lot to love about The Tea Dragon Society, a delightful book that features gentle, warm depictions of many different queer characters, said Gretchen Treu, co-owner at A Room of One’s Own bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin. The 2018 Eisner Award–winning book series follows a young blacksmith apprentice as she dives into the fantastical world of tea dragons, miniature dragons who can sprout tea leaves from their heads. Treu said the series gives queer kids both a sense of being seen and an opportunity to explore their own identities. “They’re looking for stories that are mirrors, but they’re also looking for windows that help them learn about other people, or other worlds and experiences,” Treu said of the Tea Dragon series, which spans three titles. “These books give kids an opportunity to step into an identity, and see opportunities to figure themselves out without having to know everything about themselves to begin with.”
Heartstopper series by Alice Oseman (about $15 for Volume One at the time of publication)
Also available at Giovanni’s Room Bookstore ($25 for Volume One at the time of publication)
Emily Hersh, librarian at Navarro Early College High School in Austin, Texas, said graphic novels are huge with her school’s large immigrant population because so many of the students are English-language learners, and the illustrations aid their understanding. She recommends the Heartstopper series—sweet and realistic illustrated novels about two boys who fall in love (now a Netflix series). “The book’s characters have a group of friends who are also on the queer spectrum, and it’s beautiful to see them interact so naturally and comfortably, like it’s not even a big deal that one’s transgender or one’s gay,” Hersh said. “Let’s normalize it all.” In response to the recent wave of book bannings nationwide, Hersh said her high school is currently gearing up for a new event she’s loosely calling “a celebration of diverse books,” scheduled for May.
Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi ($15 at the time of publication)
Also available at A Room of One’s Own (about $19 at the time of publication)
Bitter is another of bookstore owner Gretchen Treu’s fantasy favorites, for its inclusion of queer characters in a compelling storyline. The book is the prequel to Akwaeke Emezi’s popular Pet, and it tells the alternate-reality tale of a teen called to use her voice for protest when her supposed utopian city of Lucille becomes embroiled in violence. “It’s very much a question of ‘what will you do when the revolution comes—will you use what privilege you have to help?’” Treu said. The story depicts an array of queer and trans characters fighting for equality and justice—but also enjoying love and support from their families and communities.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo ($12 at the time of publication)
Also available at Unabridged Books (about $12 at the time of publication)
“It’s not easy being a queer teen in 2022, and it was even less so in the 1950s,” said Spokane, Washington–based librarian Candise Branum of her pick, Last Night at the Telegraph Club. The National Book Award–winning YA novel places queer youth in a historical context via the tale of a Chinese-American teen navigating her sexuality at the time of the Red Scare in 1954. Branum praises the story for including a sense of hope and positivity absent from most queer pulp tales of the era. “Seeing evidence of lesbians thriving and finding love and community in a time of extreme oppression—especially now with everything that’s happening in Texas and Florida and across the entire country—demonstrates the fight and resiliency our community has historically had,” she said. The book’s author, Malinda Lo, has written a number of beloved YA books with queer characters. Lo is also the founder of Diversity in YA, a volunteer-run blog that promotes young adult books featuring disabled and LGBTQ characters as well as people of color.
For more book suggestions, check out the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards titles, which introduced a Children and Young Literature category in 2010.
This article was edited by Joshua Lyon and Kalee Thompson.
Naomi Socher-Lerner, librarian at Parkway Central Children’s Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, email interview, March 16, 2022
Sara Luce Look, co-owner of Charis Books & More, phone interview, March 17, 2022
Gretchen Treu, co-owner of A Room of One’s Own, phone interview, March 17, 2022
Audrey Kohler, senior bookseller at BookWoman, phone interview, March 17, 2022
Candise Branum, librarian at Gonzaga University, phone interview, March 17, 2022
Lee Steube, librarian at Upper Darby Township & Sellers Memorial Free Public Library in Pennsylvania, phone interview, March 17, 2022
Remy Timbrook, librarian at Oakland Public Library, phone interview, March 17, 2022
Kate Wilson, children’s book buyer at Unabridged Bookstore, phone interview, March 17, 2022
Emily Hersh, librarian at Navarro Early College High School, phone interview, March 17, 2022
Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First bookstore, phone interview, March 20, 2022
Katharine Milon, manager at Giovanni's Room Bookstore, phone interview, March 20, 2022
Nicole Champoux, head of school at Arbor Montessori school, email interview, March 29, 2022
Caitlin Giddings is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bicycling, Runner’s World, Lonely Planet, Outside magazine, and more.
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