Celebrating Five Decades of Queer-Inclusive Books for Children and Youth

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This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — but it also marks the decennial anniversaries for several groundbreaking LGBT-inclusive books for children and young adults in the U.S. Walk through the decades with me.

Shortly before Stonewall, in April 1969, Harper & Row published John Donovan’s “I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip,” generally recognized as the first young adult novel to include a same-sex relationship, one between two teen boys. The book made the Washington Post’s 1969 Honor Roll of Spring Children's Books and gained starred reviews in the influential Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal.

Other reviewers were less enthusiastic. In The Atlantic, Martha Bacon said the book “would not meet the needs of the initiated and might arouse in the unconcerned unnecessary interest or alarm or both.” 

Queer people today may look askance at the book’s intimation that the boys’ relationship was just a phase (though some have argued Donovan leaves it an open question), and that it was both caused by and caused tragedy in the protagonist’s life. Regardless, the book inspired many young queer people who first saw a reflection of themselves in print.

Ten years later came “When Megan Went Away,” by Jane Severance, the first picture book with clearly LGBT characters. In it, a young girl named Shannon expresses sadness after her mother’s partner moves out but feels better after she and her mother talk. Now out of print, “Megan” was published by the small, feminist collective Lollipop Power Press, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

The same year, Lollipop Power also published “Jesse’s Dream Skirt,” by Bruce Mack, the first book about a boy who wants to wear a skirt or dress to school. (It had originally appeared in a slightly different version two years earlier in the short-lived gay magazine Magnus).

In the book, Jesse’s mother helps him make his desired dress, but cautions that other children may make fun of him — and they do. His teacher is supportive, however, even wrapping a piece of cloth around his waist in solidarity. In the end, the children all dress up in their own ways and parade around the room. Although out of print, the story holds up remarkably well. Perhaps it’s not surprising that several much later books about gender-creative children have very similar plots. That may speak to the resonance of the storyline — but may also indicate we need more stories about other aspects of gender-creative children’s lives.

Also published in 1979 was Tomie dePaola’s "Oliver Button is a Sissy,” whose protagonist “didn’t like to do things that boys are supposed to do.” The book, based on dePaola’s own childhood experiences, has had more staying power than the others from 1979. Part of that may be the skill of the award-winning dePaola; part may be that Oliver’s gender and family don’t stray as far as the others’—Oliver likes to dance, but does so in traditional boys’ clothes. He also has a mom and a dad.

In 1989, as AIDS was decimating the queer community, came the first picture book about a person with AIDS, MaryKate Jordan’s “Losing Uncle Tim.” Tim is not explicitly gay, but is unmarried and runs an antique store; it’s easy to assume he was imagined as a gay man.

That year, too, came Lesléa Newman’s “Heather Has Two Mommies,” the first picture book to show a happy, intact family with same-sex parents. It was also the first to describe assisted insemination (although that part was removed in later editions to focus on the core message of family acceptance). Newman and a friend had published it themselves after over 50 publishers rejected it. The next year, LGBT publisher Alyson Publications bought the rights to “Heather” when it launched a line of children’s books.

“Heather” brought queer-inclusive children’s books into the public eye — but also faced numerous challenges from those who wanted it removed from schools and libraries. It remained popular enough to go through several editions, however, most recently one from Candlewick Press (2015) with updated illustrations and text. Heather’s moms now also wear matching rings as a nod to marriage equality.

Controversy also lay behind the 1999 publication of the photo essay “Love Makes a Family: Portraits of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Parents and Their Families,” edited by Peggy Gillespie, with photographs by Gigi Kaeser. The book was based on the groundbreaking traveling exhibit from what would become the non-profit Family Diversity Projects. When the exhibit of LGBT parents and their children was first shown in schools in 1995, several communities responded with outrage and one sued. A federal court dismissed the case, however, saying the exhibit was protected under the First Amendment.

The year 2009 gave us the first LGBT-inclusive board books for the very youngest children, also by Newman: “Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me.” They each depict a child with two moms or two dads enjoying everyday activities such as playing in the park.

These are far from the only important LGBT-inclusive children’s books — just ones celebrating decennial anniversaries this year. And today? In January 2019, when the American Library Association’s GLBTQ Round Table announced its Rainbow List of recommended, LGBT-inclusive children’s and young adult books from the past year, the selection committee wrote on its website that they were “overwhelmed by the explosion of content in all age groups” and noted the number of #ownvoices titles, those whose author shares a marginalized identity with the protagonist. From what I know of upcoming titles, 2019 could be equally impressive — and that will benefit all children as they see themselves, their families, and their world reflected.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.


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