Reading is an amazing thing. Books can entertain us, transporting us to new places and spaces. To incredible realms full of amazing things. They can educate us. Books don’t just promote literacy, they increase our general knowledge—and reduce stress.
But did you know books can help our children and teens better understand LGBTQ+ issues?
Picture books for young children
Bodies Are Cool written by Tyler Feder
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.”
A Family Is a Family Is a Family by Sara O’Leary
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.”
Books for first- through third-graders
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders
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
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
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.”
Books for third- through sixth-graders
The Every Body Book: The LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids About Sex, Gender, Bodies, and Families by Rachel E. Simon
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 Familiesfor 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
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
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.”
Books for middle-schoolers and up
Heartstopper series by Alice Oseman
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
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
“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.
All books are available at your nearest local library.