Editor’s Note: Our hearts are with the victims and families of the Orlando tragedy. This list of resources can help spark the conversation around love and acceptance for families and schools.
The vast majority of the time, I write about makerspaces and learning through “making” and tinkering. But another part of my role at school is faculty advisor for our SAGA club–that’s our Sexuality and Gender Alliance club.
Once a week, my gaggle of middle schoolers gather to discuss LGBTQ issues and have “snowball fight” discussions (students anonymously write discussion topics or questions on Post-It notes, then we all crumple them up and throw them around the room– snowball fight!–to spread the questions around).
This spring, SAGA wanted to host a table at our school book fair, with books focused on LGBTQ characters. Given the potentially sensitive nature of LGBTQ storylines, I plowed through several dozen LGBTQ children’s and young-adult books to “vet” our recommendations for the table. Though it was incredibly challenging (there is still very, very little LGBTQ YA lit), I found some great uplifting stories, some truly disheartening visions of young adulthood and some major gaps in the types of stories available.
You can find synopses easily on Amazon or at your local library. What I’m looking at here is accessibility and challenge in presenting to a broad audience. Basically, could you recommend this book to one of your students? The children’s books, of course, are pretty straightforward. The water starts getting murky down in the high school section.
Sweet Stories for Early Childhood / Picture Books
A Tale of Two Mommies, by Vanita Oelschlager
Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B Schiffer
Red A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
All three of these are adorably illustrated and just lovely stories for introducing LGBTQ characters to younger children, or normalizing different family configurations. Oelschlager’s story follows a little boy explaining what activities he does with each of his mommies, just like his friend enjoys different activities with his mommy and daddy.
Schiffer’s story follows kindergartener Stella as she navigates Mothers’ Day celebrations at school even though she has two dads (hello, cultural competence). Finally, Hall tells the story of a blue crayon who was mistakenly labeled red and how the crayon overcame everyone’s mistaken expectations due to that false label–a sweet metaphor for transgender or gender-nonconforming children.
Uplifting, Empathy-Building Stories for Upper-Elementary Readers
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
Totally Joe by James Howe
These three books are great and completely accessible to young readers. Amazon reviews accuse them of being “fantasy” for how easily the boys’ sexuality is accepted by their various communities, but good–let’s give our kids visions of the communities we aspire to.
In Federle’s book, Nate’s realization towards the end that two men can walk down the street holding hands, or dance together in a bar–in full view of the street!–with “nobody doing anything, nobody beating them up or teasing them” is a memorable and sweet moment for this character who has been shrugging his shoulders about his own sexuality throughout the book. (See my comments below about the fact that all three of these books have male main characters at the end.)
My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari
A bit of a departure from the others above with a straight female main character, her gay mom and mom’s partner trying to fit in in a small town. Also firmly recommended.
Thoughtful, Deeply Engaging Stories for Middle and High School Readers
Hero by Perry Moore
I loved loved, loved, loved this book. Fantastic, realistic characters with a little superhero universe thrown in. Realistic portrayal of sexual thoughts and pornography (but “the good stuff” is behind a paywall that the main character can’t access), but nothing graphic enough to make pre-sexually-active adolescents uncomfortable or disconnected from the characters.
Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill
Geography Club by Brent Hartinger
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
I enjoyed these books as well, and they had similar levels of realistic portrayals of sexuality and minimal–if any–drug/alcohol use. I would easily recommend all five books above to any middle or high school student and/or their parents. (Grasshopper Jungle gets super surreal, but I have a soft spot for creepy sci fi.)
However, four of these five books have gay cisgender male main characters (again, see comments below).
Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsca
Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
Ask The Passengers by A.S. King
I almost put these three books in the category below, but both tell rich stories with beautifully written characters that overshadow the sex and substance abuse. In “Fans,” one character uses drugs heavily, but in a context that makes sense for that character and isn’t used as a forced plot device.
Tell Me Again, while a very different story, uses substance abuse in a similarly natural context. Ask has just enough sex that I wouldn’t give it an easy recommendation to any student, but I’d probably give it to most once I know they and their parents’ level of comfort with discussing sexuality.
I enjoyed all three books and–for parents and teachers possibly using this list to make recommendations–I’d recommend reading these book together with your adolescent and maintaining discussion throughout.
Tell Me Again is also distinguished as the only book on this list featuring an expressly non-white main character (there are two more in the section of books I haven’t read yet).
Stories Portraying Extreme Visions of Young Adulthood
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth
The Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi
When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid
I actually really enjoyed these books. They were excellently written and really drew me into the characters’ lives. But the extreme visions of young adulthood portrayed were shocking. Characters unabashedly used sex for manipulation, and consumed dangerous quantities of alcohol and drugs.
According to the NIH (in 2013 at least) less than 15% of underage people engaged in binge drinking, and less than a quarter drink regularly (“in the past month”). Per the CDC (also as of 2013) only 15% of high schoolers had had sex with more than three people.
Young adult literature simply doesn’t need to be riddled with sex and substance abuse to accurately portray young adulthood.
In the “should I recommend this to a student?” category of analysis…with regard to depictions of manipulative sexuality, these books may give adolescent readers the impression that a high level of sexual activity is the norm among their peers when, per the statistics above and many others, it isn’t. These books also depict even healthy adolescent sexuality very graphically, which could disconnect the story from readers who aren’t yet sexually active. Of course, it would also impact how parents respond to a recommendation.
And finally, all three also portray most adults in these adolescents’ lives as…well…terrible people. Either heartless and downright dangerous, helpless or utterly clueless (oh how I hate the ignorant-teacher trope).
While I enjoyed the books, I’d be very thoughtful before recommending them to my students. Thinking about my current students, I can’t think of any to whom I’d recommend these books over any in the section above.
I Didn’t Read, But Worth a Look
Most of these are on my holds list at the library.
Stories about transgender kids:
- George by Alex Gino
- The Wandering Son graphic novel series, by Shimura Takako
- Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
- Luna by Julie Anne Peters
- Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews (ex-boyfriend of Katie Rain Hill, author of Rethinking Normal)
Stories about gay or bisexual young women:
- The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George
- If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (same author as Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, with a story about two Iranian young women.)
- Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (Latinx author, with a story about a gay Puerto Rican young woman)
Stories about gay or bisexual young men:
- Anything Could Happen, by Will Walton
It was incredibly challenging just to find all these books. Many lists of “LGBTQ YA Lit” include books with gender-nonconforming-but-straight main characters (Dairy Queen, A Girl Named Dan) which aren’t exactly “LGBTQ.” Further, the lists didn’t give me much of a clue as to the graphic-ness of the books. Both Gracefully Grayson (no sex at all) and When Everything Feels Like The Movies (extremely graphic, even from this sex-positive sexual health educator’s perspective) are both categorized pretty much equivalently within “YA Lit.” Hopefully this blog post can help solve those two problems.
But there are a couple problems I can’t solve by making a list of existing books. There are major stories that aren’t yet being told, at least that I’ve been able to find.
- Where are the LGBTQ youth main characters of color?
- Why are the easier-reading-level, no-graphic-sexuality books all about young men, and most of the higher-reading-level, very-graphic-sexuality books all about young women?
- Why are the male main characters so often in the school plays, while their more closeted secondary-character love interests are so often athletes?
I would love to read–and youth need–a book featuring a young woman realizing her sexuality without necessarily becoming sexually active, as Nate does in Better Nate Than Ever. She should be outside the tropes of LGBTQ youth, like Leila in Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, and I’d love for her to ultimately find her tribe as Russel does in Geography Club. And, just personally, I’d love a little fantastical science fiction thrown in, like Hero and Grasshopper Jungle.
For more, see:
- 20 Must-Read Children’s Books for Back to School
- Top 20 New Children’s Books to Read With Your Kids
- 65 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time
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