LGBTQ* children’s picture books counter dominant socio-cultural constructions of gender, sexuality, children, childhood, and family. These texts contribute to a queer world-making project by rendering queer genders and sexualities visible, viable, and accessible to young audiences. According to Jan M. Ochman, children’s picture books are a powerful socializing agent because they help children form a self-image, develop a sense of cultural expectations, and imagine inhabiting social roles (715). In addition to doing important socializing work, LGBTQ* children’s literature is a rich historical archive that reflects struggles occurring within culture to define the meaning and value of genders and sexualities that fall outside of narrow and oppressive norms.
This profile of LGBTQ* (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and/or queer) children’s picture books focuses on English-language texts published in the US and Canada between 1970 and 2018. LGBTQ* children’s picture books are defined as books targeted at an audience between 0 and 12 years-old that use image and text to produce meaning and which explicitly represent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and/or queer identities and experiences.
The best way to tell the story of LGBTQ* children’s picture books is through the books themselves. As a result, the profile describes key texts and identifies key themes as well as shifts in thematic content in order to introduce readers to the field. In concludes with a brief discussion of how LGBTQ* children’s picture books became an identifiable subfield within the category of children’s literature.
A Genealogy of LGBTQ* Children’s Books Published Between 1970 – 2018
Overt representations of LGBTQ* identities and experiences are a fairly new occurrence in children’s picture books, which is why most queer scholarship about children’s literature seeks to uncover the queer potential in more readily available classic texts (Ryan and Hermann-Wilmarth; Kidd and Abate).
However, since the 1970s LGBTQ* children’s picture books have slowly begun to appear, a trend that accelerated greatly post-2010. Prior to 2000, LGBTQ* children’s picture books were often published by small feminist presses or self-published. In either instance, circulation was modest. For instance, the Feminist Press at City University NY published Barbara Danish’s The Dragon and the Doctor (1971), about a kind doctor who helped a dinosaur with an injured tail and was rewarded with a party invitation. At the party Dr. Judy helps a sick animal named Lucy before reuniting her with her lesbian moms.
A few books about boys who challenged gender stereotypes, a theme that remains popular, were published in the 1970s. William’s Doll (1972), written by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by William Pene Du Bois, is the story of a little boy who wants a doll. No one supports William’s desire for a doll, but his grandmother eventually buys him one. She appeases his angry father by explaining a doll will help him be a good father. Similarly, Tommie dePaola’s Oliver Button Is a Sissy tells the story of a boy bullied at school because he doesn’t enjoy typical boy things. Oliver’s parents enroll him in dance where he gains confidence and even acceptance from peers as a result of his talent. Bruce Mack’s Jesse’s Dream Skirt (1979) explores a boy’s desire for a skirt, a theme popularized in post-2000 LGBTQ* children’s literature.
Very few children’s books containing overt LGBTQ* themes were available between 1979 and 1989. Jane Severance published two books, When Megan Went Away (1979) and Lots of Mommies (1983), with Lollipop Power Press (Lollipop Power, Inc., Records, 1970-1986) a small feminist press that published 22 books in its decade of operation. When Megan Went Away (1979) is told from the point-of-view of a girl processing the separation of her mother and her mother’s partner. Her mother is emotionally unavailable during this period as she deals with her own pain. Lots of Mommies (1983) is about a girl raised communally by several women. Severance creates a robust cast of lesbian characters who provide the protagonist with a happy, albeit unconventional, home. Annie Jo is a carpenter, Vicki is a school bus driver, and Shadowoman is a healer. These texts are important historical artifacts of lesbian cultural and lesbian cultural production.
In a personal correspondence, Jane Severance noted that she was only twenty-two, a few years out of high school when she wrote her first children’s book. She describes herself as “heavily involved in the women’s/lesbian movement, mostly concentrated on working at Woman to Woman Bookstore in Denver.” Severance observed that “parents were looking for books showing children with different families, children making non-traditional choices and being supported for making those choices…”. It was in this context that Severance, with no training but a lot of passion, began writing. Severance received “a lot of flack” for showing a lesbian couple in an unflattering light, but Severance notes that lesbian mothers “were generally not supported, which meant that couldn’t always make good parenting choices.” Her work is a product of the moment it records, and in many ways is far more anti-normative than many of the LGBTQ* children’s picture books that followed its publication and remain in circulation.
Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) inaugurated a new trend in LGBTQ* children’s literature by representing lesbian families as happy, healthy, and normal. Importantly, Newman published Heather Has Two Mommies without the help of a traditional publisher. In a personal correspondence Newman shared: “Though Heather Has Two Mommies isn’t self-published, I did actively participate in its publications. My business partner at the time, Tzivia Gover and I came up with the term co-publishing. She had a desktop publishing business and when no traditional publisher was willing to publish Heather, we decided to do it ourselves. We raised $4,000 via a letter writing campaign, found an illustrator and a printer and brought the book out in December of 1989.” Self-publishing, macro-presses, and mission driven (as opposed to profit driven publishers) continue to be a mainstay of LGBTQ* children’s literature publishing. In fact, crowdfunding though platforms like Kickstarter are a new tech version of the letter writing campaign Newman utilized to fund her project.
Throughout the 1990s, small presses with a mission-oriented presses, such as Alyson Publications, which was founded in 1980 and created a children’s book imprint, Alyson Wonderland in 1990, were at the forefront of creating LGBTQ* children’s literature.
Perhaps not surprisingly, books helping children understand and process loving adults with HIV/AIDS began to appear in this period. A Name on the Quilt (1999), written by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Tad Hills, is the story of a family memorializing a beloved member after his AIDS-related death by creating a patch for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Lesléa Newman’s Too Far Away to Touch (1995), is another example. In it a young girl’s uncle, who is ill from AIDS-related complications, helps her begin to process his eventual death by explaining that he will always be with her. My Dad Has HIV (1996) takes a different approach. It is an accessible text about HIV told from the point of view of a seven-year-old child whose father has the virus. The book was co-written by Earl Alexander, an HIV/AIDS instructor, and two elementary school teachers, Sheila Rudin and Pam Sejkora.
It was not until the early-2000s that well-budgeted LGBTQ* children’s literature that explored a variety of themes became the norm instead of the exception. Much of the literature published over the last 20 years revisits ideas, identities, and experiences introduced in the 70s, 80s, and 90s: children, most often boys, challenging gender stereotypes, lesbian, and occasionally, gay parents, and queer extended family members, most frequently uncles. New themes have ideas, identities, and experiences have also been introduced, most notably transgendered children.
In fact, one of the most dramatic changes in LGBTQ* children’s picture books is not the content found between the cover, but instead shifts in publishing opportunities, which reflect the cultural visibility of LGBTQ* persons. Lesléa Newman continues to publish in the field and her experiences negotiating the publishing industry reflect these shifts. She went from raising funds to publish her first book through a letter writing campaign in 1989 to being solicited to create LGBTQ*-inclusive board books in 2009. In a personal correspondence Newman wrote: “I was asked by Tricycle Press to write a set of board books: one about a child with two moms and about a child with two dads. Which I did. Tricycle was subsequently bought out by Random House, and the two books, Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me are still in print (10 years later!) and doing very well.”
This is not to say that all queer content has found a home in traditional publishing, or that traditional publishing is even desirable for all authors producing LGBTQ* children’s picture books. For instance, Myles E. Johnson’s Large Fears (2015), a series of vignettes about Jeremiah, a queer black boy who loves pink and wants to go to Mars, was crowdsourced. In a personal correspondence Johnson noted: “…crowd sourcing has limits, but it is perfect if you see a demand and just let the audience fund it instead of waiting on gatekeepers.” Johnson’s unique narrative style and focus on the subjectivity of a black queer boy make pursuing traditional publishing, which primarily considers marketability and profitability, challenging.
Small, mission-oriented presses and self-publishing remain the presses are most likely to publish content that engages marginalized social identities intersectionally. For instance, Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned publishing company founded in 2006, published Jesse Unaapik Mike and Kerry McCluskey’s Families, a picture book that affirms a variety of family forms including lesbian and gay families.
Even more, although a handful of books focalizing transgender experience have been published traditionally, most continue to be published by non-traditional means. The very queer Flamingo Rampant, a Canadian micro-press funded by crowdsourcing, explores queer gender and sexual identities as they intersect with other identity categories including race and ability (“Flamingo Rampant • FLAMINGO RAMPANT”). In one of their first publications, A Princess of Great Daring (2015), written by Tobi Hill-Meyer and illustrated by Elenore Toczynski, a transgender girl has not seen her friends all summer and prepares to share her gender identity with them for the first time (Hill-Meyer and Toczynski). Her two moms drop her off at her friend’s house and her friends are busy designing a game in which they save a princess from a dragon. Jamie offers to be the princess and the boys are excited to have someone to rescue. Jaime interrupts the traditional narrative by declaring that she will be “a princess of great daring.” Concerned that they will have no one to rescue, one of the boys volunteers to be captured by a dragon, but even the dragon defies gender expectations. She only grabbed Liam because she was lonely. When the game ends, Jamie’s friends tell her that she makes a great princess. She takes the opportunity to explain that she is a girl. They immediately accepting her and ask how they can support her.
Not surprisingly, in more traditional presses, marriage became an increasingly popular theme throughout the 2000s mirroring the increased visibility of socio-political debates about marriage equality. Sarah S. Brannen’s Uncle Bobby’s Wedding (2008) focuses on Chloe, a little girl worried that her favorite uncle will have less time for her once he marries his partner. Extended family are accepting of the same-gender relationship and Chloe comes around once she realizes the joy of having two uncles. Lesléa Newman’s Donovan’s Big Day (2011) also takes up the theme of same-gender marriage, this time through the point-of-view of a young boy whose mothers are marrying.
Additionally, over the past several years, books that introduce the idea queer gender and sexuality to very young readers. These books introduce the concept of homosexuality to very young children. For instance, Worm Loves Worm (2016), written by J.J. Austrian and illustrated by Mike Curato is a candid story about two worms who fall in love and wish to marry. Their insect and arachnid friends demand they jump through all the traditional hoops including getting rings even though they don’t have fingers and cake even though they only eat dirt. They go along with everything until it comes to choosing who will wear the white wedding dress and who will where the tuxedo. At that point, the worms queer gender expectations when one wears the dress with a top hat and the other wears the tuxedo with a veil. Another example, Square Zair Pair (2015), written by Jase Peeples and illustrated by Christine Knopp, takes place in a fantasy world inhabited by Zairs. Zairs hatch from eggs that grow from vines. Some are tall and square; others are short and round. Round and square Zairs always form a pair by attaching tails. One day two square Zairs pair. The community is outraged and demands they leave the group, using rhetoric like that bandied around by the real world Right. However, the exiled Zairs are accepted back into the community once they save the other Zairs from starving during an unexpected winter storm.
Stories about same-gender desiring children are also (slowly) beginning to appear. In Thomas Scotto’s Jerome by Heart (2018) two boys share an affectionate friendship that makes the adults in their lives uncomfortable. This is one of the only representations of same-gender love between children available in children’s picture books that can easily be interpreted as queer.
It was not until 2009, with the publication Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy (2009) that transgender and gender creative children began appearing in children’s picture books. The gender creative protagonist who is never named, but instead referred to by the narrator-mother as my Princess Boy, seems to be effortlessly accepted by family and friends. This book an others like it, and it has become a popular theme to explore, extend beyond representing boy children who enjoy toys and activities associated with girls, to considering gender expression and, in some cases, gender identification as well.
Two years later gay author, Marcus Ewert, published one of the first children’s picture books, 10,000 Dresses, focused on the experiences of a transgender girl. The child, Bailey, is bullied by family members who insist she is a boy even though she knows she’s a girl. Rex Ray illustrates the text, providing the reader access to Bailey’s psychic life by depicting her dreams and thoughts. very morning when Bailey wakes up, she tells a family member about the dress-wearing dream she had the previous night. Every morning a new family member dismisses her dream, ignores her attempt at self-definition, and tried to silence her. Laurel is given a name and face. She has dimension for the reader, and for Bailey. The final image is of the girls wearing the dresses they worked together to make.
I am Jazz (2014) is an autobiographical children’s picture book co-authored by Jessica Herthel and the title character, Jazz Jennings. Jennings, now a young transgender woman with her own TLC show, first entered the spotlight in 2007 when she was featured on a 20/20 documentary about transgender children. This book is a significant contribution to LGBTQ* children’s literature, since it is co-authored by, and narrated from the perspective of, the transgender child protagonist.
Conclusion: The Making of LGBTQ* Children’s Literature
A critical mass of work that could be identified as something called LGBTQ* children’s picture books had to exist for this chapter to exist. The conversations that surround LGBTQ* children’s literature, specifically challenges and celebrations of its existence, are an important part of the story.
The Internet has played a critical role in the visibility of nonnormative gender and sexual identities. It has also played a pivotal role in post-millennial queer community building. Blogs by book reviewers, parents, teachers, social workers, and librarians have provided a virtual grassroots campaign to spread the word about LGBTQ* children’s books. For instance, founded in 2005 Mombian: Sustenance for Lesbian Life, is a parenting blog that was founded when the creator noted “a lack of sites with current, practical news and information for LGBTQ parents, or sites that looked at other aspects of LGBTQ culture with a parent’s eye” (“Mombian”). The blog contains a wealth of information about LGBTQ* children’s culture including smart reviews of dozens of books.
Although the Stonewall Book Awards were established in 1971, a Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award was not created until 2010. The Stonewall Book Awards are administered by the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (American Library Association, “Stonewall Book Awards History”; American Library Association, “Stonewall Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award Named for Mike Morgan and Larry Romans”). On the other hand, the Lambda Literary Awards began acknowledging and awarding LGBTQ authors and writers of LGBTQ content in 1989 and created a category for Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 1992 (Griffith; “Lambda Literary”). Awards lend legitimacy to the subfield.
Less affirming discourses pre-date blogs and awards. Children’s literature has many gatekeepers: parents, educators, librarians, even publishers themselves. Representations of lesbian, gay, and transgender experiences, expressions, and identities remain some of the most contested within the world of children’s literature. According to the ALA, two of the top ten most contested books of the 1990s were Daddy’s Roommate, by Michael Willhoite, coming in at number two, and Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, coming in at number nine (American Library Association, “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books”).
Controversies over LGBTQ* children’s literature are hardly a thing of the past. In 2019, myriad attempts to keep books with LGBTQ* content out of libraries and classrooms have sprung up across the US as well as globally. In Kansas there were attempts to remove I Am Jazz and other books with transgender characters from libraries (Flood). On her website LGBTQ* children’s picture book author Gayle Pitman notes recent attempts to ban her books in Colorado, Texas, and Illinois.
The political, cultural, and personal significance of LGBTQ* children’s picture books can be best understood by cataloguing responses to it. Like the texts themselves, discourses that challenge and discourses that celebrate the work are critical archives of feeling and practice that reflect shifting historical moments.
Alexander, Earl, et al. My Dad Has HIV. Fairview Press, 1996.
American Library Association. “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990–1999.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, 26 Mar. 2013, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/100-most-frequently-challenged-books-1990%E2%80%931999.
—. “Stonewall Book Awards History.” Round Tables, 9 Sept. 2009, http://www.ala.org/rt/glbtrt/award/stonewall/history.
—. “Stonewall Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award Named for Mike Morgan and Larry Romans.” News and Press Center, 17 Jan. 2012, http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2012/01/stonewall-children%E2%80%99s-young-adult-literature-award-named-mike-morgan-and-larry.
Atkins, Jeannine, and Tad Hills. A Name on the Quilt: A Story of Remembrance. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2003.
Austrian, J. J. Worm Loves Worm. Balzer + Bray, 2016.
Brannen, Sarah S. Uncle Bobby’s Wedding. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.
Danish, Barbara. The Dragon and the Doctor. Feminist Press, 1971.
dePaola, Tomie. Oliver Button Is a Sissy. Reissue edition, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017.
Ewert, Marcus, and Rex Ray. 10,000 Dresses. Seven Stories Press, 2011. Open WorldCat, http://ebookdownload.3m.com/sites/prototypes/web/media/themes/mmm_patron/img/landing_page/step1.png.
“Flamingo Rampant.” FLAMINGO RAMPANT, https://flamingorampant.com/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.
Flood, Alison. “Stonewall Defends ‘vital’ LGBT Children’s Books after Spate of Ban Attempts.” The Guardian, 18 Jan. 2019. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/18/stonewall-defends-vital-lgbt-childrens-books-after-spate-of-ban-attempts.
Griffith, Nicola. “A Brief History of Lambda Literary.” Lambda Literary, 9 Sept. 2008, https://www.lambdaliterary.org/lambda-literary-foundation/llf-history/.
Herthel, Jessica, and Jazz Jennings. I Am Jazz. 1 edition, Dial Books, 2014.
Hill-Meyer, Tobi, and Elenore Toczynski. A Princess of Great Daring. 2017.
Johnson, Myles E., and Kendrick Daye. Large Fears. 2015.
Kidd, Kenneth, and Michelle Ann Abate, editors. Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature. University of Michigan, 2011.
Kilodavis, Cheryl. My Princess Boy. 1 edition, Aladdin, 2010.
“Lambda Literary.” Lambda Literary, https://www.lambdaliterary.org/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.
Lollipop Power, Inc., Records, 1970-1986. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/04453/. Accessed 12 Apr. 2019.
Mack, Bruce, and Marian Buchanan. Jesse’s Dream Skirt. Lollipop Power, 1984.
McCluskey, Kerry, and Jesse Unaapik Mike. Families. Inhabit Media, 2017, https://www.amazon.com/Families-English-Kerry-McCluskey/dp/1772271616.
“Mombian: Sustenance for Lesbian Moms.” Mombian, https://www.mombian.com/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.
Newman, Leslea. Heather Has Two Mommies. Reprint edition, Candlewick, 2016.
Newman, Lesléa. Mommy, Mama, and Me. Brdbk edition, Tricycle Press, 2008.
Newman, Lesléa, and Mike Dutton. Donovan’s Big Day. Tricycle Press, 2011.
Newman, Lesléa, and Catherine Stock. Too Far Away to Touch. Clarion Books, 1995.
Ochman, Jan M. “The Effects of Nongender-Role Stereotyped, Same-Sex Role Models in Storybooks on the Self-Esteem of Children in Grade Three.” Sex Roles, vol. 35, no. 11, Dec. 1996, pp. 711–35. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/BF01544088.
Peeples, Jase. Square Zair Pair. Zair Pair Books, 2016.
Ryan, Caitlin L., and Jill M. Hermann-Wilmarth. “Already on the Shelf: Queer Readings of Award-Winning Children’s Literature.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 45, no. 2, June 2013, pp. 142–72. Crossref, doi:10.1177/1086296X13479778.
Scotto, Thomas, and Olivier Tallec. Jerome By Heart. Translated by Claudia Bedrick and Karin Snelson, Translation edition, Enchanted Lion Books, 2018.
Severance, Jane, and Jan Jones. Lots of Mommies. Lollipop Power, 1983.
Severance, Jane, and Tea Schook. When Megan Went Away. Lollipop Power Inc, 1979.
Zolotow, Charlotte. William’s Doll. Reprint edition, Harper & Row, 1972.