"When children don’t see themselves reflected in books they read...that sends a powerful and silencing message."
Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community is the latest book by the award-winning Robin Stevenson. She talks to us here about the importance of giving young people opportunities to see the LGBTQ community reflected in the books they read, and recommends a few favourites.
When I was a teenager, there were only a handful of young adult novels with queer characters, and those few that existed mostly had rather tragic endings. I read them all, and then I read lesbian pulp novels from the 1960s, such as Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker books. They bore no resemblance to my life in small town Ontario, but they did at least tell stories of women falling in love with women, and that was something.
I came out as queer over 25 years ago, at a time when the LGBTQ community was nowhere near as visible as it is now. In the last couple of decades, there’s been incredible progress for the queer community, both in terms of legal rights and protections, and in the hearts and minds of millions of people. And along with that, we’ve seen huge growth in the number and the diversity of LGBTQ books for teens.
For every young adult novel I’ve written that includes queer characters, I’ve received emails from teens that show just how important it is for them to see their lives reflected in the books they read. For queer teens, especially those who are growing up and making sense of their sexual orientation or their gender identity in a context that may be very isolated or unsupportive, LGBTQ books can be a literal life saver. These books tell queer teens that even if their current reality is a hard one—even if they are being bullied, or aren’t safe enough to come out, or fear that their parents will reject them—they are not alone. They are part of a courageous, resilient and diverse community and there is a larger more accepting world out there in which they can eventually find their place.
These books have another role to play: they are also important books for straight teens, for those who know little about the queer community, for those who may never have thought much about the issues faced by their LGBTQ peers. These books can play a significant role in creating understanding, building awareness and empathy, making our schools safer and more supportive, and hopefully helping to create a generation of allies and a better world for all of us.
But of course, queer teens don’t just spring into existence at 13. And for pre-teens kids, LGBTQ books are still incredibly rare. My 12-year-old son rarely, if ever, finds families like his—families with two moms, or for that matter, queer families of any kind—in the books he reads. And that’s a problem. When children don’t see themselves reflected in books they read, or when the few images they see in stories, TV and movies are negative or stereotypical, that sends a powerful and silencing message.
When children don’t see themselves reflected in books they read, or when the few images they see in stories, TV and movies are negative or stereotypical, that sends a powerful and silencing message.
I wrote my new book, Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community, for kids aged nine and over, because young people shouldn’t have to wait until they’re in their teens to see queer families and learn about LGBTQ history and community. My son was a month old at his first Pride Day, and has been to Pride every year since. At Pride, kids get to see a wonderful diversity of people, families, gender identities, sexual orientations and forms of self-expression, and to see this diversity as beautiful and as something to celebrate. I think every kid deserves to experience that.
We are just beginning to build a canon of queer literature for kids and teens. And we need so many different kinds of LGBTQ books! We need books for every age and every kind of reader. We need picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, and teen novels. We need fiction and non-fiction. We need stories about coming out and stories where sexual orientation or gender identity is central, but we also need queer characters showing up in stories about magic and aliens and wilderness survival. We need realistic stories about emotionally painful stuff, and we need escapist fantasy, and we need queer sci-fi, and we need love stories with happy endings. We need lyrical novels, thrilling page turners, and books that make us laugh out loud. And we need stories that reflect the varied identities and experiences of people in every part of the very diverse LGBTQIA+ community—not just gay teen boys, but lesbians, and bisexual and pansexual teens, and trans and intersex kids and teens, and asexual teens, and kids with queer parents ...
We need so many more stories. I’m loving the fact that people are writing them, and that I can no longer keep up with all the new LGBTQ books that are being published.
This gorgeous picture book, with its gentle message about individuality and self-acceptance, tells the story of an imaginative little boy who wants to wear one very particular brightly-colored dress. While this isn’t really an LGBTQ book, stories like this one are so important for gender nonconforming kids, however they identify when they grow up. And really, they’re important for all kids, because feeling free to be yourself is something every child needs.
This is the last book in a trilogy for middle-grade readers (age 9–12), but it can be read as a stand-alone novel. It is the story of a summer in the life of Clarissa Delaney as she embarks on a search for her biological father. Her best friend Benji is gay and comes out during the course of the story. He is not the main character, but he is a vivid and believable one—and his coming out is very sensitively handled. This book is sweet, funny, and moving—and it is one of the only Canadian middle grade novels with an LGBTQ character.
This 2006 book may have been the first Canadian young adult novel I read with a gay protagonist. I loved Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and I was thrilled to hear he’d written a novel for teens. This story of a gay 14-year-old boy coming to terms with his sexuality in Sri Lanka is beautifully written, and so vivid and rich in detail and atmosphere that it feels almost dreamlike. This is definitely one for adults as well as teens.
Just out this spring, this is the most recent Canadian YA novel I’ve read with LGBTQ characters. The narrator, Montgomery, lives with her two lesbian moms, who are loving and protective and drive Montgomery crazy with their habit of…well, talking to her. Montgomery’s best friend, Thomas, is gay. And both of them are members of Jefferson High’s Mystery club, which explores strange and unexplained phenomena. The characters are funny, quirky, and endearing; the relationships complex and real; and the issues around religion, family and sexuality make a thought-provoking backdrop in this story for younger teens.
I am a huge fan of Ivan E. Coyote’s writing and story-telling, and deeply admire the anti-bullying work they have done in high schools. So I was over the moon when I heard that Ivan had a book coming out that was aimed at teens. One in Every Crowd is a collection of short pieces drawn from Ivan’s own life. These are true stories about growing up, about being different, about bullying and loneliness and courage and kindness. Some are sad and some are very funny, and throughout the book, Ivan’s love and fierce protectiveness for this next generation of young queer people shines through.
Many people will recognize the pink triangle as a symbol of pride for the gay community, but far too few are aware of its origin as the badge that gay men were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps. This non-fiction book for teens offers a detailed and thoroughly researched history of the persecution of gay men, and the deaths of thousands of them, during Hitler’s regime. It is a chapter of the past that is usually absent from history books for younger readers, and one that is full of stories that need to be heard and remembered.