School Is In: LGBTQ Picture Books

By Elizabeth Gartley

November is Picture Book Month, an international literacy initiative which celebrates print picture books, and picture books are worth celebrating. Picture books are a powerful medium, and they are often the first form of literature that young children enjoy. Even as a middle school librarian who works with young teens, I keep a small collection of picture books in my library. Teachers use picture books to teach about such complex themes as identity, bullying, the immigrant experience, even war. Somehow, the simple combination of story and pictures allows readers to experience and empathize with the lives and feelings of others unlike other forms of storytelling.

Considering the powerful and important role that picture books play in the lives of young readers, it’s no surprise that picture books are also often at the center of controversy. In the late 1950s, The Rabbit’s Wedding by Garth Williams, which features a white rabbit marrying a black rabbit, caused outrage because of the perceived message in support of racial integration and interracial marriage. These days, we most often hear uproar over picture books which focus on gender roles and gender identity or same-sex relationships and families.

Since the early 2000s, as the number of LGBTQ-themed picture books has steadily grown, so have the challenges. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, the true story of two male zoo penguins who raise an adopted chick, was the third most challenged book in the U.S. last year, and was the most challenged book from 2006 to 2008, in 2009 Tango got bumped to second place (by the ttyl series by Lauren Myracle), but was back in the top spot again in 2010. In 2012, Todd Parr’s The Family Book, which celebrates different family structures, was banned in an Illinois school district for the line “some families have two moms or two dads.”

King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, a picture book about two princes who fall in love, made the ALA most challenged book list back in 2003 and 2004 and has continued to be at the center of controversies. In Stuart Biegel’s 2010 book, The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America’s Public Schools, King & King appears in a couple of cases. In one such case in 2006, parents filed lawsuit against a school in Massachusetts after a teacher read the book aloud as part of a unit on weddings (same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004). After the judge dismissed the lawsuit, the parents appealed the case, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of the school.

But even now, after the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling that same-sex marriage cannot be denied by the states, earlier this year in North Carolina, a third-grade teacher, Omar Currie, and vice-principal, Meg Goodhand, ended up resigning in the wake of the controversy that arose after Currie read King & King in his classroom.

While I’m often disappointed that most elementary school libraries are completely lacking in any LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming picture books, I’m not surprised. No one wants to be at the center of such a dispute. But fear of challenges isn’t the only factor which precludes the inclusion of LGBTQ picture books in elementary school libraries. Often, even those who otherwise support LGBTQ inclusion in (high) schools balk at the idea of LGBTQ inclusion in elementary schools or even middle schools, assuming that LGBTQ themes are inherently sexual and therefore inappropriate for young readers. However, there are children who have LGBTQ parents or family members, and there are those students who will grow up to identify as LGBTQ themselves. Educators also see that homophobic bullying and bullying based on gender stereotypes begins in primary school. Omar Currie read King & King in his classroom after seeing that one of his male students had become a target for teasing and bullying when other students viewed the child’s behavior as too feminine for a boy.

Teachers and librarians regularly use picture books to teach about differences and to teach kindness toward others, and our efforts to instill such values cannot preclude a specific group of people or certain types of families. If librarians and teachers can read a picture book to children which features mom and dad characters or a princess falling in love with a prince, without sex coming into the discussion, then the same is true of books with two moms or a prince falling in love with another prince.

Picture books with LGBTQ themes can help challenge gender stereotypes and combat homophobic bullying, and they can provide opportunities to teach about relationships and respecting the differences of others. One of the concerns that seems to pop up around LGBTQ picture books is children having questions about such topics, as though children asking questions is something to be feared. Children may indeed have questions, and in that case, a teaching moment arises that people have differences and all people deserve the same kindness and respect.

LGBTQ picture books also benefit LGBTQ youth themselves. Although most LGBTQ people come out in adolescence or adulthood, many LGBTQ adults recall feeling “different” or separate from their gender group as a child. For those children who feel different or who may grow up to identify as LGBTQ, silence sends a very clear message. If children are only exposed to heteronormative stories and characters, they will learn that anything different is “inappropriate” and bad, and that they themselves are bad.

So OK, LGBTQ picture books are important, but what can librarians do to protect themselves against challenges or even lawsuits? The first step is to ensure that your school district has an up-to-date selection policy for library and classroom materials, this policy should include statements in support of intellectual freedom (such as the Library Bill of Rights), an enumerated non-discrimination clause, and specific protocols for reconsideration.

But well-written policies are only effective if they’re followed. In some cases (such as Currie’s case), school administrators are all too eager to ignore school policy if it helps them avoid controversy. Sometimes even school boards themselves will approve policy, but when a challenge comes, ignore their own policies. Creating and approving the policies is the first step, educating administrators and the school community on the purpose and meaning of such policies is just as important.

In the fall issue of AASL’s Knowledge Quest on intellectual freedom, DaNae Leu, an elementary school librarian wrote about her experience standing up for In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco. During the challenge process, she collaborated with other librarians, and as a result of the challenge, she wrote that she has increased the justification for her acquisitions and regularly refers to the Library Bill of Rights, the Code of Ethics, the Intellectual Freedom Manual, and other resources.

On Wednesday of this week (November 18) ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom is hosting a webinar “Picture Books and Challenges: Dealing with Controversial Topics in Children’s Collections.” The webinar is at 2:00p.m. Eastern and will be hosted by Carolyn Caywood and Peter Coyl and is sponsored by ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Roundtable and Intellectual Freedom Roundtable. This webinar is free to members of GLBTRT and IFRT. $20 for ALA members and $25 for non ALA members. More information at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/picturebookswebinar.

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    Carolyn Caywood

    Thanks for the plug! Some children who are transgender or gender-expansive are coming out in preschool and primary grades now. And if the environment is welcoming more may do so.

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