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The CCBC’s Diversity Statistics: Spotlight on LGBTQ+ Stories

This is the third column in a series examining statistics gathered by the newly expanded database of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (a research library of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education). Previous columns (interviews with CCBC Director Kathleen T. Horning) can be found in the July/August 2017 and March/April 2018 issues.

In 2017, of the approximately 3,700 books we received at the CCBC, we counted 136 — less than 4 percent — with significant LGBTQ+ content. This number includes fiction books with LGBTQ+ primary characters, significant LGBTQ+ secondary characters, and LGBTQ+ families. It also includes nonfiction about LGBTQ+ people or topics, as well as what we’ve dubbed “LGBTQ+ metaphor” books (more on this later).

Breaking the books down into categories, we counted:

  • 16 picture books and board books (2 nonfiction, 14 fiction)
  • 113 fiction books
  • 7 nonfiction books

Considering content across all formats, we counted:

  • 65 books (fiction and nonfiction) with an LGBTQ+ primary character
  • 37 books featuring an LGBTQ+ secondary character without an LGBTQ+ primary character
  • 25 books that included an LGBTQ+ family
  • 4 anthologies with significant LGBTQ+ content
  • 2 LGBTQ+ metaphor books

Picture Books

It is not uncommon for picture books with LGBTQ+ content to feature gender-nonconforming children — usually boys who enjoy wearing dresses or other “feminine” clothing — with plot arcs that tend to focus on how others react to the child’s eschewing traditional modes of gender expression. In Lesléa Newman and Maria Mola’s 2017 picture book Sparkle Boy, for instance, Casey’s older sister, Jessie, disapproves of his penchant for sparkly nail polish and skirts despite his parents’ acceptance of his self-expression. It’s not until a couple of older boys tease Casey at school that Jessie changes her mind about the way Casey likes to dress, defending him and his clothing choices against the bullies. Sparkle Boy is unusual in that it addresses gender identity directly — Casey insists that he is a boy. More often, books focus on the mutability of gender expression and gender roles. And rarely do picture-book plots focus on girls who enjoy wearing “masculine” clothing, likely because it is considered much more acceptable for girls to wear pants than it is for boys to don skirts.

Excepting gender-nonconforming children — whose sexual orientations and gender identities may or may not fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella — all of the LGBTQ+ characters in 2017 picture books were adults. Some of the stories were about children (or, in one case, dogs) with LGBTQ+ family members (or owners), but most were about the diversity of families in general or showcased diverse families in the illustrations. Families, written by Jesse Unaapik Mike and Kerry McCluskey and illustrated by Lenny Lishchenko, is one such book that celebrates “nontraditional” families. The protagonist, Talittuq, lives with his single mother and wishes he had a father who lived at home. On the first day of school, Talittuq encounters other families that deviate from the heteronormative nuclear family: his friend Qaukkai has two adoptive mothers and a biological mother who is involved in her life; his male teacher has a husband and son. It is encouraging to see picture books and board books for young children that are inclusive of families with LGBTQ+ parents and that reflect the reality of many children’s lives without judgment, although more picture books about children who are explicitly queer or questioning their gender identity would be welcome.

Also falling into the picture book category are “LGBTQ+ metaphor” books, which introduce young children to concepts such as nonbinary identities or finding one’s community but don’t actually mention gender identity or sexual orientation. The stories can be interpreted widely, but they readily call to mind experiences that are familiar to LGBTQ+ persons. Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima is the story of Kelp, a unicorn who was born into a family of narwhals in the ocean. When he spots another unicorn on the shore one day, Kelp realizes that there’s a whole community of creatures just like him out there, other unicorns who take Kelp under their wings and teach him about queer — or rather, unicorn — culture. When Kelp returns to his narwhal friends to tell them that he is, in fact, a unicorn, they accept him whole-heartedly, and Kelp learns that there is room for him to be both a “land narwhal” and a “sea unicorn,” and to enjoy time with both communities.

Other picture books include queer characters — often just in the illustrations — without commenting on their sexual orientations. In David Hyde Costello’s Little Pig Saves the Ship, for instance, Little Pig’s two grandfathers Grandpa and Poppy appear to be a couple. Christiane Engel’s illustrations in Stella Blackstone and Sunny Scribens’s board book Baby’s First Words feature a family of three: two dads and their daughter as they go about their day. Such books allow LGBTQ+ families to see themselves in stories that aren’t explicitly about being LGBTQ+.

Fiction

More than three-quarters of the LGBTQ+ books we received in 2017 were fiction, and of these, most were for teens. We received very little LGBTQ+ fiction for middle-grade readers (two being Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee and The Pants Project by Cat Clarke). The lack of this literature is unfortunate, as children in upper elementary and middle school are often beginning to question their sexual orientations or gender identities, and some even begin the coming-out process at that age (as I did). LGBTQ+ young adult books, on the other hand, run the gamut from traditional coming-out narratives (such as It’s Not like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura) to science fiction novels with protagonists who just happen to be queer (such as Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller). The ones that most successfully represent LGBTQ+ experiences, in my opinion, incorporate a character’s sexual orientation or gender identity into the narrative; such identities should be neither a sole defining feature of a character or plot nor a throwaway detail. Like Water by Rebecca Podos, for example, does this exceptionally: after high school, Vanni works in her family’s restaurant and helps care for her father, who has Huntington’s disease. As she agonizes over whether or not to get tested for the Huntington’s gene, she meets and begins dating Leigh, who, unbeknownst to Vanni, is also about to discover something life-changing about herself. Thus, the plot of Like Water neither ignores nor focuses solely on Vanni’s sexuality; it’s smoothly woven into a larger arc.

Nonfiction

Although we counted only a small number of nonfiction books about LGBTQ+ topics in 2017, those we did receive covered a wide variety of subjects. There were books about contemporary and historical people and events (Sarah Prager’s Queer, There and Everywhere; Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus), self-help guides (Transphobia: Deal with It and Be a Gender Transcender by J Wallace Skelton), anthologies (Rookie on Love: 45 Voices on Romance, Friendship, and Self-Care; Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology), and picture-book biographies. Disappointingly, the two picture-book biographies we received — about Martina Navratilova and Keith Haring — do not mention the subjects’ sexual orientations within the main narrative.

Specific Identities

Finally, we took a closer look at the 65 LGBTQ+ primary characters in an effort to examine how often specific identities are represented. We counted the following:

  • 17 cisgender lesbian characters
  • 15 cisgender gay characters
  • 16 cisgender bisexual characters
  • 11 transgender characters (including nonbinary gender identities)
  • 5 questioning characters
  • 1 cisgender asexual character

It may be the case that non-LGBTQ+ book creators do not feel qualified or knowledgeable enough about LGBTQ+ experiences to write books about LGBTQ+ characters, especially those with identities that are not often discussed in mainstream media or culture — a legitimate concern, considering the importance of authentic representation. This could help explain the dearth of titles about, for instance, asexual or nonbinary characters, as shown above. Looking at the characters’ identities broken down in this way begins to shed light on the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community and the need for more LGBTQ+ books and LGBTQ+ book creators who can write authentic stories about underrepresented identities. In 2017 there may have been 65 books about LGBTQ+ protagonists from which to choose, but if you’re an asexual reader looking at a single book with an asexual protagonist, the numbers feel much bleaker.

To the best of our ability at the CCBC, we keep tabs on which authors and illustrators identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community in an effort to identify Own Voices stories. Many book creators make this information publicly available through their websites, social media accounts, or interviews. In 2017, we determined that 56 (about 41%) of the books with significant LGBTQ+ content had a creator with an identity that exists somewhere within the spectrum of LGBTQ+ identities.

However, as Corinne Duyvis, who coined the #OwnVoices hashtag, notes on her website, specificity is essential when discussing Own Voices. We can try to identify a universal queer experience or basic experiences to which all, or nearly all, LGBTQ+ people can relate. Most of us come out at some point(s) in our lives. Most of us experience the realization, whether sudden or gradual, that we are queer. But in my opinion, these common experiences are not enough to automatically qualify a book as Own Voices. Queerness is not a monolith — indeed, no identity is. A cisgender lesbian and a transgender man may both have identities that fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, but they have different lived experiences.

We weren’t able to determine whether each and every character’s specific sexual orientation and/or gender identity matched up with that of their author, although we know that many of the books with LGBTQ+ primary characters did. A person’s experience of queerness and gender identity, though, is also affected by and connected to countless other factors related to their identity, environment, and life experiences — race, ethnicity, (dis)ability, socioeconomic status, age, and more. Most of the books we received were written by white authors and were about white characters. What about LGBTQ+ readers from other, marginalized communities? Is a shared LGBTQ+ identity enough for them to see themselves in the character? As a teen, I connected with authors and characters who shared my identities (white, queer, middle class). Before I knew what it meant to be queer, before I knew any other queer people, I trusted those books to guide me forward. I had the privilege of having books (especially Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters and Empress of the World by Sara Ryan) in which I could see myself. All young readers need and deserve books that reflect not only their sexual orientations and gender identities but their intersecting identities as well.

As we continue to expand our data collection at the CCBC in 2018 and beyond, I am eager to gather more specific data about LGBTQ+ characters’ intersecting identities, and I look forward to seeing more LGBTQ+ and intersectional identities authentically represented in books written by people who share those identities with their characters.

From the November/December 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Madeline Tyner About Madeline Tyner

Madeline Tyner is a librarian at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a research library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She reviews LGBTQ+ children’s and YA books on her podcast, Reading the Rainbow.

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