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Finding a Safe Space (Or, One Family’s Search for Middle Grade LGBTQIA+ Books)

Last fall, at age twelve, our seventh grader told my husband and me that she’s gay. Our first and only priority at the time was to tell her with words, and show her with actions, how much we love her — first, last, and always. So, we found a middle school LGBTQIA+ group for her in a neighboring town. We hassled her middle school into starting its first-ever GSA. We marched in Boston’s Youth Pride Parade last spring.

It was at this parade that I first heard the chant, “Two, four, six, eight, don’t assume your kids are straight!” When I heard it, I thought of Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and the idea that, “White shouldn't be the default any more than straight should be the default. There shouldn't even be a default.”

As a kidlit writer and editor, I wanted to find my daughter stories to read and watch and listen to so that she knew that her experience wasn’t an outlier — that it was her default as well as that of many other kids her age. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been to find these stories. For a young person who’s figuring herself out, what she needed at the time was middle grade novels, not YA. She needed stories about other kids in the same boat — not ones who are older and dealing with romance and more mature situations.

Luckily, there are more LGBTQIA+ middle grade books out there than ever before. So we can heap her reading pile with Kacen Callender, Barbara Dee, Alex Gino, and so many more. We can both watch and then read the wonderful The Legend of Korra television series and comics. We can enjoy the new She-Ra show on Netflix and then dive into show runner Noelle Stevenson’s The Lumberjanes.

And we could discover Ashley Herring Blake’s Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World together. This book was a game changer in our family. First I read the book and then my daughter did. We talked about the story and about Ivy’s journey. We marveled (and cried together) at how beautiful and hopeful it is.

These were important conversations about a book that spoke to her experiences as a kid and gave me insight into what she was going through as she decided whom to come out to, and when and how.

I recently read Charles Dunst’s article in The Atlantic, “When Kids Are Straight Until Proven Otherwise.” In it he said, “pre-GLB kids…should not be forced to wait for adulthood to receive society's permission to be themselves. Instead, they need age-appropriate safe spaces…in which they can come to grips with their otherness.” I thought about those words a lot as I heard about the decision in Kalamazoo, MI, to keep books featuring kids who are LGBTQIA+ and kids with disabilities off the shelves.

And I thought it about as I read the words of a much-beloved kidlit author in support of what amounts to transphobia. We have to do better by our kids.

Books can give kids the safe spaces they need — not just for high school age readers, but for readers of all ages. We, as adults, need to be writing and publishing stories that speak to a wider swath of experiences in terms of gender identity and sexuality. We need to be publishing and promoting the work of LGBTQIA+ authors. And maybe not promoting the ones (even the most famous ones) who aren’t willing to see — or accept — kids for who they truly are.

As for my own family, we keep on searching out those spaces through story. I introduced her to Ashley Herring Blake, and she introduced me to Mariko Tamaki. She has a growing reading pile and we swap books from it. She might not need or want me to read aloud to her anymore, but we’re still reading together — one LGBTQIA+ novel at a time.

See also Middle grade and YA for Pride Month 2019, From the Guide: We Need Middle-Grade LGBTQ+ Novels, and "Looking for Queer Girls on the Shelves" by E. M. Kokie.

Cynthia Platt
Cynthia Platt is the author of two picture books and a consulting editor with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Books for Young Readers.
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Ellen Wittlinger

I know your daughter appreciates everything you're doing for her. Have you read James Howe's wonderful series, The Misfits? So good. I also have one LGBTQ novel for middle-graders called Saturdays with Hitchcock. And, as you know, your daughter has many wonderful LGBTQ YA novels to look forward to!

Posted : Jan 18, 2020 05:02


Margo Bartlett

Cynthia, An excellent essay. Good luck to you and to your courageous daughter. May books always be available to help her, and you, along the way.

Posted : Jan 10, 2020 08:13


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