What Banned Books Can Teach Us: Building an LGBTQ Picture Book Library for Pride
Jess deCourcy Hinds on Finding Stories For Her Queer Family
This year, I’m celebrating Pride through LGBTQ children’s books. I’m building a new library for my two kids and wife Stefanie, who is trans and transitioned just two years ago. We began with Being You: A First Conversation About Gender (Penguin, 2021) and a pride alphabet book, Pride Puppy (Orca, 2021). These loving, age-appropriate celebrations of creative gender expression and different kinds of families communicate universal life lessons of loving oneself and others. As I stack towers of books around me, I feel as if I’m building a rainbow book fortress of protection around my queer family.
Stefanie and I didn’t grow up with such beautiful books. When Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman was published in 1989, we were 9 and 10 years old and already onto chapter books. We both remember the controversy around the book, but not the story itself. When we bought it, Heather felt like a long overdue gift. As we snuggle with our children and read the story, we flip through the sun-filled, watercolor-washed illustrations. The children featured in this book are chubby, muddy, messy, and very real, and the narration has a soothing cadence.
Heather’s favorite number is two. She has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two hands, and two feet. Heather has two pets: a ginger-colored cat named Gingersnap and a big black dog named Midnight. Heather also has two mommies…
I’m a former school librarian who currently teaches children’s literature to MLS students at the Graduate School for Library and Information Studies at Queens College in New York City. When I teach future librarians about what makes a good picture book, I always say that the narration must contain an authentic child’s viewpoint, and the story should not be didactic. Newman’s book takes us through a preschool child’s routine, bursting with fingerpaint and everyday epiphanies. Gender is in fact a very subtle feature of the story.
When Heather’s classmate asks, “What does your father do?” there is a moment of reckoning (she wonders: “Am I the only one without a father?”) but it’s hardly a crisis. The classroom scene captures an experience so many kids will relate to, whether they have single, widowed or divorced parents, incarcerated parents, or are being raised by grandparents or other guardians. We must remember that our culture used to ostracize children of divorce too, but that has gradually become more widely accepted. Newman’s book reminds us that families and love can exist in many forms and configurations.
When my four-year-old swiped through the ebook version of Pride Puppy, on my phone, she was far more concerned about the missing puppy lost in the hubbub than she was about anyone’s sexuality. In this alphabet book by Robin Stevenson, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin, we follow a family through their first Pride parade. My kid loved the sweep of colorful flags and the noisy chaos of it. Kids love stories where everyone belongs, and no one is excluded. That kind of world feels natural to them. As Stevenson writes, “E [is] for everyone under the sun,” and “K [is] for kindness.” These books don’t indoctrinate our children into being anything—except compassionate.Writers, librarians and educators have put themselves on the line so that my own queer family can feel safer.
From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea by Kai Cheng Thom, illustrated by Wai-Yant Li and Kai Yun Ching (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017), is a love song from a mother to a child. The child doesn’t fit gender norms, but the author doesn’t use terms like nonbinary or intersex. The child’s gender fluidity is viewed as a magical aspect of their personality:
Miu Lan grew up to be a strange, magical child who was always changing. They grew feathers and wings to fly with bluebirds in the mornings, scales and a tail to swim with fish in the afternoons, and fur and paws to play with puppies in the evenings.
The watery wash of saturated watercolor—aqua and plum with flecks and bursts of gold—and the figure of a child with fur, horns and wings, make this book ethereal. The child’s wild mischievousness, reminiscent of Max in the Where the Wild Things Are, perfectly balances the earnestness of the mother’s song that pulses through the story like rhythmic ocean waves: “Whatever you dream of, I believe you can be, from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea…”
Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, and illustrated by Mike Curato (Baltzer + Bray, 2016), is a wholly enjoyable book about two worms who fall in love but face practical challenges, such as finding wedding rings when they lack fingers. The solution: wear the rings as belts.
When the officious Cricket tells the worms how things “have always been done,” with cake, hats and flowers, Worm answers: “But we don’t have heads for hats… or hands to hold flowers. ‘And we only eat dirt.’” Why was this adorable book ever banned? My ten-year-old was wondering the same thing until she reached the page where the worms say they don’t know who the bride or the groom will be—so they will both be brides, and both be grooms. (The book doesn’t state this, but worms are natural hermaphrodites, so the story is realistic). The book leaves me a warm afterglow of laughter and humor. I am perplexed that something so innocuous could cause an uproar in schools, which have many other urgent concerns these days.
As I continue collecting new LGBTQ books, I’ve noticed some patterns emerging. Gender creative books tend to be more culturally diverse than heteronormative ones. In The Boy and The Bindi by Vivek Shraya and illustrated by Rajni Perera (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016), a boy dreams of wearing a bindi on his forehead like his mother (the bindi is traditionally worn by women). Although the author doesn’t articulate that the child is crossing a gender boundary, there are hints, including a scene where children on the playground seem curious or unsettled by the boy’s bindi. The spare pages include geometrical watercolor patterns drawn from Indian fabrics, and sweeping, swirling spreads of the boy interacting with his mother. At the conclusion, the boy has discovered how his bindi represents spirituality, love and identity:
Well, bindi is like my third eye
Watching over me all the time
Making sure I don’t hide
Everything I am inside
And everything that I can be.
What I want my children to learn from LGBTQ books is that there are countless ways to exist in the world peacefully. I’m proud to be queer, but I honestly do not want to influence my children or students to be queer. No book can make you gay. But a book can uplift people who may feel excluded or marginalized for a wide variety of reasons—not just because of sexuality or gender identity. Children who are finding their voices, whether or not they will grow up to be straight or cis, queer or trans, need these books.After years of brutal fighting, I can understand why some challenged authors do not want to talk about censorship in interviews.
Children’s literature has not yet embraced disability inclusion very smoothly, but I noticed in Pride Puppy and Being You: A First Conversation about Gender that disabled characters are incorporated in a seamless and respectful way. This is rarely the case in heteronormative books.
In My Rainbow (2020), illustrated by Art Twink, was co-authored by a mother-daughter pair, Trinity and DeShanna Neal, is based on Trinity’s experience of transitioning at age four. Trinity, a Black, transgender girl with autism who is now 20 wrote about her desire for fabulous hair as a preschooler. The main arc of the story is Trinity searches for hair that represents who she really is (and won’t tickle her neck and cause sensory discomfort). When her mom makes her a magenta and turquoise curls exploding with flowers, she’s overjoyed and walks with her head high.
The Neals’ book was included on a list of 850 books that Texas state representative Matt Krause recommended banning from schools in 2021 because they might make students feel “discomfort… about their race or sex.” Which children was he referring to? He was clearly ignoring the fact that the book was about a Black child comfortable in her own skin.
Like many progressive librarians and educators living in a liberal state like New York, I actually find banned book lists helpful—and use them to build lesson plans and choose books. I check these lists as regularly as the National Book Award or Caldecott Award pages for ideas of what books to read and teach. But my ardent hope is that these lists will disappear. Book banning shouldn’t exist in a democracy.
My fellow librarians and dear author friends have received death threats over censorship. If books are so powerful to the people who make threats, why don’t they just read? If books are so important, why not fund more libraries and schools? Why are our literacy rates so poor? According to an article about Gallup poll analysis data from the U.S. of Education of this year, “54% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 read at a level below that of the sixth grade.” I am afraid this will get worse.
When I spoke with Sarah Prager, an author who has produced a small library of LGBTQ children’s histories, from picture books to YA over the last five years, she described a major, recent shift in our cultural landscape.
When Prager published her first work of YA narrative nonfiction, Queer, There and Everywhere: 20 People Who Changed the World, in 2017, she expected some backlash. But instead, she mostly received fan mail. The opposition to her work didn’t really begin until 2021, when the Texas legislature included Queer, There and Everywhere and Rainbow Revolutionaries on the same list of 850 banned books as Trinity Neal’s. “And that kicked things off,” Prager says. “The 2020s are terrifying,” she said. What scares her most is that these book bans go hand in hand with movements to block other citizens’ rights, such as access to trans and queer medical care.
When I gently asked Prager how this hateful climate impacted her life as a writer, she peered up at the ceiling, thinking long and hard. It was the longest silence I’ve ever experienced in an interview. We moved onto a different question. After years of brutal fighting, I can understand why some challenged authors do not want to talk about censorship in interviews. They need to preserve their energy for fighting—and writing.
When I reached out to Kyle Lukoff, a Stonewall and Newbery winner, and National Book Award Finalist who has also authored numerous children’s and middle grade books including Too Bright to See (2021) and When Aiden Became a Big Brother (2019), he also graciously declined to be interviewed on the bans. Instead, he invited me to quote from his pinned 2022 Twitter thread in which he explained his reluctance to speak on the subject.
I’m not the first to note how “banned books” has tidily replaced “diversity” as a way to silo marginalized authors away from discussing our craft, making us serve, again, only as emissaries of our people.
It’s crucial to talk about the movement to ban books…but I’m sick about always talking about what my enemies are doing, and wish I could just talk about what I’m doing, who my characters are, what stories I’m bringing into the world.
Lukoff’s 2022 Stonewall Award acceptance speech grappled with hate and censorship and he has spoken out against banning in many public forums. But he needs to be a writer and author as well as an activist. We all need to step up and defend books—not just the authors.
I want to acknowledge to Lukoff, Prager, and all of my favorite queer authors how much they have sacrificed by producing these books. Writers, librarians and educators have put themselves on the line so that my own queer family can feel safer. And for this, my friends, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.