Determining the best books every gay-straight alliance (GSA) should have is an impossible feat. As a queer educator, I have spent lots of time thinking about children’s literature. Consequently, I have A LOT of thoughts on the subject and tons of recommendations. Making this list was super fun and incredibly difficult because I had a terrible time narrowing the list down.
Thanks to the tireless work of queer people and allies, and despite the best efforts of bigots everywhere, the world has become a safer place for young people who identify as queer. In fact, more teens are openly identifying as LGBTQ than ever before. Many factors attribute to this reported increase, including increased awareness, acceptance, and resources for people who are exploring their gender identity and/or sexuality.
Research shows that children develop a sense of their gender identity by the time they’re about 4 years old. They tend to become sure of their sexual orientation by age 10. These children and all children need books that reflect gender diversity so that they are prepared to thrive in a diverse world.
While there are still significant diversity gaps in publishing, the industry has become more queer-friendly. Since the first queer young adult book was published in 1969, the number of YA books featuring queer characters has grown from roughly one a year in the 1970s to 50+ titles a year more recently. Additionally, the last few years have seen a rapid increase in LGBTQ representation in children’s books overall.
These books can be used to normalize and make visible the presence of queer identities in our world. For GSA groups, literature can be a tool to educate and spark discussion. This not-at-all-comprehensive list is comprised of books every GSA should have.
Books Every Elementary School GSA Should Have
You Need to Chill by Juno Dawson and Laura Hughes
I love this sassy debut about love and family. In it, all the kids at school speculate wildly about the protagonist’s “missing” brother. They wonder if Bill was abducted by aliens or eaten by a shark. It turns out, however, that Bill isn’t lost, she’s found her true identity and is now Lily. It’s full of silliness and rhymes and colorful, interesting illustrations.
Pride Puppy! by Robin Stevenson and Julie McLaughlin
Alphabet books are surprisingly difficult to get right. Too often, they are simply a list of disconnected objects or concepts around a general theme, and aren’t very exciting. Pride Puppy! is a pleasant exception to that trend. It teaches about LGBTQ topics through a fun and realistic story of a family trying to get everyone, including a rambunctious puppy, to and through a Pride parade. Parents and children alike will be amused by the story, and even more so by the intricate illustrations that invite readers to search for objects matching each page’s dedicated letter.
They, She, He Easy as ABC by Maya Christina Gonzalez and Matthew SG
This is another alphabet book done well. Impressively, the authors not only tell a story through the alphabet, they do so with rhyming text that doesn’t feel forced. It’s a beautifully inclusive book about dance and joy.
Melissa by Alex Gino
This is one of those important books that paved the way for better queer representation in children’s literature. Like Totally Joe, it might be a little dated, but is still a very important and worthwhile read. It tells the story of Melissa, a 3rd grader who wants to be Charlotte in her class play of Charlotte’s Web. She knows all the lines and delivers them better than anyone else, but her teacher won’t cast her in the role because everyone sees Melissa as a boy. Melissa eventually finds her voice and the courage to tell people who she is, reminding us all to own our truths no matter what others see or say.
One of A Kind, Like Me/Único Como Yo by Laurin Mayeno and Robert Liu-Trujillo
This bilingual book is a must-have for elementary school GSAs. It follows Danny, a boy who wants to be a princess for his school’s costume parade. Based on a true story of the author’s child, One of A Kind, Like Me reminds readers that children (and adults) don’t have to conform to gendered expectations.
Max and the Talent Show by Kyle Lukoff and Luciano Lozano
In Call Me Max, the amazing Kyle Lukoff explored gender identity and gender expression in age-appropriate and engaging ways. Max quickly learned that gender is not about liking “boy stuff” and disliking “girl stuff.” His friend Stephen loves wearing dresses and Teresa loves catching bugs but Stephen is still a boy and Teresa is still a girl. In this sequel, Max helps Stephen shine in a big talent show. I appreciate that this book series has books that are clearly good for teaching LGBTQ topics, and others that are just about kids being kids no matter how they identify.
My Maddy by Gayle E. Pittman and Violet Tobacco
Talking about families is a big part of elementary school. Thus, it is imperative that schools normalize all types of families. Books like Stella Brings the Family and In Our Mothers’ House beautifully represent families with two parents of the same gender. This book features a single, nonbinary parent and all the loving, normal, parental things they do.
Federico and All His Families by Mili Hernández and Gómez
This is another sweet book about families where the queerness is normal and incidental. Federico the cat is one of those adorable neighborhood kitties who wanders from home to home soaking up the love and treats. Among the families he visits, there are kids with two dads, kids with two moms, kids being raised by grandparents, and kids with a mom and dad in the home.
Other recommendations for books every elementary GSA should have:
- My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis
- Annie’s Plaid Shirt by Stacy B. Davids
- Grandad’s Camper by Harry Woodgate
- Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders
- Bodies are Cool by Tyler Feder
Books Every Middle School GSA Should Have
Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender
Middle school kids will definitely relate to this award-winning book by the incomparable Kacen Callender. Caroline is 12 years old and unlucky, which everyone believes is because she was born during a hurricane. She’s bullied at school, a spirit no one else can see is relentlessly following her, and her mother abandoned her. Caroline’s luck begins to change when she meets her first crush, newcomer Kalinda.
The Best At It by Maulik Pancholy
Rahul Kapoor is a 7th grade, Indian American boy who lives in Indiana. He’s a funny, endearing character you can’t help but root for as he navigates middle school, cultural norms, his sexuality, and his neurodivergence, despite the challenges of being different in a small, homogeneous community. Rahul decides to be the best at something so that he can become cool by middle school standards — even though the things he tries are very much things that he is far from good at. However, with his best friend and supportive grandfather, he figures it all out.
Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff
Obviously, Kyle Lukoff is a favorite of mine. Consequently, I think all of his books should be staples of every GSA. I had a really hard time deciding between this title and his other award-winning middle grades novel Too Bright to See, but decided on the more recent release. Different Kinds of Fruit is an American Library Association 2023 Rainbow Book, one of NPR’s and Kirkus’ Best Books of 2022, a Parents Best Books of 2022, and has been praised through other organizations I don’t have space to list. It follows a 6th grader dealing with the revelation that her dad is trans, while she also learns from a new friend that gender identity and sexual orientation are more complex than the boxes she’s used to.
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Like some of the books I mentioned for elementary GSAs, this is a story where the queerness is mostly incidental. Johnson packs mystery, relatable family drama, issues of race and sexuality, and puzzle-solving into this engaging story. Follow friends Candice and Brandon as they attempt to solve a decades-old mystery that will clear the name of Candice’s disgraced grandmother. Also, maybe they’ll find buried treasure? There’s something for everyone in this story that’ll keep readers hooked until the very end.
Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow
There’s a lot of relatable middle school angst in this endearing story of a weird girl embracing her weirdness. Hazel is forced to change schools and thus has to find her place in an entirely new ecosystem. As a kid who lives on a farm full of wonky animals with her two moms, she doesn’t exactly fit in easily. There’s a surprising amount of heart, realistic meditations on grief and family, and a lot of new information all rolled up in this book. Bonus points for ace and trans representation done effortlessly well.
An Eighth Grade Gay Straight Alliance by Daniel Micko
Based on the title alone, this is definitely a book every GSA should have! Brooklyn and Sydney grew up together in a dull, surprisingly conservative California town. Unexpectedly, the two get to know one another better and fall in love. Now, these two queer Muslim girls of color are determined to make their community a better place for themselves and others like them.
Other recommendations for books every middle school GSA should have:
Books Every High School GSA Should Have
The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jacqueline Woodson is a national treasure and all of her books should be in every school library. She writes across audiences and everything from her picture books to adult novels are absolute gold. The House You Pass on the Way is the story of Stagerlee, a biracial girl who maybe likes girls and is trying to figure out where she fits in the world. Your high school GSA will be able to relate.
Aces Wild by Amanda Dewitt
There’s generally not enough asexual representation in the queer cannon, but books like this are changing that. In this fun, action-packed story, your high schoolers will meet a group of asexual friends who met through online forums. The main character, Jack, runs a secret blackjack ring in his private school’s basement — and that’s only the beginning of this chaotic casino heist tale. Hopefully, the members of your GSA won’t start gambling after reading.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
This bestseller has high school GSA written all over it. It has the drama of the girl who can’t believe she’s been chosen by the most popular kid in school. Of course, as the title indicates, it’s not the most stable or healthy relationship. Ultimately, the main character and readers learn the importance of loving yourself enough to let go of toxic people and relationships.
Anger Is A Gift By Mark Oshiro
Oshiro’s debut novel features an engaging cast of characters with a wide array of intersectional identities. Main character Moss Jeffries and his friends represent multiple marginalized identities: Black, Latine, disabled, Muslim, asexual, nonbinary, gay, lesbian. Most importantly, though, Oshiro deals honestly with how to navigate and embrace the righteous anger that comes with being othered.
Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
The members of your GSA probably know this title, given its queer classic status, movie adaptation, and spinoff television series. Simon is a relatable teen with a great supporting cast of friends and family. Unfortunately, when Simon’s private correspondence with a boy he likes falls into the wrong hands, he finds himself being blackmailed. He has to help his jerky classmate with his romantic goals or be outed. It’s a perfect story for sparking discussions about bullying, allyship, and inclusion.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
You simply cannot go wrong with Elizabeth Acevedo. Every single book she writes absolutely slaps. This story follows Xiomara, a Black Latine teen with a fighting spirit. Her zealously religious mother doesn’t understand her and tries to tame her at every turn. Her closest friend — her twin brother — is distant and secretive, struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. Everyone wants her to be quiet and invisible, but in her poetry notebook she gets to speak out. It’s a beautiful and empowering read with poignant commentary on gender norms, religion, and family.
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
I will never stop recommending this book. There’s a lot for your high school GSA to discuss in this beautifully crafted story about being nonbinary in a transphobic, heteronormative world. I wasn’t ready for it to end because I didn’t know if the main character, Riley, was okay. For teens, this book addresses cyber bullying and other such relevant issues in a way that should be helpful as they navigate similar spaces. It’s not necessarily a gentle story, by any means, but it’s a must-read.
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
I will also never stop recommending this book. It is hands down one of the best LGBTQ books for high schoolers EVER. When Liz Lighty doesn’t get the prestigious scholarship she was counting on, she has to find another way to pay for college. Thus, our reluctant heroine is forced into the spotlight, joining the over-the-top town traditions around electing the prom court. Unfortunately, her elite high school and the surrounding community don’t take kindly to those outside the norm. Liz and the edgy new girl she quickly falls for, represent all that the townsfolk fear and despise. Liz’s journey is touching, hilarious, and relatable.
This list includes plenty of great books, but if you’re looking for more queer kid lit, Book Riot has you covered. Check out these posts for more recommendations:
- 9 Great New Queer Middle Grade Books (+3 To Preorder for 2023!)
- 11 LGBTQ Books Every High School Library Should Have
- A Plethora of Pride: 25+ LGBTQ Books for Teens
- Reading the Rainbow: Books and Lessons Learned From an LGBTQ-Inclusive Book Club for Teachers
- Saying It Louder for the People in the Back: Kids NEED Queer Books
- Pride Is Nearly Here: New LGBTQ+ Picture Books