Saying It Louder for the People in the Back: Kids NEED Queer Books

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Mikkaka Overstreet

Senior Contributor

Mikkaka Overstreet is from Louisville, Kentucky by way of Saginaw “Sagnasty”, Michigan. She has been an educator since 2006 and earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction in 2015. By day she is a mild-mannered literacy specialist. By night she sleeps. In between, she daydreams, writes fiction, and reads books. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband and cats.

Kids need queer books. Adults need queer books. The following humans need queer books:

  • Queer kids and adults
  • Folx who might be queer
  • People who are not queer
  • Kids and other folx who have queer friends and family members
  • People who don’t know they have queer friends and family members

So, to recap, ALL kids need queer books. In fact, all adults need queer books. EVERYONE NEEDS QUEER BOOKS. Unfortunately, it seems there are people who still haven’t gotten the memo. Recently Meryl Wilsner, author of Something to Talk About, tweeted that they were uninvited to a library event because their book is queer. Wilsner clarified that the decision was made by the county commissioner who threatened the library’s funding if they hosted a queer event.

Wilsner isn’t the first author banned or uninvited from libraries or schools because of their LBGTQ content. They join authors like Robin Stevenson, Jen-Petro Roy, Barbara Dee, and Phil Bildner (who was uninvited from a school for recommending Alex Gino’s George). As a matter of fact, 80% of the most challenged children’s books in 2020 featured LGBTQ characters. Eight of the ten most challenged titles featured LGBTQ content, meaning that depicting queer characters is viewed by some as being as “bad” as “vulgarity,” “sexual overtones,” and “witchcraft.”

Alright, I’m taking a deep breath. I’m sure the overuse of quotation marks in the previous paragraph indicates how I feel about all of that. Fortunately, I am a teacher and I’m going to take advantage of this teachable moment. Let’s bust some myths about queer books.

3 Myths About Queer Books

I have been an educator for nearly 20 years. I have a PhD in literacy instruction. I’ve taught children, adults, and now work with pre-service and in-service teachers. Since I spend so much of my time thinking about children’s literacy, writing and researching on the topic, and generally keeping up with related discourse, I have A LOT of thoughts.

Thus, please keep in mind that this is a summary and there is a great deal of information available on every point I make. I’ll continue to link relevant information throughout. Now let’s explore some common myths.

Myth #1: Queer Books Are Inappropriate for Children

This is one of the most common arguments I hear against including queer books in the elementary grades. When I dig deeper into that argument, people say things about not introducing sex or sexuality to children.

First of all, we already introduce children to these concepts from birth, we simply do it in heteronormative ways. We start by confusing gender identity and biological sex with silly genitalia reveal parties. This sort of gender conditioning continues with casual behaviors like claiming an infant is “flirting” with the pretty server at the restaurant.

By the time kids reach kindergarten, they’ve heard plenty of (hetero) talk about boyfriends and girlfriends, princesses marrying princes, and what shows, toys, clothes, and books are for boys and which are for girls. Parents chuckle about their little boyfriends or girlfriends; kids get pretend married on the playground. It’s all fun and games as long as everyone is straight-presenting and conforming to gender norms.

The truth is, 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. Children are thinking and talking about gender identity, sexual orientation, and attraction. When we deprive them of books that reflect gender and sexual diversity, we are silencing LGBTQ students and families and sending a clear message about who is valued and who isn’t. We teach who is “normal” and who is “taboo.”

The world is full of queer people. Reading about queer people helps prepare us all for living in a diverse world.

Myth #2: I Don’t Know Any Queer People/I Don’t Have Any Queer Students

This one always amazes me. Whether it’s adults talking about representation in their own reading choices, or teachers thinking about their classroom libraries, this argument for avoiding queer books is simply untrue. Usually, I get to tell people, “well you know me now and I’m bi,” but even without knowing me, this is a myth.

You know queer people. They may not be out or they may not be out to you, but they’re in your life. A 2019 study estimated that roughly 11.3 million adults in the United States identified as LGBTQ. A 2017 teen health survey indicated that 1.3 million teenagers in the U.S. identified as LGBTQ. Additionally, 2–3.7 million children are currently being raised by LGBTQ parents.

According to acclaimed literacy scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, “Literature functions as a major socializing agent. It tells students who and what their society and culture values…and what it means to be a decent human being.” Bishop’s approach to books as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors is highly respected among educators. Reading LGBTQ-inclusive literature allows LGBTQ students and those with LGBTQ families to see mirrors of their own lives reflected back to them, while giving other students windows into these experiences.

Queer literacy education scholars Drs. Caitlin Ryan, Christina Tschida, and Anne Ticknor, among others, consider “window” books as essential for disrupting “single stories”. Rather than seeing queer people as other, one-dimensional, or caricatures, non-queer readers can use books to help them recognize queer students and families as complex human beings, just like themselves. Additionally, with increased exposure to inclusive literature over time, students would experience interruptions to the single story of heteronormative school curricula.

So, to sum all this up, you know queer people. Your kids know queer people. It’s past time to stop erasing us.

Myth #3: Queer Books Will Indoctrinate Kids

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Have you met kids? It is difficult to get them to do what you want on a good day. You really think we can indoctrinate them?

Jokes aside, you’re born queer. Nobody chooses to be queer and nobody turns anyone queer. Reading queer books won’t change that.

Queer books can change lives, however. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), having just one visibly supportive educator in a school can ensure that LGBTQ students feel safe, welcomed, and encouraged to learn. For the one in eight elementary school students who are bullied for not conforming to gender norms, queer books and other books that challenge gender stereotypes can teach them and their peers to rethink gender biases.

Schools are places where heterosexuality is consistently portrayed as the only recognized, acceptable way to create relationships. This makes schools unsafe and unwelcoming for the majority of LGBTQ-identified students, impacting their educational success and general well-being, including a significantly increased risk of attempted suicide. Attending a school with inclusive curriculum means students are less likely to hear homophobic remarks often or frequently, are less likely to miss school or feel unsafe at school, and feel more connected to their school community.

Queer people need queer books to counteract the harmful messages they receive daily. Straight, cisgender people need queer books to disrupt those same messages — whether they are the ones sending such messages, or simply not questioning them. We all need diverse books. We all need queer books.