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We Can Be Heroes The Importance of LGBTQ2+ Stories for LGBTQ2+ Kids.

When I was in my mid 20s in 2014, I watched an animated show on Nickelodeon that was aimed at tweens and teens. In the series finale's last few minutes, the main character ends up almost literally walking off into the sunset with another girl. In 2019 this hopefully doesn't sound shocking to anyone, but at the time I was in literal disbelief, unable to believe what I saw on my TV (okay, on my MacBook at 2:00 AM in the morning as soon as the episode was released). There were not many cases of a main character on a children's show being LGBTQ2+, something that has changed (thankfully) in the past years. Looking back, I am in disbelief for another reason: How could I, an adult, be shocked at seeing a character that was like me on TV? How had I gotten to this point?

Growing up in the late '90s and early 2000s, I wasn't able to read books about anyone like me. At least, anyone like me in one respect--girls who liked other girls, or even boys who liked others boys. Homophobia was everywhere in the language people used around me and censorship was prevalent in the Catholic school I attended from the ages of four to 14. In 1999, a parent complained about my class reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and we had to stop mid book. In 2008, my eighth-grade teacher banned the Gossip Girl books. Books that did have LGBTQ2+ characters in them would never have been kept in my school's library, which was very '80s centric even in the 2000s. Were there LGBTQ2+ books available at this time? Of course, but none were available or even known to me.

In my teenage years, things changed. I started using the internet more and spent more time at the public library, ignoring my school's small collection. Although I was now able to find books featuring LGBTQ2+ characters, the emphasis was definitely on the L and the G. Bisexual and transgender characters were rarely seen in the books I read up until the 2010s. These books were also lacking people of colour, something that is still a problem in 2019. Still, I found great books that I finally related to. Rainbow Boys was released in 2001 and came into my hands around 2004. The book told the story of three teenage boys coming of age and coming out, and at the time it was ground-breaking in its depiction of queer teens. Around the same time, I read A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, which featured a secondary character who was a lesbian. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series featured a minor gay character named Leslie, but in retrospect there was a very-special-episode feel to the plotline. I loved Annie on My Mind, which, unfortunately, was not available in my school's library despite its 1980s origins. But, as much as I loved this teenage romance which ultimately ends happily, the fact that the two lesbian teachers lost their jobs was an obvious downer in a time when I needed not only representation in general, but representation that made me feel good about myself. A popular trope that still lives on today and was even more prevalent 15 years ago was "Bury Your Gays", which has origins from the 1930s Hays Code, when censorship boards would only allow a gay character to appear on screen if there was a moral lesson in the end. This meant that they would often die, be declared insane or something of the like. One of the first LGBTQ2+ movies I ever saw fit this trope: it was called The Children's Hour and starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Unfortunately, I was being handed "Bury Your Gays" when I could have used "Marry Your Gays" or even "Vary Your Gays." This is probably why, when I ask friends what the first LGBTQ2+ story they read was, the common answer is fanfiction. To be more specific, Harry Potter fanfiction. Most of what we were reading was written by kids and teens our age, telling the sort of stories that the original works didn't include; stories that brought teenage wizards and their magical worlds a little closer to us.

If I wanted to only ever read LGBTQ2+ books for young people today, I could do so indefinitely. Every year the Canadian Children's Book Centre does a reading list for Pride month and it's getting more and more difficult to pick which books to include. While my old school library didn't have a single book that even hinted that gay people existed, my current workplace is home to every single LGBTQ2+ book for young people written in Canada. The contrast couldn't be greater.

Where are we now?

Many of the old problems, such as a lack of transgender characters and a lack of people of colour, are still problems today. At the same time, these books have come a long way since the time of minor background characters and tragic endings.

So, what am I reading now? Here are some recent favourite Canadian books for young people that are LGBTQ2+.

Family Affair

All children should be able to read books about families that resemble their own. The idea that books about LGBTQ2+ families are inappropriate for children deems some children's own lives and families inappropriate. Luckily, there are so many great places to start with even young children. My Mommy, My Mama, My Brother, and Me by Natalie Meisner and illustrated by Mathilde Cinq-Mars is a sweet and simple story of two boys who spend the day at the sea with their mothers, looking for treasures left in the sand. I love the watercolour illustrations and the refrain that frames the story: "And these are the things we find by the sea / My mommy, my mama, my brother, and me."

The Adventures of Esther the Wonder Pig by Steve Jenkins, Derek Walter, Caprice Crane and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld is based on the real adventures of Esther and her two dads, who have their whole life turned upside down when the mini-pig they adopted turns out to not be so mini after all. A Plan for Pops by Heather Smith, illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan, is a heartwarming story of a boy and his two grandfathers and the plan Grandad and Lou come up with to cheer up Pops. The Boy & the Bindi by Vivek Shraya, illustrated by Rajni Perera, is a story about a boy who is given his own bindi when he shows interest in the one his mother wears. The beautiful illustrations are paired with a story about a child who finds happiness through being able to truly express his gender and connect with his culture at the same time.

For older readers, Emma Donoghue's The Lotterys Plus One is a middle-grade novel about two married men and two married women who win the lottery and join together to make one big happy family that call themselves the Lotterys. With four parents, seven siblings and five pets in one house, the Lotterys have their life shaken up when a grandfather they hardly see comes to visit. This fun series continues in The Lotterys More or Less.

We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen tells the story of a blended family and two young people who suddenly find themselves living in the same house despite having nothing in common. This YA book deals with heavy subjects like homophobia with care and manages to be simultaneously humorous and poignant.

Gender is a Drag

Young children who are gender variant, transgender or genderqueer can find comfort in stories about children like them. Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant, is the dreamy story of a little boy who loves the tangerine dress in his school's dress-up centre even though the other students tease him. Despite everything, Morris finds comfort in his imagination and stays true to himself.

For middle-grade readers, My Life as a Diamond by Jenny Manzer, tells the story of Caz, a boy who loves baseball. When Caz leaves Toronto for Seattle, he is able to start over again somewhere where no one knows that the sex that he was assigned at birth doesn't match his gender identity. When someone on a rival team starts digging into Caz's past, Caz decides to stay true to himself and trust in his new friends.

For teens, I love Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard. Pen just wants to be herself and it's everyone else who seems to have problems with what that means. Her parents have a very rigid idea of what being a girl means and her best friend Colby sees her as his wing man, even when Pen starts to doubt whether he is good for the girls she sets him up with. When Pen meets a cool girl who seems to like her just the way she is, Colby's disapproval complicates things. I love how realistically this book portrays teens, but more than anything I love that Pen is completely comfortable with who she is.

It's Not Just About Coming Out...

The coming-out story is a staple in LGBTQ2+ books, but sometimes I want to read a book that isn't all about leaving the closet. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a YA graphic novel by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, about love, friendship and breaking up. And breaking up. And breaking up. Freddy loves Laura Dean, the coolest girl in school and maybe the worst girlfriend. But Laura Dean keeps coming back to her and Freddy keeps letting her. Freddy reaches out to a psychic and an advice columnist, but she'll have to break up with Laura Dean once and for all if she wants to be the best friend and best version of herself she can be.

Keep This to Yourself by Tom Ryan is a murder-mystery featuring the hunt for a serial killer in a East Coast town. After Mac's friend Connor was murdered, the deaths stopped, but even a year later Mac isn't over what happened. With the help of Quill, who is also connected to one of the victims, Mac sets out to find the truth about what happened. Suspenseful and unpredictable, the mystery takes the forefront over LGBTQ2+ issues and even Mac and Quill's relationship, and I think that it is so important to have all kinds of stories with LGBTQ2+ characters and that books where being a gay teen isn't the main focus of the book are important. If straight teens can read books about characters like themselves solving mysteries, getting lost in space or taking down a dystopian government, why shouldn't queer teens?

Except When It Is

On the other hand, coming out is still a big part about being LGBTQ2+ and something that you don't do once, but over and over again. So, of course books about coming out are still vital. Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian is set in 1989 in New York City and I hope that teens reading it today see it as a reflection of how much things have changed in the last 30 years. Reza is an Iranian teen who has just moved to New York City from Toronto. Surrounded by images of the AIDS crisis, Reza is terrified of his attraction to men. Judy is a fashion designer to-be who falls for Reza. Her best friend, Art, is out and proud and both Judy and Art look up to Judy's uncle Stephen, an activist with AIDS. The three teens find themselves in a complicated love triangle that puts their friendship to the test. While this book is heartbreaking, it also shows how important the families we become a part of are. The Madonna and Judy Garland references are an added plus.

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan tells the story of a Muslim lesbian who keeps her relationship with her girlfriend, Ariana, a secret from her strict parents. Rukhsana is only a few months away from her scholarship to Caltech and the freedom she deserves, but when her mother sees her with Ariana, she reacts as badly as Rukhsana predicted and the family quickly head to Bangladesh, her parents believing that the freedom of America has corrupted their daughter. While the trip at first seems innocent, Rukhsana soon discovers that her parents' plans are darker than she first thought. While some aspects of this book were hard to stomach, in the end it is about the importance of family, choosing our own path and shows that in the end, love is the most important thing.

Other Favourites

Firesong by Adam Garnet Jones was one of my favourites of 2018 and is based on the film of the same name. After his younger sister commits suicide, Shane's life begins to fall apart around him. What he wants most is to leave the rez for university with David by his side, finally allowing them to be together openly. But money gets in the way of Shane's dreams and David is hesitant to leave their home. When tragedy strikes again, Shane has a difficult choice to make about his future.

Pride Colors by Robin Stevenson is the perfect board book for every baby and every family. The premise is simple, but this book is like no other I have ever seen. I love everything Robin does, so it's no surprise I love this sweet book about accepting all children for who they are.

Is there anyone out there who thinks that their school sex-ed class taught them everything they need to know? Sex is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth, fills in the gaps and is inclusive of all sexualities and genders. This book is a straightforward and judgment-free guide to sex for pre-teens and is a big step away from the 'birds and the bees' approach of days past.

You Are What You Read

Books give us so much, and while they can be a great escape from the world around us, they also can give us the tools to make sense of that world and of ourselves. Seeing queer characters like themselves can help children and teens with self-acceptance and even help them understand their own identity in a way they might not have before. Everyone should be able to see themselves as someone deserving of being the main character in their world and the books on this list help bring us closer to that.

When I was younger, the common argument when debating gay marriage was that people couldn't choose whether they were gay or not, which is obviously true. But I think that everything changed for me when I realized that that was irrelevant and that I had a life worth choosing, if there was a choice. I hope that, thanks to the stories they read and the world we have built, today's youth know that from the start.

Emma Hunter is the CCBC's Marketing and Communications Coordinator.
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Author:Hunter, Emma
Publication:Canadian Children's Book News
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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