Why is it important to include LGBTQ books in the children’s collection?

The Human Rights Campaign’s analysis of recent U.S. Census data finds that at least 20 million American adults identify as members of the LGBTQ community. Of course, many of those people are parents. Whether they are visible or not, LGBTQ families can be found in every zip code in the country.

Young children in these families deserve to see their experience included in the stories they read and hear at the library. We know that a sense of belonging is key to healthy development and learning. Excluding books with diverse characters – in terms of race, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, and other factors -erases the experience of marginalized groups and prevents many children from feeling part of the larger community.

But these stories are not just for kids from LGBTQ households, or boys who like dresses or girls who don’t. All children benefit from understanding and appreciating differences between their own lives and those of their friends and neighbors. Building this understanding early can discourage the harassment and bullying experienced by LGBTQ youth as they progress through school. Awareness and empathy make for strong communities.

Some History

There is nothing new under the sun, and LGBTQ themes and characters have been present -or at least suggested – in books for children and youth for many years. Often this is implied and presented as subtext. This type of story is sometimes referred to as an “LGBTQ metaphor” book.

Beginning as early as the late 19th century, we see characters who don’t conform to heteronormative gender roles. In these there is no overt discussion of sexual identity or orientation, but characters may not conform to societal expectations for their gender. An early (1936) example of this would be The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. Ferdinand is a bull but has no interest in battling other bulls and refuses to participate in a bull fight. He prefers to sit in his field and smell the flowers. We can see many examples of “metaphor” characters in books through the years, including the well-known and often-challenged And Tango Makes Three (2005).

Ohio University Libraries created this excellent timeline of LGBTQ children’s and YA literature, which demonstrates the persistence of these stories over time as well as trends in their themes. For example, for decades a common theme in picture books has been stories about families with same-sex parents.

While kids’ books with LGBTQ characters are much more visible today, these stories are still underrepresented in publishing for children. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reports that about 5% of children’s books they examined in 2022 included LGBTQ characters or subjects, while the LGBTQ community comprises at least 8% of the U.S. population.