June is Pride Month, a time to openly celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. But it is also a time to soberly assess pressures to marginalize that community. One particularly potent method is to ban books with LGBTQ+ content from schools across the country.
Take Florida. Starting July 1, it will be illegal for public school teachers to offer classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. So, teachers might be in jeopardy for sharing favorite books that even suggest same-sex parenting. There goes “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. Even a penguin chick can’t have two dads.
This derisively dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” law points to an uptick in book censorship in school classrooms and school libraries. Measuring this trend is PEN, a nonprofit dedicated to free expression. From July 2021 through March 2022, it counted more than 1,500 banned books in 86 school districts in 26 states. Of those, 33% explicitly include LGBTQ+ themes and characters.
Many recent books just might up that count, which would further undo hard-won recognition of the LGBTQ+ experience in schools. Here is just a small sampling.
Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle
Written by Nina LaCour; illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
(Candlewick; 32 pages; $17.99; ages 3-7)
Business travel is back, rendering relevant this warm picture book. A Bay Area author recalls her own daughter her in the story ‘s wistful young protagonist. She longs for Mommy to return from a work trip, stating “I miss her as deep as a scuba diver deep in the ocean” and “as high as an astronaut up in the stars.” Meanwhile, the girl stays home with Mama. Together they go to the cafe, library and market. Together they watch movies, snuggle and prepare a welcome-back celebration, briefly marred by the girl’s short-lived resentment her. This nod to conflicted feelings flows naturally from charming art and lyrical storytelling. It’s no big deal that the family is pictured as African American and has same-sex parents. Instead, the focus is on learning to navigate everyday emotions.
Written by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood; illustrated by Nidhi Chanani
(Little, Brown; 40 pages; $17.99; ages 4-8)
A strong kid grows into a strongman, the kind that lifts heavy logs, pulls fire trucks and carries sandbags in tough competition. How Rob becomes “the strongest person in North America” is recounted in this robust autobiography that does n’t skip over his greatest challenge his : being himself. Favoring colorful street clothes, he at first goes along with dull workout and competition attire. Then, a fellow weight lifter challenges him: “I’ll wear bright colors WITH YOU.” They do, and success follows. Rob becomes the first openly gay professional strongman and smashes stereotypes about what it means to be gay. As for his greater purpose his : to inspire kids to train to be the person you said you could never become.
The Rainbow Parade
Written and illustrated by Emily Neilson
(Dial; 32 pages; $17.99; ages 2-5)
People march, juggle, chant and sing. Some ride motorcycles and some drive convertibles. Some carry flags and some carry signs. Many wear costumes, and a few wear nothing at all. That is how one girl describes a day at San Francisco ‘s Pride Parade in this sweet picture book that goes back several decades to draw on the author’s own childhood memories of her. Local details are fun, especially the BART ride to and from the city. Central to the story is Emily. She has two moms, and they savor the validation and community spirit emanating from this annual event. They also appreciate something else — stepping off the sidewalk to join in. Everyone in the parade is proud, loud and colorful — in other words, themselves. Therein lies the point.
Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American
Written and illustrated by Laura Gao
(HarperCollins; 272 pages; $14.99 PB; ages 14 and up)
The pandemic gave one San Francisco artist a career boost. Responding to anti-Asian sentiment generated by COVID-19, the 23-year-old immediately created an admiring comic about Wuhan, China, suspected epicenter of the virus and her now disparaged hometown of her. Having gone viral, the comic now serves as the basis for her deeply affecting debut graphic memoir of her. Discordant art mirrors Gao’s nearly 20 years of struggle to define herself as an immigrant, artist and queer person. She bravely confronts a daunting package of dilemmas: how to fit in with her cool white friends and yet-unassimilated Chinese family in Texas (where Gao and her family moved when she was 3), relinquish harsh parental expectations and “do what feels right, “eschew convention to freely love, and reconcile her messy Chinese and American roots. Shout-out to San Francisco: It’s here after college that she discovers what home should feel like. Telling details and candid revelations beautifully chronicle her angst and growth.
Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality
Written by Eliot Schrefer; illustrated by Jules Zuckerberg
(Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins; 240 pages; $17.99; ages 14 and up)
This mind-blowing treatise covers everything teens might not even know to ask about animal sexuality. Is animal sex all business (reproduction) with no pleasure? Is queer attraction a matter of nature or nurture? What about bisexuality, polyamory, group sex, trans identity, intersexuality and threesomes? How does evolutionary advantage figure in? The questions go on and on. Contextualized with his own keen, often personalized insights, an acclaimed fiction author and student of animal behavior offers answers based on scientific research. Cartoons and scholar interviews add humor and gravitas to explicit examples that, from doodlebugs to dolphins to ducks, build a strong case: Queer behavior in animals is diverse, complex and natural. And thus, astonishing (and reassuring) information strips away age-old moral judgments about sexual preference and gender to illuminate “what is interesting and important about human behavior.”
Answers in the Pages
Written by David Levithan
(Knopf; 170 pages; $17.99; ages 8-12)
A book challenge at a Virginia school propels this timely novel that explores attitudes toward censorship and homosexuality. In alternating chapters, three loosely connected story lines progress but never coalesce. One is about a boy’s mother who sees gay indoctrination in an assigned fifth-grade book. Call the principal. Another presents episodes from that book about how two young heroes thwart an evil genius and feel mutual love. Perhaps platonic? The third chronicles a developing relationship between two guys in another class. There is kissing. From this tangle emerges one big question: Does the challenged book go or stay? Speakers from the parental rights and free expression crowds take the mike at a decisive school board meeting. Author Levithan speaks himself via a gay teacher and a gay kid. Their points: Books don’t make people gay. You can’t say there can’t be books about us. Hear that, Florida?