Book List: Queer kids need books too…
Queer kids need books! And so do we all—books help us empathise and understand a world view that differs from our own. Books with LGBTQIA+ themes and characters are good for kids questioning their own identity, but also those who sit next to them in class. Our queer kids need a world where they are accepted for who they are and seeing themselves reflected in books can be a lifeline for many. And if their straight classmates also read those books and can better understand what their friends and classmates are experiencing, then maybe we will start seeing better outcomes for queer teens and youth.
Inside Out’s ‘Out on the Shelves’ campaign ran from 17-30 August this year, encouraging libraries to build and promote their rainbow collection. This is a campaign that helps kids see themselves in the books they read, but, perhaps most importantly, creates a space for them to be openly supported by their peers, teachers, and librarians.
Ironically, two of my personal favourite picture books featured recently in a Facebook post by New Conservative New Zealand, who accused these books of ‘grooming the next generation’. Personally, I am all for a new generation that is kinder and more accepting of others, and I view these books as mirrors, reflecting our own experiences, and spotlights that show others how the world is for people who don’t fit the dominant discourse.
This is by no means a full and complete list, but I have chosen as many recent releases, favoured books from Aotearoa where possible, and combined those two criteria with books I personally love. I have also sneaked a few extras in there to try. But hopefully, this is a good starting point, for parents and kids alike.
Things in the Sea Are Touching Me by Linda Jane Keegan, illustrated by Minky Stapleton (Scholastic)
This glorious picture book that was a finalist in the Book Awards in 2019 is about a family day in the sea, overcoming your fears, oh and the child happens to have two mums. This is good for all the right reasons, in my opinion. The story is so evocative of summer in Aotearoa and the mums are loving and supportive and just there, no explanation is required; cos let’s face it: you don’t need one. It was wonderful to see this included in the education packs sent out by the New Zealand Government during the April COVID-19 lockdown.
Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker Books)
This is such a beautiful, whimsical story of acceptance. Every time I read this book I can’t decide what I love more—the glorious watercolour illustrations, or Julian’s nana, who looks stern but is brimming over with love and tolerance. All kids love dress-ups, and many little boys know the feeling of being shamed for choosing outfits that are too feminine, so I can see this having a broad appeal. But also, I hold out hope that it will reach those kids who don’t just want to dress up, but feel like their outward appearance doesn’t quite match their inward view of themselves, yet.
Other picture books you might like are And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole; Kiwi series The Promised Land: The Promised Land, Raven Wild and Maiden Voyage, by Chaz Harris, Caitlin Spice and various; Hello, Sailor by Ingrid Godon (Macmillan).
Junior Fiction and Junior Graphic Novels
George by Alex Gino (Scholastic)
This gentle, sweet story of acceptance has a lot to recommend it. It deals with the bullying and lack of understanding George faces and all the things she has to deal with—boy’s bathrooms, being told she will grow into a fine young man, and her mother’s resistance to her identity. But it also has some wonderful moments, like when she finally gets to be Charlotte in the school play, the support she finds in her best friend Kelly, and from her brother and her principal. This is a small book with a huge heart, that speaks so well to trans kids but also to anyone who feels different.
Princess, Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill (Oni Press)
There is something about graphic novels that can get away with being a little bit more...well, everything and yet still work for the intended age group. This is basically a lesbian and feminist retelling of Rapunzel and it is just to die for. Normally I am put off by cute, but again, it all just works, and this story is ridiculously cute. However the messages are clear and important. It’s not just about two girls falling for each other, but it is about being fat, gender stereotypes, and even toxic masculinity and the pressure put on men to be ‘manly’, or in this case, the pressure is on the Prince to live up to expectations of Princeliness. Also, if you like this, she has more, cute and queer graphic novels: The Tea Dragon Society, The Tea Dragon Festival, and The Tea Dragon Tapestry.
Young Adult and YA Graphic Novels
Invisibly Breathing by Eileen Merriman (Penguin)
This is not your typical boy-meets-boy story; it shows the spectrum of homophobia, deals with poverty and abuse and has a neuro-diverse main character. It isn’t an easy read at times but it is contemporary, set in Aotearoa and has an authentic voice. Another book that was also an NZCYA Awards finalist and featured a gay character—albeit one very much on the cusp of coming out—is The History Speech by Mark Sweet (Huia).
Burn by Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
Anyone who knows my book preferences, knows my totally fan-girl obsession with almost everything written by Patrick Ness. His latest novel Burn was sort of like slipping back into an old pair of jeans, that despite being 10 years old and at the back of the cupboard, still fit (this has never happened to me, by the way...but I imagine this is that same feeling of comfort, nostalgia, and elation). There is A LOT going on in this novel with dragons, alternate realities, racism, and two boys meeting and falling in love. Those boys are like the chocolate chunks in a chocolate chip cookie, of course they should be there, because they make up the cookie, but there is a whole lot of biscuit (aka story) holding them together. So, this book is old jeans and chocolate chip cookies...I hope that helps. You might also like to read Release by Patrick Ness and there are two gay dads in his Chaos Walking series.
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (Text Publishing)
Based on a true story of two boys who take part in a 32-hour kissing marathon to set a new Guinness World record. I mean, truth really is stranger than fiction. But I read this in one sitting, and while this is neither new, nor from Aotearoa, it is so good it makes your teeth hurt. This is narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who died of AIDS, so right there it hits you right in heart and gives you so many feels. This book talks to the prejudice and homophobia that queer teens face, the confusion and joy of those first kisses and relationships, and be prepared for ugly crying and a story that you just HAVE to tell people about years after you read it.
Fence by C.S Pacat (Boom! Studios)
This graphic novel series is the story of a young boy who gets a scholarship to attend a prestigious fencing school. Not my normal choice of story, I have to say, but what is it about graphic novels? The queer characters exist alongside the story of this fencing prodigy, who has lot of sexual tension happening with his nemesis, all unresolved by volume 3. It is sort of quirky and hand-me-the-next-one-in-the-series-immediately good.
Other stories featuring gay male characters you might want to read: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (Macmillan); Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green (Text Publishing); They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (Simon & Schuster); and Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (also published as Love, Simon) by Becky Albertelli (Puffin).
The illustrative style of this graphic novel felt very naive and almost underdeveloped, but I was immediately drawn into the story, forgot about the illustration and by the end, quite enjoyed it. And again, while the story is quite American; that of the author going to camp and all the gun shooting that, I dunno, just isn’t in my experience. Her story of falling for Erin, the camp counsellor, basically her first girl crush, was so relatable, heartbreaking and omg poignant—especially when years later when she sees Erin...and I won’t spoil that for you.
Amelia Westlake (also published as Amelia Westlake Was Never Here) by Erin Gough (Hardie Grant Egmont)
This is one of those books that I wasn’t sure I was going to like. Jolly hockey sticks and an elite all-girls school. But then there are lesbians and bisexual characters, discussions about class, privilege and racism. This IS a romp, it is funny and will make you snort at times, but it is by no means lightweight. It has a light touch that highlights many issues that face teens and, there is a very sweet love story, and a love story that deals with friends who hook up who should really just be friends.
Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories, edited by Michale Earp (Walker Books)
Disclaimer: I struggle with short stories and collections—it is something about the rollercoaster of emotions: finding stories I absolutely adore, and then reading something that is okay, which seems like a let down, but any other time would be great. However, this is sort of glorious for the range and diversity of voices; it really captures the scope and intersectionality of the queer community.
Other trans and gender fluid stories: Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens (Head of Zeus); My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne (Puffin), Loveless by Alice Oseman (HarperCollins), and Wonderland by Juno Dawson (Quercus).
And finally, a couple of non-fiction titles that might be worth a read too: The Book of Pride by LGBTQ Heroes Who Changed the World by Mason Funk (HarperCollins) and Finding Nevo by Nevo Zisin (Walker Books).
Simie Simpson (Te Ati Awa) has worked in the New Zealand book industry for almost two decades, as a librarian, a sales manager for Walker Books New Zealand and a bookseller. Her day job includes a monster mash of acquisitions, editing, design, comms and promotions.