The American Library Association has just announced its 2021 Rainbow Book List—with a record-setting number of 129 librarian-approved LGBTQ-inclusive children’s and young adult books! There are so many, in fact, that for the first time, there are two Top 10 sub-lists of books with “exceptional merit,” one for younger children and one for older youth readers. Learn more and see some charts that illustrate just how the genre has grown.
Unlike the recently announced Stonewall Awards for children’s and young adult books, which recognize only a very few titles at the peak of excellence, the Rainbow Book List is a larger selection, intended to help young people find “quality books with significant and authentic GLBTQ content” and assist librarians in developing their collections and advising readers. Its value is not only in recommending quality titles, but also in offering the imprimatur of the oldest and largest library association in the world, which can help convince communities to keep these books on the shelves. It’s a great resource for parents and teachers, too.
This year, the Rainbow Book List Committee of the American Library Association’s (ALA’s) Rainbow Round Table nearly 600 books (a record number!) and selected 129 titles of fiction and non-fiction books for toddlers through young adults. The committee noted: “This year’s offerings give us everything from precious board books, touching picture books, astonishing true stories and biographies of remarkable people. We provide you with titles that incorporate the wide and varied lives of young people, non-fiction titles that challenge the status quo, and fiction that will break your heart and mend it together again.”
Also, “As a result of the sheer number of eligible titles and those ultimately chosen,” the committee also for the first time ever offered a whopping 20 picks “of exceptional merit,” 10 in each of two age categories. The Top 10 Titles for birth through middle grade are:
- Burgess, Matthew and Josh Cochran (Illustrator). Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring.
- Mercurio, Peter and Leo Espinosa (Illustrator). Our Subway Baby. 2020.
- Neal, DeShanna, Trinity Neal, and Art Twink (Illustrator). My Rainbow.
- Pitman, Gayle E. and Violet Tobacco (Illustrator). My Maddy.
- Simon, Rachel E. and Noah Grigni (Illustrator). The Every Body Book: LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids about Sex, Gender, Bodies, and Families.
- Callender, Kacen. King and the Dragonflies.
- Sass, A.J. Ana on the Edge.
- Leyh, Kat. Snapdragon.
- Nguyen, Trung Le. The Magic Fish.
- Smith, Niki. The Deep & Dark Blue.
I hope you’ll go check out the Top 10 list for Young Adults and the full list of books for all ages. Many of the books are also ones in my own Mombian Database of LGBTQ Family Books, Media, and More (which can be filtered to show just the books from 2020 or any year), though my focus is on picture books and books for parents, with some select middle grade titles, since I’m only one person and can’t do everything. On the other hand, I’m probably a little more willing to include some titles simply to show the range of LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books today, even if they don’t all rise to quite the level of quality needed to make them library recommendations (though I do try to give an indication of quality in my reviews). With slightly different goals, we’ll end up with slightly different lists—but all with the aim of getting these books into readers’ hands. (Also, note that the Rainbow Book List includes books published in 2020 and between July 1 and December 31 of 2019, so it’s a little more than just one year—and may have omitted a few books published towards the end of 2020 that will be caught in next year’s list.)
I also want to share two charts to show visually just how much the number of LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books has accelerated in the past few years. The first chart shows the number of Rainbow Book List titles since the List’s founding in 2008. I’ve hand counted the number of titles from the Rainbow Book List website; all errors in tabulation and charting are my own. Even this doesn’t fully show the sweeping change in LGBTQ-inclusive titles, though; several of the committee’s picture book picks in the earlier years, for example, had rather vague or highly allegorical queer content. Today’s books, on the whole, are more likely to show clearly queer characters. You’ll see the big leap starting with 2019’s list, which covers books published between July 2017 and December 2018. (Notes on method: In 2021, the Rainbow List broke out “Juvenile Fiction” into its own category for the first time; I’ve kept it with Middle Grade for the purpose of this chart. I’ve also counted Board Books as Picture Books, since they haven’t always been broken out. Graphic/Manga includes both middle grade and YA titles; since the Rainbow List has never broken them out, though, neither did I.)
The second chart shows the number of books the Committee evaluated each year before coming up with their final selections. This chart starts in 2013, when the Committee began regularly reporting this data. Again, the past few years have seen a significant jump. As I said last year as well, the fact that the committee evaluated so many titles and selected a much smaller percentage (roughly 17 to 32 percent) speaks both to the growing number of LGBTQ-inclusive books that are being published and the fact that many of them still have a ways to go in terms of quality and “significant and authentic” LGBTQ content. Let’s hope that budding authors find ways of improving their skills and getting feedback on their drafts. I’ll also suggest that prospective authors read widely among existing LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books and other diverse, top-rated children’s titles before embarking on efforts of their own.
For a bit of history, here’s my interview with Nel Ward, chair of the Rainbow Book List Committee when the list first launched in 2008. It’s been a pleasure watching the number of titles grow and diversify over the years.
As always, many thanks to the librarians who put together the Rainbow Book List and to all of the librarians everywhere whose recommendations and support continue to positively impact the lives of so many young people and families.