One new middle grade book aims to help young people learn about the contributions and accomplishments of LGBTQ people across many fields of endeavor, while another includes queer people among innovators of all identities who have made their marks on the world.
Chase Clemesha, himself a medical doctor, writes in the introduction to his People of Pride: 25 Great LGBTQ Americans (Capstone Editions), “It’s important that young people have role models to look up to—especially people who are like them…. I want to show young people that they can decide who and what they’re going to be. If you are part of the LGBTQ community, it is a beautiful part of who you are, but it is only one part. You get to be proud of who you are—your whole self.”
His book, aimed at middle-graders, offers a series of two-page spreads—a full-page photo and a page of text—about LGBTQ Americans who have excelled in their fields. There are civil right heroes, sports stars, artists and musicians, scientists, politicians, and lawmakers. Many of the figures are contemporary or nearly so, but Clemesha also weaves in earlier figures. It’s a nice balance. In addition to the 25 people highlighted, an additional 14 are listed at the end with short one- to two-sentence blurbs about them. Clemesha conveys each person’s impact simply and clearly, though some of the profiles feel just a little too flimsy.
While I like this volume well enough, I still have a few observations. First, two wishes: I wish that at least one bisexual person had been identified as such. Not every figure in the book is labeled with their LGBTQ identity, which is understandable for the earlier figures who might not have thought in modern terms. We do find out the specific LGBTQ identities of some of the later ones, however—just none of them who are bi, making it unclear if there are even any bisexual people here.
I also wish that in addition to teaching us about its subjects’ external accomplishments, the book could also have given us a little information about their families and relationships. Author Maurice Sendak lived with his partner Eugene Glynn for 50 years before Glynn’s death; several others were or are in relationships decades long; and several are parents—but we learn none of that here, beyond an in-passing comment that Wanda Sykes makes jokes about her family. A truly full vision of what LGBTQ people could be with their “whole selves” would show that LGBTQ people can make their mark in the world and have satisfying relationships and family lives, too—young people need to see that.
Furthermore, the end matter of the book is much less successful than the main text. A glossary offers definitions for “bisexual,” “lesbian,” “transgender,” and “queer,” but not “gay.” “Queer” is defined as a term to express “fluid identities and orientations,” without noting that it may also be used as an umbrella term for LGBTQ people. The glossary term “same-sex adoption” makes me cringe a little; just as the GLAAD Media Reference Guide advises using the term “marriage for same-sex couples” or “marriage equality” instead of “same-sex marriage,” since that “can suggest marriage for same-sex couples is somehow different than other marriages,” one could say the same about adoption. Having said that, the terms “same-sex marriage” and “same-sex adoption” are in fairly common use, so perhaps we should let this slide—but the glossary’s definition of “same-sex adoption” as “adopting children the way opposite-sex couples do” makes me cringe again. As NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists notes in their style guide, “opposite sex” “buys into a scientifically obsolete view of sex as binary.” A better phrasing would have been “different-sex.”
Other glossary terms have other problems. “Openly LGBTQ,” an adjectival phrase, is oddly defined as a noun: “a person who shares being LGBTQ with friends, family, and coworkers.” “Share” is ambiguous here, too, and could make it seem like they all “share” the same identity, in the same way that, say, I share being Jewish with my son. A better definition might have been “Not hiding the fact that one is LGBTQ” or “being willing to tell others that one is LGBTQ.” Additionally, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wasn’t “the military ban against LGBTQ people serving openly,” but only a ban on LGB people. Transgender people were banned under separate statutes and in fact, a 2012 military regulation stated specifically that the ban on transgender people serving was “not a contradiction of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”
I also would have liked to see more in the book’s one-page “Timeline of U.S. LGBTQ History” specifically about transgender history. Come to think of it, though, I’d probably argue for scrapping the entire timeline rather than try to cram it onto one page; in that little space, it’s almost impossible to provide a balanced overview of the rich history of LGBTQ people. I would rather have seen the space used for a fuller and more thoughtful glossary, or to offer references to other middle grade books dedicated to LGBTQ history, such as Jerome Pohlen’s Gay & Lesbian History for Kids or Robin Stevenson’s Pride: The Celebration and the Struggle.
People of Pride is very similar to Sarah Prager’s 2020 Rainbow Revolutionaries: Fifty LGBTQ+ People Who Made History, another middle grade book that compiles short biographies of notable LGBTQ people. Prager showcases figures within and outside the United States and looks much further back in history; Clemesha sticks with U.S. figures whose impact has been primarily in the 20th and 21st centuries. Readers should appreciate both approaches, depending on their interests and moods. Although both are targeted at middle grade readers, Clemesha’s profiles are shorter, making them better for the younger end of that set; Prager dives a little deeper for readers wanting more. Prager’s glossary is much better, however, and she does touch on many of her subject’s relationships and family lives. While some of the figures in both books are the same, many are different, so readers may want to peruse both volumes. If I detailed some criticisms of People of Pride above, that’s only because I feel young readers may still find inspiration here. I’d love to see some of the issues, especially with the back matter, addressed in a future edition of what will likely be a valuable book for many young people.
Innovators, Stevenson observes in the introduction to her Kid Innovators: True Tales of Childhood from Inventors and Trailblazers, “need the confidence and strength to go against the crowd. They need to be persistent, and they can’t afford to worry too much about what people think.”
It’s not surprising, therefore, that although this is not a queer-specific book, it includes queer people in its 16 short biographies, just like Stevenson’s earlier Kid Activists volume in Quirk Books’ Kid Legends series. In each profile of roughly eight to 10 pages, we learn about people who have innovated in science, technology, education, business, and the arts, with an emphasis on how their childhoods shaped them. In accessible but never patronizing prose, Stevenson sketches the stories of her subjects’ childhoods, deftly setting the scene for each one and providing informative details, engaging quotes, and sometimes humorous anecdotes. (As a child, computer scientist Grace Hopper was so curious about how alarm clocks worked that she “took apart all seven of the ones in her home.”) The queer people profiled are code breaker and computer scientist Alan Turing and dancer Alvin Ailey. Stevenson, a queer mom herself and author of several great LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books, not only mentions that they were gay, but explains briefly how each faced homophobia.
Fair warning, though. Stevenson notes that many of the people she profiles began as “strong-willed and independent-minded children—which wasn’t always easy for their parents and teachers!” Share this book with your children at your own risk!