It’s been a couple of years since I’ve done a roundup of kids’ books on LGBTQ history and there have been many new ones in that time! Here’s a fresh list of old and new for LGBTQ History Month—including an upcoming picture book about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera!
I’m focusing here on books that delve into the history of Pride and LGBTQ people more generally; ones that look solely at the experience of a Pride march or the colors of the rainbow flag can be found in my roundup of Pride Books for Kids. Also, as far as I know, all the authors below identify as White; I wish there was much more diversity of authorship among these books that chart our diverse history. (I know there are LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books by authors of color; I’m speaking just of history books here.) Publishers, you can do better than this.
An Upcoming Picture Book
Let’s start with one book I haven’t reviewed previously. Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution, by Joy Michael Ellison and Teshika Silver (Jessica Kingsley, 2020), isn’t out until November 21, but I’d be remiss not to mention it here. It tells the story of Stonewall icons and transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera by focusing on their close friendship and how they cared for their community in the face of harassment by police and others. We see them at the heart of the Stonewall Rebellion, then opening a home for homeless trans girls and continuing to fight “for the survival and rights of transgender people.”
Some of the violence during the riots has been tempered for the age group and a few historical details could be argued, but as the authors note, this is only one retelling of what happened. What comes through clearly, though—and is probably most important for this age group—is the bond between Sylvia and Marsha and the overall sense of how they worked to help those in need. A few of the narrative transitions are a little jumpy, but the thread of Sylvia and Marsha’s friendship helps hold things together.
The back matter offers additional details on the two, a glossary, discussion questions, and activities. There are a couple of errors in the two online resources listed, though: “Queer Kids Stuff” should be “Queer Kid Stuff,” and “The Family Equality Council” should be just “Family Equality.” (Also, I would have added PFLAG and Gender Spectrum as key resources, since they do a lot of work with families of trans kids.) Those are minor issues, though. This inspiring story of friendship, community, and revolution rightly gives Sylvia and Marsha their place on our kids’ bookshelves alongside the mostly White and male figures who have dominated LGBTQ picture book biographies.
Other Elementary School Books
Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution, by Rob Sanders (Random House, 2019), uses the perspective of the Stonewall Inn itself to create a simple yet compelling story that focuses on the people in the neighborhood. Jamey Christoph’s evocative illustrations capture their diversity of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation. (Full review.)
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, written by Rob Sanders and illustrated by Steven Salerno (Random House: 2018), is an inspiring biography of Milk that stresses his friendship with Gilbert Baker, who designed the rainbow flag as a symbol of hope and inspiration. It does mention Milk’s assassination, although as gently as possible, but parents should still be prepared to address kids’ concerns there. (Full review.)
Sewing the Rainbow: A Story About Gilbert Baker (Magination Press: 2018), written by Gayle Pitman and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown, flips the perspective Sanders used, and takes us along with Baker from his childhood, through adversity, to the request by his friend Milk to create a new symbol for their community. A few rough transitions may take adult explanation, but all will be inspired by this story and how Baker regained his lost sparkle. (Full review.)
The Harvey Milk Story, written by Kari Krakow and illustrated by David Gardner (Two Lives Publishing: 2001), conveys Milk’s significance with warmth and appreciation. It is wordier and more detailed that Sanders’ book, and probably best for older elementary students. Unfortunately out of print and only available in used versions; see if you can find a cheap one or seek it in a library.
When You Look Out the Window: How Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Built a Community, by Gayle Pitman (Magination Press: 2017), tells of the transformation that LGBTQ-rights pioneers Lyon and Martin helped bring to San Francisco and its LGBTQ community.
The Fighting Infantryman, by Rob Sanders and illustrated by Nabi H. Ali (Little Bee, 2020), is the story of Albert D. J. Cashier, an immigrant, Union soldier in the U.S. Civil War, and a transgender man—though as Sanders notes, he probably wouldn’t have used that term. Terminology aside, Sanders reinforces that “His identity fit him as snug as his suspenders.” (Full review.)
Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg, written by Rob Sanders and illustrated by Levi Hastings (Henry Holt, 2020), takes us from Buttigieg’s birth in Indiana to his announcement of a groundbreaking run for president. “Only time will tell” who he will become, it concludes. It’s a smart way to end a book that was finished in May 2019 and fast-tracked for publication, as Sanders confirmed with me—well before Mayor Pete won the Iowa Democratic Caucuses but shortly thereafter dropped out of the race. It may inspire young readers on their own journeys of self-discovery and service. (Full review.)
For Spacious Skies: Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for “America the Beautiful,” by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Olga Baumert (Albert Whitman), tells of Bates’ childhood during the Civil War, her dedication to study, and her work to address social injustices, as well as the trip that inspired her most famous poem. It mentions “the home she shared with Katharine Coman”; an afterward calls their relationship “a close companionship,” though as I explain in my full review, it was likely more than that.
Be Amazing: A History of Pride, by “Drag Kid” Desmond Is Amazing (Farrar Staus Giroux, 2020), is less a detailed history than a short overview of the Stonewall Riots and the first March one year later; brief biographies of Stonewall icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera; and a description of the influence of Pride on Desmond’s life. A mention of President Obama’s 2009 declaration of Pride Month makes it (incorrectly) seem as if that legitimized the observance. What it lacks as a history it makes up for with dazzling illustrations from Dylan Glynn and an enthusiastic message to “Be amazing.”
Harvey Milk, Ellen DeGeneres, and RuPaul Charles from Little Bee Books (2020) with no stated author, illustrated by Victoria Grace Elliott, each offer simple takes on these figures’ lives, though not as simple as the board book format might imply. (Full review.)
Middle Grade Books
Rainbow Revolutionaries: Fifty LGBTQ+ People Who Made History, by Sarah Prager (HarperCollins, 2020), offers short but engaging profiles of LGBTQ+ people who have had an impact on the world in a variety of times and places. The format matches her book for teens, Queer There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World (see below), but the language has been tuned to a slightly younger audience. In both books, Prager writes in an informal, approachable style while also providing substantial facts about each person’s life and motivations. (Full review.)
Pride: The Celebration and the Struggle, by Robin Stevenson (Orca, 2020), is an updated edition of her 2016 Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community, which blends a history of the event with a broader look at the struggle for LGBTQ equality, along with a look at what it means to come out, what to expect at Pride events around the world, a glossary, and an explanation of gender identity. The new edition places a greater focus on activism and activists, as the need for such work has grown over the past few years.
Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, by Jerome Pohlen (Chicago Review Press, 2015), starts with Sappho, Alexander the Great, and other figures from distant history, but then focuses mostly on U.S. social and political history. A series of activities throughout the book add fun and engagement. Despite the main title, Pohlen is inclusive of the LGBT spectrum.
Stonewall: Our March Continues, by Olivia Higgins, illustrated by Tess Marie Vosevich Keller (self-published, 2019), straddles the picture book/middle grade line as it tells the tale through the eyes of young LGBT people in the 1960s seeking community in New York City. It’s an engaging approach, but the undifferentiated first-person narrative, intended to convey perspectives from different people, may be confusing. Young readers might also need adult guidance so they are not scared by the line, “My parents demand that I change or leave home forever.” (Full review.)
Young Adult Books
Queer There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World, by Sarah Prager (HarperCollins: 2017), aims for the teen audience, but adults will also learn much from her engaging profiles. Prager offers a thoughtful exploration of historical terms for what we now call “queer” identities, an overview of queerness around the world, and profiles that are both informative and entertaining.
Gayle Pitman’s The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets (Abrams, 2019) is organized around 50 representative objects from the era and the event, such as photos, matchbooks, picket signs, and more. Pitman skillfully weaves the stories behind these objects into an accessible and substantial narrative. (Full review.)
What Was Stonewall? by Nico Medina (Penguin, 2019), looks at Stonewall in the context of the broader movement for LGBTQ equality both before 1969 and after, through 2016.
The Stonewall Riots: The Fight for LGBT Rights, by Tristan Poehlmann (Essential Library, 2016) is a solid overview, but only available in a $30 library edition, which may make it a better library pick than one for home bookshelves.
Rainbow Revolutions: Power, Pride, and Protest in the Fight for Queer Rights, by Jamie Lawson (Crocodile Books/Interlink, 2020), takes an more event-based approach to history, in contrast to Prager’s people-based one (see above), offering brief snapshots of significant moments and movements in LGBTQ history from the Victorian age to our current era. There’s a lot of fascinating information in the volume, although Lawson’s choices about what to focus on feels somewhat uneven. (Full review.)
Gay America: Struggle for Equality, by Linus Alsenas (Amulet: 2008), is explicitly limited to gay men and lesbians and a little dated now, but worthwhile within those limits, covering politics, culture, relations between the lesbian and gay rights movement and other civil rights movements, entertainment, the evolution of gay and lesbian identities, and more.
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