I told you there were going to be some good LGBTQ-inclusive kid’s books coming out this year…. Let’s start with a beautifully illustrated, wordless book about a child and her grandparent who need to find renters for the apartment above their shop—and end up welcoming just the couple they need.
JonArno Lawson, an award-winning Canadian novelist and poet, developed the story concept for Over the Shop, which was then brought to life through the images of Qin Leng, an award-winning designer and illustrator. The first few pages show us a day in the life of a young girl who lives with her gender-ambiguous grandparent in the rooms behind their run-down general store. The grandparent is busy getting food onto their table and running the shop; we sense that the girl is often left to her own devices. The girl is old enough that this doesn’t seem dangerous, but she exudes a certain loneliness.
One day, the grandparent puts up a sign advertising the apartment above the shop. People either aren’t interested or are turned off by the apartment’s shabby appearance. Then one day, a new couple stops by. One person is dark-skinned with long hair, and reads as female; the other is Asian with short hair and could be read as nonbinary, a transgender man, or a butch/masculine woman. Lawson’s dedication in the front of the book is “To trans activists of all ages,” so I’m guessing the character was intended as trans; without any clarification in the story itself, however, I think readers have some leeway in interpretation. Regardless, they’re a queer couple; the Asian person has a rainbow-hued belt that we see subtly in several scenes, and a rainbow hat in another.
The girl senses something positive about them and urges her grandparent to let them take the apartment. The grandparent gives them a critical look—we’re not sure if it’s because they’re a queer couple, a non-White and interracial couple, or because the grandparent is simply crotchety—but finally concedes. The couple soon begins to clean up the apartment, wave hello to a suspicious (and gender-ambiguous) neighbor, and engage the girl in their sprucing up. Their DIY projects spread beyond the apartment to the rest of the building, and eventually, they start helping at the store, too. The grumpy grandparent’s demeanor brightens; even the neighbor begins to freshen up the building next door. The transformations continue and a rainbow flag—the first on the block—is hung outside the store. We then see the girl, grandparent, couple, and neighbor sharing a meal together.
Leng’s watercolor-and-ink drawings are soft but dynamic, and offer many subtle details that will encourage multiple readings. The illustrations pack in more story than words could. She also gives us a secondary storyline involving a neighborhood cat, which I won’t spoil except to say that it’s sweet and adorable (and, you know, has a cat in it, which for me is worth bonus points).
I absolutely love this book on many levels. There are many possibilities for discussion: about acceptance of people who don’t look like us; about socioeconomic differences and struggles; about gender and whether knowing someone’s gender makes a difference; about friendship and helping; about neighborhood, community, and family. At the same time, the storytelling is simply a joy, without a hint of pedantry or preachiness. Add this book to your bookshelves today, or recommend it to your local school or library.
Like Leng’s drawings? Check out A Family Is a Family Is a Family, by Sara O’Leary, which she also illustrated—a story about different kinds of families.