Published January 27, 2022
Books help us understand our world and our place within it. For young people of any age, stories that reflect themselves, their friends, their families, and their communities are a vital source of validation. In this episode, you will meet Kathleen Barker, a library and information specialist and historian, to explore the value of LGBTQ-inclusive books in the classroom—for students as well as teachers.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Deb Fowler; Inge De Taeye; Ali Lemer; and Eric Marcus.
Deb Fowler: Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
Books help us understand our world and our place within it. For young people of any age, stories that reflect themselves, their friends, their families, and their communities are a vital source of validation. That’s especially true for students whose identities are underrepresented or portrayed as an “issue.” And for those whose experiences are less likely to be depicted with nuance and appreciation.
To explore the value of LGBTQ-inclusive books in the classroom—for students as well as teachers—I am speaking with my colleague Kathleen Barker. Kathleen is a library and information specialist and historian with over 20 years of experience as a museum and library educator.
DF: Hi Kathleen, thanks for joining me.
Kathleen Barker: Hi Deb. Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.
DF: So, Kathleen, tell me, why do LGBTQ-inclusive books matter?
KB: Sure, well, sharing LGBTQ-inclusive stories helps to normalize and affirm LGBTQ identities. We know from talking with teachers and with students that finding the right book at the right time can be life-changing: that moment, that aha moment of recognition, when you pick up a book and start reading and find a character who is like you, or a family structure that looks like yours, can make all the difference to a student.
DF: And you've witnessed this firsthand, right?
KB: Absolutely. So one day in the school library, I was reading to a group of kindergarteners. It was a lovely story about a family with two dads. And after the read-aloud, this student came back up to me, so excited. He wanted to talk about this book because it was the first time he had read a book or seen a book or heard a book that reflected his family. And he was so excited to tell me all about his two dads and how they were similar to or different from the two dads he had just met in the book I had read.
DF: That's a wonderful story.
KB: Uh-huh, but it's also important to keep in mind that, um, these books benefit all students, all readers of any age, regardless of how they identify.
We also want our students to explore the lives and experiences of others, which is so, so important if we want our students to understand people who are not like them.
DF: To build empathy, definitely. Okay, so the benefits of LGBTQ-inclusive literature for students are pretty clear. But how can LGBTQ-inclusive books help teachers?
KB: For teachers, books are a really great and gentle way to introduce complex topics, especially topics that might be new for the teacher, too. We know that many teachers are afraid of saying the wrong thing and inadvertently offending, or even traumatizing, a student, but books are a great tool for mitigating that fear of getting things wrong.
Uh, some educators will find that they don't really have a good handle on certain vocabulary terms—pronouns especially, which are continually evolving. Um, but using books and stories to introduce these topics to students can help take some of the pressure off of the educator. Remember that you don't have to be an expert on all things. You don't have to have all the answers. You can let books do some of that work for you.
DF: Yeah, and in that way books allow teachers to explore LGBTQ content alongside their students—that's great. I mean, this is, after all, a learning process that we are all invested in together.
What are some other ways in which these books can help teachers?
KB: Books are a way to introduce LGBTQ content in a really organic and authentic way. So LGBTQ content in the classroom is often relegated to October, which is LGBT History Month, or June, which of course is Pride month, uh, kind of in the same way that discussions about race or ethnicity are sometimes pushed to Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month, but we know that that siloed approach can often feel really inauthentic to students.
It creates a very false impression of diversity as a “special” topic, rather than thinking about diversity as an integral part of our lives. So books can help initiate, uh, LGBTQ-inclusive conversations in a way that feels more natural, more integrated, but also more contextualized throughout the entire year.
And the books don't have to be explicitly or even primarily about topics like gender identity or sexual orientation in order to offer everyone a great opportunity for rich conversation about those subjects. So even books, for example, with secondary characters that might be exploring their gender identity or sexual orientation can provide a really great starting point for discussions about those ideas.
DF: Can you give some examples of books that might offer opportunities to initiate these kinds of conversations?
KB: Absolutely. There are plenty of examples of what we would call classic or well-known works of literature that can be mined for this particular content. Think about Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, for example, um, where you have a main character who dresses as a member of the opposite sex, um, takes on characteristics, pretends to be a member of the opposite sex for various reasons. Um, Shakespeare is full of references and plays on gender and sexuality.
DF: And what’s great about that is, it also shows that questions of gender identity and the notion of gender fluidity have been alive and have been explored throughout history, going back centuries.
KB: Absolutely. Having characters with different gender identities or characters who explore different gender identities is absolutely nothing new.
You also have the poetry of people like Walt Whitman or Langston Hughes, and their works are really often taught in a void that completely lacks any conversation about gender expression or sexual orientation.
But many of their works can't be fully appreciated unless you consider the context of those authors’ lives. So students, when they read these poems—they learn about them, they discuss them—they're missing out on some of the really fascinating, uh, subtext and nuance, um, that the authors imbued within these works.
DF: That’s so true. And it goes back to what you said about introducing LGBTQ content in an organic way. Like, when a teacher draws attention to the fact that Whitman, for instance, was gay—using today’s language—they’re introducing an integral piece of information that is really going to enhance their students’ understanding and appreciation of his work.
So, Kathleen, the authors you just mentioned would be especially appropriate for high school students. But what about younger students? Do you have any book recommendations for the lower grades?
KB: Absolutely. So one of my favorites, published as an elementary selection, uh, in 2021, is called Pride Puppy!, written by Robin Stevenson and illustrated by Julie McLaughlin. And this particular picture book tells the story of a little girl and her two moms who attend a Pride parade along with their grandmother—the girl's grandmother. Uh, while they are at the Pride parade, though, their puppy gets loose. And as the family is chasing this puppy through the Pride parade, they meet so many amazing people, expressing their Pride in so many different ways.
So it's a really lovely book, um, visually very engaging, and allows readers to look at different symbols of Pride and talk about some of these things in a very, um, non-threatening way.
DF: That sounds delightful. And how about middle school, do you have any favorites for middle school students?
KB: Sure. One really fascinating example is Alex Gino's book, which was originally published in 2015 as George. And this book tells the story of a young middle schooler who really wants to play Charlotte in their school's production of Charlotte's Web. But when the teacher looks at this student, they see a boy named George, but the student knows in their heart that they are a girl—they’re Melissa.
So in 2021, the author, Alex Gino, actually decided to retitle the book Melissa, because the story isn't really about George, is it? It's about Melissa. And so this is a great example of how we can acknowledge society's evolving understanding of gender identity and the language we're using to describe different identities, particularly trans and nonbinary identities.
DF: That's fantastic. And that title change is another great reminder that, yep, we might get things wrong sometimes, but that's not what matters. What matters is that we're open to learning and to making corrections if needed.
KB: Exactly. Um, I think it's also a good idea, though, for teachers to compile their own list of recommendations. Read these books yourself so that if a student comes to ask you about books on this topic, you have a list that you can present. It's another really simple way that we can all as educators help normalize and affirm LGBTQ inclusiveness. Um, we never want a student to come to us and ask for a book, um, and then fumble through our response, right? We don't want it to seem like asking for an LGBTQ-inclusive book is something weird or strange or shameful, or that LGBTQ-inclusive topics are somehow exotic.
It's great to have some ideas right there, books that you have read that you can recommend that might help a student work through their own questions or their own curiosity.
DF: That's a great recommendation, and that kind of proactiveness can really make a big difference.
Kathleen, do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share?
KB: Well, the landscape of children's and young adult literature is becoming more diverse every day. We still have a long way to go, but there are many amazing authors and illustrators creating beautiful and affirming LGBTQ-inclusive works, more and more every year.
And we know that young people are demanding this content, and they will lead us into a more inclusive future, literary and otherwise.
DF: Thank you so much, Kathleen.
KB: You're welcome. Thank you.
DF: Kathleen Barker is History Unerased’s program director and lead professional learning facilitator. She has over two decades of experience as a museum and library educator.
To help you curate an LGBTQ-inclusive reading list, please have a look at the episode notes for resources that Kathleen recommends.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by me, Deb Fowler; Inge De Taeye; Ali Lemer; and Eric Marcus.
The music you heard is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.
American Library Association Library Bill of Rights: https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill
Access to Resources and Services in the School Library: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights: https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/accessresources
Access to Library Resources and Services to Minors: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights: https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/minors
LGBTQ Reads blog by author Dahlia Adler: https://lgbtqreads.com
Publishers Weekly – Starred Reviews page: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/reviews/starred.html A starred review recognizes books of outstanding quality, and is one of the most prestigious designations in the book industry.
School Library Journal Book Reviews: https://www.slj.com/?subpage=Reviews%2B
American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards: Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award: https://www.ala.org/awardsgrants/stonewall-book-awards-mike-morgan-larry-romans-children’s-young-adult-literature-award
SORA App: https://soraapp.com/welcome/search
How to Respond to Challenges and Concerns about Library Resources (Advice from the American Library Association): https://www.ala.org/tools/challengesupport/respond
Book Challenges: Coming Soon to a School Near You? (Blog post from Knowledge Quest: The Journal of the American Association of School Librarians) : https://knowledgequest.aasl.org/book-challenges-coming-soon-to-a-school-near-you/