Picture This

Based on conversations with friends and acquaintances, it seems that many people think QUILTBAG books must all be for adults or teens. That somehow those themes and characters aren’t appropriate for younger readers, or that there’s no way to tell those stories in a way that works for children.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And if your QUILTBAG picture book knowledge begins and ends with Heather Has Two Mommies, you are in for a treat. Some of my favorite QUILTBAG books of the past year are picture books, written and illustrated for very young readers.

Neither by Airlie Anderson

In a land of yellow birds and blue rabbits, a green creature with bunny ears and a beak shows up. Claiming to be “both,” the green one is instead labelled as “neither” — neither this nor that, neither these nor those — and therefore unsuited for any of the birdy games or rabbity activities. After being banished and looking for Somewhere Else, the protagonist instead finds welcoming friends in The Land of All. Spare text, bright colors, and bold, simple drawings make this book perfect for even the youngest readers, and the message is clear: there are all different kinds of beings, and the best world is where everyone is welcome.

The Adventures of Honey and Leon by Alan Cumming, illustrated by Grant Shaffer

In a book inspired (very loosely) by real life, actor Alan Cumming and his illustrator husband Grant Shaffer tell the story of two sophisticated Manhattan dogs, Honey and Leon, and their two dads. The dogs worry whenever the dads leave on trips, so one day Honey and Leon decide to follow along in secret, just to keep an eye on their family. Jaunty, colorful illustrations perfectly capture the fabulous lifestyle and outsized attitude of these very cosmopolitan dogs and their dads.

A Church for All by Gayle E. Pitman, pictures by Laure Fournier

I’m a Methodist, and the actions of the United Methodist Church at the recent General Conference have been painful and divisive. Thankfully, my local church is much more like the one in this joyous, inclusive book: “Hands receiving / Hands connecting / Hearts believing / Hearts accepting / Feel the Spirit / Can you hear it? / It’s here at our church for all!” The pictures show a broad diversity of age, race, gender, disability, social and economic status, and fashion choice, all attending church together with love and grace.

Phoenix Goes to School by Michelle and Phoenix Finch, illustrated by Sharon Davey

This autobiographical picture book tells the story of Phoenix, a transgender girl who was AMAB (assigned male at birth), as she heads off for her first day at school. She is nervous to wear a dress, and worried that older kids might bully her or make fun of her. In fact, she has a great first day and makes some new friends. Supplemental material at the back of the book offers information and discussion questions for children and adults.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

In this 2019 Stonewall Award winner, Julian and his grandmother see three women on the subway dressed as glamorous mermaids. Julian decides he wants to be a mermaid too, and improvises a costume with items found in his grandmother’s house. Luscious pictures and minimal text tell the sweet story of Julian’s emerging identity and his supportive abuela. Be sure to look up videos of the Coney Island Mermaid Parades that inspired this book.

Sewing the Rainbow by Gayle E. Pitman, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown

Harvey Milk has rightly gotten a lot of attention for his role in the gay rights movement in San Francisco in the 1970s. This book focuses instead on fellow activist and costume designer Gilbert Baker, the man who created the first rainbow flags for a march on City Hall. Gilbert grew up in Kansas where everything was “dull and gray and flat” but Gilbert was a boy “full of color and sparkle and glitter.” A Reader Note at the end of the book provides even more biographical detail and historical context.  

All of these titles and so many more are perfect introductions to QUILTBAG themes for early readers. And while it’s tempting to think of this as a fairly new trend in children’s picture books, the New York Times did a story recently on “The Gay History of America’s Classic Children’s Books”; it’s a fascinating read.

Whether or not you’ve got some little ones in your life to read with, I encourage you to pick up any of these delightful titles and explore the rainbow of stories picture books have to offer.