Bad for You

Last week the American Library Association put out their annual list of the top ten most challenged books of the previous year (for 2018, it’s actually a top eleven). It’s notable — and not unusual — that more than half of them were challenged because of QUILTBAG content.

The ALA compiles statistics throughout the year whenever a parent or patron questions the appropriateness of a book in a school or public library’s collection and tries to have it removed. If you take a look at the most recent list you can see the rationale given for challenging each book; six of the eleven titles list LGBTQ characters or themes as a reason. The accompanying infographic includes a word cloud that also clearly shows LGBTQIA+ as the biggest concern during challenges, with additional entries for terms like “gender nonconformity,” “transgender characters,” and “same-sex married couple.”

Drama, a graphic novel for tweens by Raina Telgemeier, has shown up on this list for several years now, and comes in this year at #5. Callie, the main character, helps with set design in her middle school’s drama club, and the story focuses on, well, the DRAMA of middle school, including failures, embarrassments, and first crushes. One such romance is between two boys. This tame comic book is perfectly fine for (and very popular with) upper elementary students — but many of its detractors cite the gay content as inappropriate, while finding no issue with the many straight kisses and crushes that arise throughout the story.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E.G. Keller, #2 on this year’s list, got its start as a satirical jab at the Vice President. Mike Pence’s wife and daughter wrote a book about their pet bunny Marlon Bundo. As a response, comedian John Oliver presented this picture book in which Bundo falls in love with another boy bunny, while a villainous stinkbug (who looks suspiciously like the President) tries to thwart their relationship. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is a surprisingly sweet picture book that stands on its own, apart from the political and social satire that spawned it. While some of the complaints about this book arose from its political viewpoint, it received more heat from the same-sex romance between Marlon and his bunny boyfriend.

Why are parents and community members so concerned about QUILTBAG characters and themes in books for children? Why do some citizens attempt to have books removed from libraries and schools, even going so far as to hide or destroy copies of the offending books?

I can’t answer those questions. As a school librarian, I encourage my students to self-select what they want to read, which includes what they don’t want to read. I remind them that their parents can guide what kinds of books they choose, and some families might opt to place certain books off limits. But I emphasize that students and parents don’t get to make those choices for other students and families. I tell my students: If something makes you uncomfortable, simply don’t check it out. Choose the books you like, and leave other books for other readers.

(Several years ago, a mother of one of our students informed me that our library had more “gay books” than other junior highs in our area. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment. At the time we had about 30 such titles amid a fiction collection of over 5,000 books. I’m glad that we have more than that now.)

Sometimes things make us uncomfortable simply because they’re unfamiliar. Perhaps the key then is to read more QUILTBAG books, not banish them from our children’s experience. Science has shown that reading fiction increases emotional intelligence and empathy. Author Sunil Yapa has said, “Empathy is a profound act of imagination and human connection. In fiction, we imagine ourselves into other people’s experiences.” Kids and teens will be more accepting and inclusive if they have read diverse stories about others’ lives.

While some people seek to remove QUILTBAG titles from children’s shelves, lots of people think we don’t have enough QUILTBAG books for youth in libraries — especially stories about people of color, kids with disabilities or mental illness, or youth from other marginalized groups, who also happen to be queer. NBC News recently published a story about the rise of YA books with LGBTQ content. The article features many YA authors, including Amy Rose Capetta and Caleb Roehrig, whose Rainbow List-ed books Echo After Echo and White Rabbit I touted back in QUILTBAG #2 – The Rainbow List. The NBC article also mentions many other worthwhile authors and YA titles.

I’m tired of seeing so many QUILTBAG books on the banned, burned, and challenged lists. We need to move beyond the idea that QUILTBAG books are somehow bad for our kids. In fact, a recent study showed that having a gay friend makes you a better person. So strive to be better, and help the children and teens in your life be better too. Read more QUILTBAG books!

The Rainbow List

Last week, thousands of librarians met in Seattle for the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting. Dozens of volunteer committees met for hours and hours all weekend, after reading stacks and stacks of books all year, to decide award winners and create book lists for the benefit of librarians and readers.

One of those committees chooses titles for the Rainbow List, “…a list of recommended books dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trangendered and questioning issues and situations for children up to age 18” (in the words of the ALA website). This year’s committee, a delightful and dedicated group of ten librarians from all across the country, chose a record-setting 107 books for their list.*

The Top Ten includes picture books, middle grade, and YA titles. There’s a fantasy story, a nonfiction picture book, and a graphic novel; sweet stories and thought-provoking plot lines.

The full list is even more wide-ranging. Here are a few of my favorites:

Jerome By Heart by Thomas Scotto / grades Pre-K to 3

Raphael enjoys his friendship with Jerome: they hold hands, share snacks, and do everything together. Not everyone understands their relationship, but Raphael doesn’t mind because he knows how he feels about Jerome.

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake / grades 5 to 8

Twelve-year-old Ivy’s house is destroyed by a tornado and her family life is thrown into turmoil, leaving her feeling neglected. She’s feeling especially unmoored when her notebook filled with pictures of girls holding hands goes missing just as she’s trying to navigate a possible crush on a new friend. By turns tragic and touching, this gentle story is filled with lovely descriptions of Ivy’s artwork and compelling characters who surround and support Ivy during her tender first steps into adolescence.

Nate Expectations by Tim Federle / grades 6 and up

When Nate’s Broadway show closes, he’s forced to go back to his boring hometown for his freshman year of high school. But where Nate goes, drama (by any definition) is never far behind. In this perfect conclusion to a delightful trilogy, Nate discovers new talents, unexpected family history, and a surprising new friend. Readers should start with Better Nate Than Ever (in which 13-year-old Nate runs away from home to audition for the role of Elliott in ET: The Musical) and savor every awkward, painful, joyous moment of Nate’s journey through to the satisfying, happy-tears conclusion in this final volume.

White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig / grades 8 and up

Rufus runs around all night in a race-against-the-clock attempt to solve a mystery that will clear his sister’s name. Twist: his ex-boyfriend is the one with a car, so the ex is along for the ride. As the two boys uncover clues and interrogate classmates, they also have plenty of drive time to dissect their failed relationship and figure out if they have a future together.

Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta / grades 9 and up

Zara moves to New York City, where she has the opportunity to play the role she’s always coveted. Unfortunately, cast and crew members begin to die under mysterious circumstances. It’s a behind-the-scenes theater tale; it’s a slow-burn murder-mystery; it’s a lesbian love story. The literary style and adult-world setting give this book the feel of an adult novel, but one that will appeal to high schoolers, especially those interested in theater arts.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan / grades 9 and up

Elliot is recruited to a magical school in a magical land when he’s 13 years old. He is intelligent, impatient, sarcastic, and not very adept with social cues, which makes him both annoying and unintentionally hilarious. Throughout his teen years, he works to upend the fantasy world’s violent ways while navigating relationships with classmates and negotiating peace with the many fascinating citizens of the Borderlands.  This book, which began as an online story that just kept growing, sends up some familiar fantasy tropes and plays with gender expectations in delightful ways.

I’ll be talking about more of the Rainbow List titles in future blog posts. Visit the full 2019 Rainbow List to find the titles you’ll want to read and fall in love with.

 

*Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to be one of those ten librarians!