Earlier this year, as lockdown began, I decided that it was a great opportunity to try to catch up on some of my reading pile. I picked up ‘The Binding’ by Bridget Collins (not for children) and as I was reading, a slow realisation crept over me. Spoiler alert: the two main characters in this book just happen to be gay and fall in love. I had absolutely no idea that this was going to happen. It was as I was reading that I could begin to see the signs. Then, I was gripped! I wanted to know whether my assumption was right or not. I spent the entirety of a sunny Sunday, back in April, sat in my garden reading at least the final two thirds of this book because I was totally stunned that the two main characters were gay and had fallen in love.
This might seem totally alien to some, but to me, it was a revelation. I am a gay man in my early thirties and this was the first time I had ever read a book where the two main characters were gay. Indeed, this was the first time I had read a book where any of the characters were openly gay. What shocked me more was that there was no song or dance made about that.
You could argue that I haven’t read widely enough – I’m certain this isn’t the first book to contain gay characters – but I am also certain that including gay characters into a novel, where that isn’t the defining feature of the narrative, is not yet mainstream.
I spent the following days bereft that I had left this world and these characters and I went on to spend a lot of time reflecting.
When I was in primary school there were very few or no books which overtly reflected LGBTQ+ lifestyles. At the time, I assume it wasn’t even thought of. But how much of a difference would it have made to my life if I had been exposed to those kinds of characters at a young age which reflected who I am back at me?
It took me until this year to finally read a book where I could totally and completely identify with a character in a book that I’m reading – and, what’s more, by chance. Even now, writing this several months later, I feel really emotional about that. I never realised how important that was. It had never occurred to me to seek a book to read including gay characters – I didn’t think it was important. On reflection, I can see that it is. As a teenager and young adult, I would latch onto the (few) television shows which portrayed gay characters at the time – because that validated who I am. Fortunately, these days, LGBTQ+ characters in television and film is more commonplace, although in my opinion, there is still more work to do.
For the first time, I now fully realise just how important a diverse book stock is in all education settings, ranging from early years all the way through to colleges and universities. Children need to see themselves reflected back in the books they are reading to make reading relevant to them. Be that books which reflect a ‘typical’ family structure, books that portray single parent family structures, books which portray people of BAME background or, indeed, books which portray those who identify as LGBTQ+. Of course, many children may not realise at a young age that they are LGBTQ+, however by upper primary, some might. Many will know that they are ‘different’, so it falls upon us to validate who they are or who they might be. It falls upon us to normalise people who identify as LGBTQ+. It falls upon us to validate those family structures of children who may come from a family where their parents are of the same sex or where a parent might identify as transsexual. We need to show children that it is ok – indeed that it is ‘normal’.
I hope the new RSE curriculum will help with this, however, books have an untold power. We at the HfL Primary English team know that much. Books have the power to reflect back who we are – even without us realising. They reflect the very fabric of the society in which we live. To paraphrase Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, they need these mirrors, just as they need the windows on other contexts and worlds that books offer. They contain the power to make us laugh or cry. They can make us feel elated, exuberant or downtrodden and dejected. They leave us feeling bereft when we finish the story – just as ‘The Binding’ did for me back in the Spring.
So what is out there? What books can we bring into the primary classroom which are appropriate for children and can go some way to address the issues I have mentioned?
Thankfully for us, there is now an ever growing range of beautifully crafted books which do normalise people who identify as LGBTQ+.
Here are a few I have had the pleasure of reading and which I heartily recommend to you:
By Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Illustrated by Henry Cole
This beautifully illustrated picture book is perfect for younger children. It tells the true story of two male penguins who live in the Zoo in New York. These two penguins behaved just as other female and male penguin couples did. They even tried to hatch their own eggs which were, heartbreakingly, only rocks. This was until a zookeeper identified one egg which wasn’t being looked after by another penguin couple and it was given to these two male penguins who went on to raise this chick.
This story in beautifully told in a way which young children will be able to comprehend. I can easily see this opening up discussions in early primary classrooms where I have no doubt that many children will feel totally joyful that this baby penguin had been adopted and looked after by the male penguin couple.
By Jessica Love
Another, stunning picture book in which children will find themselves totally immersed. It tells the story of a little boy called Julián who just wants to be a mermaid. As we look at the pages, Julián is quite up front to his Nana that he is a mermaid. Throughout, we worry what his Nana might think about this. Thankfully for us, is Nana is totally accepting and actively encourages Julian to be who he wants to be. What a wonderful message to send to our young children: Be who you want to be.
A follow up, Julián at the Wedding has recently been published.
By Rob Sanders. Illustrated by Steven Salerno
This book is more appropriate for those children in KS2. Another brilliantly written picture book, it addresses head on the gay rights movement in the US. It talks about the inequality of gay people and I would imagine that this idea would be shock to many children who now fill our classrooms. The text follows Harvey Milk, who believed in equal rights for gay people and how he became one of the first openly gay people to be elected to political office in 1977. It goes on tell the story of how the rainbow flag came to become a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community. It also tells how he was assassinated in 1978. It does, however, leave the reader on a note of hope. It shows how much progress towards equality has been made in the time since. This book is sure to open up much discussion in the primary classroom. I imagine some of the contents might shock some children, however, it is a fantastic age-appropriate text to deal with these ideas head-on. I am sure it will provoke anger and confusion within the children, but also hope. This is one to devote a fair amount of time to.
By Meg Grehan
This chapter book is most appropriate for those in KS2. It is a light read, but an insightful one. It tells the story of Stevie who has strong feelings for her friend, Chloe. It is an easy to access book which delicately explores the range of emotions which children may find themselves dealing with which they may not understand.
By Scott Stuart
This is a rhyming story of love and self-acceptance. It focusses on a boy who desperately wants to follow in the blue shadow of his father – to be big and strong. However, he has a pink shadow and loves ponies, princesses, fairies and things which might traditionally be perceived as not for boys. With the help of his father, the boy learns to accept his own shadow and be who he is.
If you would like further inspiration for other brilliant texts, Booktrust website has some wonderful suggestions as does the LGBTQ Primary hub.