Is there a lack of diversity in LGBTQI children's literature?

According to a Deakin study, almost a third of rainbow families struggle to find representation in LGBTQI+ children’s books. Booksellers say the lack of Australian representation in queer children's titles is also a problem.
Is there a lack of diversity in LGBTQI children's literature? Image: Shutterstock.
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Andrea Simpson

Tuesday 30 June, 2020

Preliminary findings from a new Deakin University research study show that almost a third of 'rainbow families' (a family in which the parent or parents are same-sex attracted) struggle to find books to share with their children which adequately represent their family lives.

Children's books which do depict rainbow families often fail to depict families from diverse cultures and backgrounds, the study also suggests.

Deakin School of Communication and Creative Arts researchers Dr Helen Young, Dr Paul Venzo and Lara Hedberg report that preliminary survey respondents have expressed a desire to read picture books reflecting their family’s situation but are finding it difficult.

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Dr Helen Young said: ‘While children’s picture books representing queer parents have been around since the late 1970s – which is earlier than many people expect – they haven’t evolved much over this period to represent families from a variety of cultures or backgrounds.’

Young also noted that ‘it’s hard to find books featuring LGBTQI+ families online unless you already know the titles, and the ones that do exist mostly come from North America.’

To further understand the experiences of rainbow families and their purchases of children’s literary titles, ArtsHub spoke with several Australian booksellers to canvas their opinions and insights.

CALL FOR MORE AUSTRALIAN LGBTQI+ TITLES

Michael Earp, bookseller for The Little Bookroom in Carlton North, told ArtsHub that one of the issues with LGBTQI+ books for children is that they are predominantly international titles. Such books can be hard to source, and ‘do not necessarily speak to an Australian experience,’ Earp told ArtsHub.

‘There is plenty of room for Australian publishers to fill this gap by offering stories that include rainbow families on any level, whether that be overtly addressing the family make up, or simply having them as the backdrop to another adventure,’ he said.

‘As booksellers, we heartily agree that there needs to be more LGBTQIA+ diversity in children's literature, with a strong emphasis on Picture Books and Junior/Middle fiction,’ Earp added.

Noel Lee, a bookseller at The Bookshop Darlinghurst, said: ‘As the number of GLBT families raising children increases, so are we finding an increase in online orders for children’s books featuring GLBT families, from all over Australia, and some from NZ.

‘Some of the responses range from delight to relief to gratitude at having been able to find books which represent their family situation, or [which] feature the messages of acceptance, tolerance, difference and being oneself’, he said.

However, Lee pointed out that ‘some of [the customers] have expressed frustration at not being able to source such books at their general bookstore.’

Earp also noted that, ‘While the age that children start paying attention to their own sexuality and what level of content is suitable for which ages is [constantly] up for discussion, there is simply no denying that literature that does not reflect the diversity of the world around all children does not reflect the world at all.’

Read: Queer, trans, and gender diverse artists share what it's like to make art

Graeme Aitken, buyer and manager at The Bookshop Darlinghurst said there needed to be more children’s books that reflected intersectionality between sexuality, gender and race, and that that intersection needed to be reflective of Australian families.

‘This market is developing, and there are probably ten times the number of titles available today than what there was five years ago,’ Aitken said.

‘Although there are many more titles for rainbow families being published, I think it’s valid to say there is a lack of diversity in what is readily available,’ he added.

Rowland Thomson from Hares & Hyenas, Fitzroy said: ‘It is difficult to say that there is a lack of diversity of LGBTIQ+ literature for kids because there is an incredible array of titles out there; they just take research and effort to find.

‘Mainstream publishers are increasingly responsive to community needs and current issues. We see that in the Black Lives Matter campaign and books on the topic, and the same is true of same sex parenting titles, whether picture books for kids or parenting titles,' Thomson continued.

‘But mainstream publishers and non-queer bookshops show their gaps as soon as you go past either the expected make-up of a rainbow family or the occasional standout story from the rest of the rainbow. There are few titles on trans parenting, IVF and other donor-assisted families, and almost nothing on solo queer parents, polyamory, surrogacy, adoption fostering, siblings in rainbow families, gay male couples raising a male child, blended families or shared custody,' they said.

Recommending AUSTRALIAN LGBTQI+ TITLES

Lee said there was an increase in the number of family-friendly LGBQI+ titles available in the last decade, but Australian books were still hard to come by.

‘There is definitely an increasing number of such titles, and while the amount of Australian produced content isn’t that sizeable, there are some notable titles which have become favourites,’ he said.

Lee recommended Australian titles such as the Learn to Include series by Brenna and Vicki Harding (Rainbow Cubby House, My House, Koala’s on parade, and Going to Fair Day) and Wrestle by Maya Newell.

Earp recommended Wrestle and Who’s your Real Mum? by Bernadette Green.

‘Similarly, Sophie Beer's recent titles, Change Starts WIth Us, Love Makes a Family and Kindness Makes Us Strong are very simple and have delightfully unexamined representations of all family types,’ Earp said.

‘However, I very much feel that there is so much more room in publishing for more diverse representation of all types.’

Earp explained: ‘Our team are passionate booksellers and recommend these titles to customers when the book fits the brief, treating them as any other picture book for any customer. But statistically, rainbow families are largely underrepresented in what we're able to offer.’

Of course, it's not just bookshops where rainbow families can access appropriate reading material, as Thomson pointed out.

'Many preschool organisations, schools, libraries, teaching courses and others buy books from us, and we provide them with detailed reading lists and other resources to help them choose wisely,' they said.

'As a specialist queer bookshop it is imperative that we offer this service as the life experience and knowledge of this book sector can often be limited. It is important that we suggest books on gender diversity, trans and other aspects of rainbow parenting that might not be thought about by an organisational client.'

The research team at Deakin invite all rainbow families, including guardians and caretakers, to participate in the nest stage of their survey.

About the author

Andrea Simpson is ArtsHub's Feature Writer and Reviews Editor. Andrea is a Filipino-Australian writer with a love for diverse Australian stories. She is curious about all forms of art, though she has an especially keen interest in the publishing sector.

Andrea has had short stories published in various anthologies, and is currently working on her first novel.  

You can follow Andrea on Instagram @andi_jayyy