Books that feature LGBTQ characters can be mirrors for young readers in which they can see themselves reflected. But, for the same reason, they’re also frequently banned in schools or libraries.
Getting these books into young readers’ hands can be challenging if they’re banned, but these works can build self-awareness and acceptance among readers of all backgrounds, Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Assocation told CNN in 2020.
“Books, novels, true stories and memoirs are ways of developing empathy for other people and their lives,” Caldwell-Stone told CNN at the time. “If we take that away from young people, we’re really depriving them of opportunities to develop as individuals, to understand the world.”
To highlight some exemplary LGBTQ books, CNN sought recommendations from authors whose own works have been celebrated (and, often, banned) for highlighting LGBTQ characters. They delivered: Below you’ll find more than 20 suggestions to add to your family’s summer reading list, from picture books for preschoolers to YA graphic novels, all of which center LGBTQ protagonists or address topics like gender identity and sexuality.
Gino has written several books that follow queer and trans protagonists, including “Melissa,” which follows a trans fourth grader who desperately wants to play the titular spider in a school production of “Charlotte’s Web.” They’ve also published “Rick,” about a student who stands up to his homophobic best friend, and “Alice Austen Lived Here,” about two nonbinary students who uncover the hidden queer history of Staten Island.
Gino said of their picks, which are excerpted below: “These are just some of my personal favorites, focusing on the last few years. There are all sorts of LGBTQIA+ books I haven’t read, or even heard of.” They recommended checking out the American Library Association’s Rainbow Book List for more suggestions on LGBTQ literature.
- “Worm Loves Worm,” by J.J. Austrian and illustrated by Mike Curato: Worm meets worm. Worm falls in love with worm. Worm marries worm. A sweet, simple tale of love mattering more than species, societal expectations or the matter of which worm wears the tux at the altar.
- “Jerome By Heart,” by Thomas Scotto and illustrated by Olivier Tallec: Young Raphael loves his friend Jerome. Even if he doesn’t have the language to express the importance of his relationship with his best friend, Raphael knows how to embrace it.
- “Too Bright to See,” Kyle Lukoff: This Newbery honor book follows a soon-to-be-sixth-grader coming to terms with their transness – oh, and a ghost haunting their house.
- “Pride: The Celebration and the Struggle,” Robin Stevenson: This nonfiction work for young readers explores significant moments in LGBTQ history and explains the importance of activism to keep making LGBTQ history.
- “Darius the Great Is Not Okay,” Adib Khorram: On a transformative trip to Iran, teenage Darius meets a new friend, Sohrab, who helps Darius see himself in a new, more compassionate way.
- “Two Boys Kissing,” David Levithan: Two teenage boys try to break the Guinness World Record for kissing, and their story, as well as the stories of their circle of queer friends, is narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who died from AIDS.
Wang is a Taiwanese American author and illustrator of graphic novels, including the moving bestseller “Stargazing,” which follows a pair of best friends in a Chinese American suburb whose lives change when one of them is diagnosed with a brain tumor. There’s also the fairy tale-inspired “The Prince and the Dressmaker,” about the friendship between a prince who enjoys wearing dresses and the seamstress who designs for him. Below, Wang recommends graphic novels for readers in elementary school to high school.
- “The Breakaways,” Cathy G. Johnson: Wang called this book about a diverse fifth-grade soccer team “very honest and sensitive.” It follows several young characters, including a trans boy who comes out to one of his teammates. “The overarching theme of finding strength in your own unique identity will resonate with any young reader who has questions about how they fit in.”
- “Spinning” and “On a Sunbeam,” Tillie Walden: The first title is Walden’s memoir about the author’s experiences as a competitive figure skater who comes out in a conservative town, and the second takes place in space, following two girls who fall in love at boarding school. “Two very different books by a fantastic artist and storyteller about coming-of-age through a queer perspective.”
- “The Magic Fish,” Trung Le Nguyen: This acclaimed graphic novel follows a Vietnamese-American teen who communicates with his immigrant mother through fairy tales while he works up the courage to come out to her. “Readers with different cultural backgrounds or language barriers with their families will especially appreciate this one.”
Callender has written several books for readers of all ages, including the National Book Award winner “King and the Dragonflies,” a deeply felt tale of grief, racism and identity, and Stonewall Honor Book “Felix Ever After,” about a Black trans boy navigating bullying and first love. Below, they highlight works by authors of color.
- “We Are Totally Normal,” Naomi Kanakia: A teenager’s unexpected dalliance with his male friend moves him to think more deeply about his sexuality in this novel about the messy nature of relationships and discovery. “I’ve never seen a book so perfectly capture the chaos and confusion and longing of what it’s like to question one’s identity, to feel it shifting and evolving from one moment to the next, with the acknowledgment that these feelings are perfectly valid.”
- “Let’s Talk About Love,” Clarie Kann: The rare YA novel that centers an asexual queer Black woman, Kann’s book follows protagonist Alice as she navigates a surprising friendship – and maybe relationship – with a friendly library employee. Calendar said the book “validates a queer identity that isn’t seen as often as it could be with an emotional authenticity that tugs on the heart, a realistically complicated main character that I adore, and a hilarious voice. The ace [asexual] representation is glorious to see.”
England, who also spent years as a public librarian, has penned books rooted in fantasy – see “The Disasters,” set in space, or “Spellhacker,” a heist novel set in a magical land – and at least one whose world looks more like our own – that’s “The One True Me and You,” set mostly at a Comic-Con-like event. The author shares some of their favorites below.
- “The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James,” Ashley Herring Blake: The titular 12-year-old Sunny has heart surgery, grieves her mother and develops a crush on another girl. “One of the most perfectly, painfully realistic portrayals of being a queer pre-teen I’ve ever read.”
- “Right Where I Left You,” Julian Winters: Queer best friends Isaac and Diego geek out and fall in love before they separate for college.“Friends to lovers, comics, superheroes, video games, complicated families, and a happy ending. My catnip.”
- “Pride Colors,” Robin Stevenson: England said their toddler loves this board book about the colors of the rainbow Pride flag. “A sweet celebration of love, family, and rainbows!”
- “Like Other Girls,” Britta Lundin: High schooler Mara joins the football team and inspires other girls to do the same, leading her classmates to reckon with misogyny in sports. “There are so few representations of butch queer girls, and this one really hit home for me. Love a good YA sports novel, too!”
Joris Bas Backer
Backer is a trans cartoonist whose graphic novel “Kisses for Jet,” about a trans boy’s coming-of-age before Y2K, was recently translated into English from German. He recommends two works told through images.
- “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human,” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan: This graphic novel is a comprehensive and inclusive guide to gender identity, sexuality and many other subjects on teens’ minds. “That [Moen] now makes a guide for teens is the most caring real-talk that could possibly descend on pubescent bedrooms.”
- Man Time, online comic: This digital series follows several trans men in a light, playful comic about transitioning, based on the experiences of the artist and his friends (he works under the comic’s name, “Man Time”).”Because it’s a webcomic, the short comic strips are easily accessible for anybody, anywhere. They are heartwarming and uplifting if you are on ‘team relate’ and enlightening if you are on ‘team learning.’”
Members of Reese Witherspoon’s book club may recognize Johnson – she wrote the book club pick “You Should See Me in a Crown,” about a Black teen in Indiana who falls for one of her competitors for prom queen. Her latest, “Rise to the Sun,” is a queer romance set at a music festival. Johnson recommended a mix of newer titles and beloved books published over the last decade.
- “The Black Flamingo,” Dean Atta: In this Stonewall Book Award winner, a gay, mixed-race teen living in London stumbles upon the art of drag and grows comfortable in his own skin.
- “The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School,” Sonora Reyes: High schooler Yami transfers to a mostly White Catholic school after a former friend outs her. She tries to resist falling for the only out queer girl at her new school.
- “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” Beck Albertalli: Better known as the book that inspired “Love, Simon” and the TV follow-up, “Love, Victor,” the novel centers closeted teen Simon, who’s forced to come out after a leaked email reveals that he’s gay.
- “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” Emily M. Danforth: Also a book that was later adapted for film, Danforth’s novel follows a lesbian Montana teen growing up in the ’90s and surviving conversion camp.
- “Kings of B’More,” R. Eric Thomas: A Baltimore teen plans a “Ferris Bueller”-esque sendoff for his best friend, which includes Pride celebrations and dance parties, before they part ways after graduation.