We are starting to see a greater range of relationships with LGBTQIA characters in young adult literature. There has been a demand for more picture books with gender fluid or transgender children and juvenile fiction has been expanding its depiction of families with two moms or two dads. However, most books that include main characters who are in same sex relationships or who are coming out to their families, are about teenagers. This means that children who are starting to question their sexuality at younger ages may not have access to characters they can relate to until they are much older. This may make them feel even less comfortable with their own identities and more hesitant to have conversations with trusted adults.
We know that students are reaching puberty at younger ages. Upper elementary teachers frequently encounter situations in which their students are starting to date or at least say that they “like” each other in that way. These feelings can be strange and confusing for children, but especially so for students who are not heterosexual. Being able to see themselves in characters their own age who are experiencing similar feelings is crucial.
Ashley Herring Blake’s, Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, is one example of the kind of representation that we need to see in upper elementary and middle school classrooms. Ivy is twelve and is starting to notice that, while her friends are becoming interested in boys, she can’t stop drawing pictures of girls standing close together or holding hands. In the midst of a great upheaval in her home life (her house has just been destroyed by a tornado and her mom has recently given birth to twins), Ivy is realizing that her life is not going to look the same as those she sees around her. What will that mean for her relationships with the people she cares about?
One of the most special things about this book is how natural and true it feels to this particular age level. Ivy’s realization is never overtly sexual, nor does it need to be. At twelve, attraction is that feeling of butterflies in your stomach and a desire to spend time with someone. As Ivy says, “Maybe perfect was just another word for belonging. For feeling like yourself…It just meant that things would get better, and make more sense, that your heart wouldn’t always feel so lonely” (287). Isn’t that what we all want to feel at twelve, regardless of who makes us feel that way? Blake also does a beautiful job of showing how realizations of identity can come at any time in a person’s life whether early or late.
Coming out, as anything that differs from the norm, is always going to be hard. But knowing that you are not the first person to feel this way, seeing yourself in books or on TV, can help. Knowing that your teacher or your parent chose to put this book on the shelf is a message that they are safe people to approach. That is the kind of message we want to send to kids no matter how young they are.
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.
Identity 4: I can feel good about my identity without making someone else feel badly about who they are.
Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.
RL.2- Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
RL.3- Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
RL.6- Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.