LGBTQ+ Representation in Children's Books/Media

  • Hello everyone!

    When I illustrate my children's books, I aim to be as diverse as possible so that children and parents of all backgrounds can find my work relatable, inclusive and seen. This includes sexuality as well as race and gender taking a part in my characters and environment.

    I can't seem to find anything on SVS or on the lovely podcast that speaks about how minorities should be represented and the problems that may come with having a liberal viewpoint on how my families in children's books should look. Honestly, I aim to have the same level of representation in my stories and illustrations as the "Dragon Prince" on Netflix (If you haven't checked it out, please do it's a treasure). So here are my questions to ponder...

    • What are your thoughts on LGBT+ representation in publishing?
    • Have you found resistance to including LGBT+ characters, and how have you dealt with that pushback?
    • Does you identifying as an LGBT+ children's book artist affect what jobs you get from certain publishers?
    • Has anyone faced pigeonholing themselves in only LGBT+ publications after a few pro LGBT+ jobs?

    So friends, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!

  • Moderator

    Lee White made a post about Diversity in Childrens Books a while ago, in preparation for a potential 3-Point Perspective podcast (say that three times real fast.. hehe...) There are also a handful of threads that tangentially address LGBTQ+ issues but not specifically (as far as I can tell). The discussion is within the context of the larger idea of Diversity as a whole.

    There have been a LOT of really great throught-provoking comments on some of the threads, but just as LGBTQ+ is perceived as a parental hot topic in the real world it is also a hot topic in the world of childrens publishing...

    I feel like having LGBTQ+ characters is usually a choice made specifically by the Art Director/Editor, much like it is sometimes a conscious choice to depict a multi-cultural panorama of children. It doesn't feel (to me) like a passive, "throw one into the collage or background" kind of thing because when those kinds of choices become incidental they often come back to cause problems for the publisher... Especially LGBTQ+ types of situations/characters.

    As in life, there are many many many perspectives regarding the placement and positioning of LGBTQ+ characters and stories in the cultural milieu. More publishers are deciding they have good reasons to undertake LGBTQ+ projects, so perhaps the desire for them is increasing. The number of smaller imprints and even self-published books is growing, but like any story that appeals to a specific demographic there are pros and cons to narrowing one's consumer base.

    As a gay man of over 50 years, it seems to me that there is room for multiple perspectives. It seems to me that no one is stopping anyone from self-publishing the books they want to write and illustrate. It seems to me that big publishers are acknowledging a broader consumer base, and in some cases specifically making books they know will not render profits because they feel strongly about the content's message.

    All I do know is that the world of publishing in general is experiencing a sea-change, and what is the norm today may not be the norm tomorrow. Gone is the stranglehold the Big Three have on publishing and distribution. There is a much broader industry out there now, with space for all manner of things if you embrace non-traditional pathways and definitions of success (which, ironically, are becoming more and more the traditional norm all the time...). So much of how one frames "representation" is dependent on one's own perceptions and understanding of that concept & one's own goals and employment preferences. There is no one, single, "endorsed" angle from which to look at it.

    Honestly, I don't expect to work professionally with traditional publishing industry channels as an illustrator. Can any illustrator anymore? Doing that is like winning the lottery regardless of your creed or culture or preferences... I think illustrators of all stripes are finding work outside the traditional publishing route as often as they are getting work within it, and that is an important shift. I think rational illustrators acknowledge that they can't follow the path to success their mentors followed or outlined. So, from a certain perspective, "resistance" from traditional publishing is irrelevant...

    There is something incredibly powerful that happens when one stops looking for validation and legitimacy from corners that ultimately have different paradigms, priorities, definitions and perspectives on the whole thing...

  • @Coreyartus Thank you so much for taking the time to respond and I think you bring up some great points. I'll try and find that post of Lee's as I had not found it in my searches nor anything for that matter, maybe I was searching categories and not posts?

    I think the industry is changing as the world does around it and I feel like traditional publishing has always run a bit behind on the world (Some still use postcards and snail mail...) so perhaps the lack of representation is due to both the political stigma behind LGBTQ+ people around the world (the consumer) and the fact that like any change it takes time and maybe I'm just jumping on board at the beginning of it.

    I do want to work in traditional publishing as an illustrator, I've heard both Big 3 and Big 5 as a reference to the main publishing houses so perhaps they're expanding and breaking off as editors and art directors do? I have a hard time understanding how groups of people can be a "hot topic" still as at least in my children's books you want to show children the world through stories of girls finding their kites and boys chasing frogs and it just so happens their parents are gay?

    I would definitely like to read the comments of prior posts for sure and am actually going to try to hunt those down right now. But again, thank you for your thoughtful response, I appreciate you taking the time to discuss it!

  • Moderator

    If you use the word "Diversity" in this forum's search engine, you'll find a whole bunch of posts and threads...

    I think your point regarding "happens to be gay" is the crux of the issue for many people... As much as we'd like to define LGBTQ+ in the "just happens" category, there are as many people out there who are entirely opposed to the very idea of doing that... We see examples of it all over the news today, so I am not at all sure we can hope to represent in that way yet. The presence of LGBTQ+ characters or storylines is, sadly, instantly polarizing still even today. I'd love to change that, and there are more and more people who think, "meh, so what?" all the time, but that shift is slower in material intended for children. That's a reality. But that's not to say there aren't more and more publishing imprints flat out embracing it and running with it. And there is more and more of an audience out there for material that says "so what" all the time.

    But I would be surprised if inclusion/representation for most children's book projects mounted by traditional publishers isn't a purposeful editorial/art direction choice most of the time. Or at least something that gets discussed. Because surely Art Directors don't let illustrators just include whatever they want wherever they want it... I'd be surprised if that's the norm...

    Because stigma dies hard. As do most fear-based emotional beliefs and responses. There is still a lot of fear and discomfort out there regarding a lot of different topics--race, gender, religion... The list goes on and on... And I have to believe the traditional publishing mechanism is aware of that and know what type of impact including representation might/might not have...

    The good news is that things are changing. Look at these two graphics by the School Library Journal regarding racial representation:



    I think it's important to note that as representation grows for some, it grows for all. At least, I have to believe that. It may be slow, but it's happening.

    So, perhaps, as you move into working with traditional publishing channels, all of this may be a moot point? Maybe? Hopefully? A guy can dream, right? Even finding publishers interested in printing LGBTQ+ work at all is shifting. Now there are imprints out there and independent publishers that intentionally seek out LGBTQ+ works, grants specifically for writing and supporting them, and high profile awards! That was flat-out impossible 15 (10?) years ago. The landscape is changing. For all of us.

  • Hi @Coreyartus and @Blayne-Fox
    Having had a good read through the points you’ve both made. I don’t think I’m qualified to add much to this. However I am really interested in this issue.
    I think society would really benefit from picture books that include non stereotypical characters.
    When and where I grew up sexuality was seen as a moral duty, which is just ridiculous. After a lot of teasing at school, including from some teachers, one of my friends discovered he was gay later in life. He shouldn’t have had such a hard time at school. Maybe good books would have helped change people’s views.
    We have had chats about representation and diversity in illustration, he clearly feels like society is behind. I feel like as image makers we are at the forefront and including the amazing little boy I know who sometimes wears eye liner and nail varnish shouldn’t be an issue.
    Are there any picture book titles out there that deal with this well, in your opinions?
    Also is there any sort of practical guidance you could give to illustrators?

    I’m also interested in the subject of ‘toxic masculinity’ although this may be a different topic,for a different thread, I feel it has connections with the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community, (but this may be due to my ignorance.)

  • I can't say much about the publishing side of things, but as a member of the LGBT community I can say for certain that there is a market for more inclusive children's books. I'm willing to bet it's a growing market too! I know I'll want to read books with my kids someday that have families with two moms.

    If you think about Steven Universe or the Lumberjanes series, there ARE examples of popular kids media successfully including LGBT themes. I don't know about more traditional children's books, but I'm sure it's simply a matter of time!

    I follow an artist on Instagram who's been doing this kind of stuff (noemie_illustration). Her work is beautiful! I'm not sure if her projects center on the LGBT concept or simply have it present.

    I do want to say (perhaps unnecessarily, since this is touched on in other posts about representation) that you do need to be careful if you aren't actually a part of the community. I think it's wonderful (and ideal) that someone wants to depict the existence of families with gay parents as normal. But do your research to make sure you aren't unintentionally promoting harmful stereotypes, or just way off base on something. I guess it doesn't necessarily have to come from personal experience to feel authentic, but I think the more effort you put into knowing the subtle differences, the better your characters will resonate with the audience they're representing. (makes me think of this article I read the other day, as an example of something you might not realize makes a difference

    I hope we do start seeing more representation! And hopefully we can get to the point as a society where we don't need to hesitate and we simply include without thinking about it.

  • Moderator

    @Kuarahy and @peteolczyk I personally think the best solution to including themes/cultures/representation that writers or illustrators don't know much about is to simply hire a Sensitivity Editor like one would a regular Editor. It's a mark of professionalism to ask trusted friends who are part of the communities being represented (or--following best practices--demographically appropriate professionals who know your specific field/industry) to glance at one's work, just like you'd hire someone to check your punctuation, spelling, grammar, themes, flow, etc.

    I'm hoping that more and more people who want to be inclusive won't feel like they can't because they're not part of that demographic. Helping them find the resources they need so they can do their work accurately and respectfully should be like finding an expert for using language or terms you don't know or people you don't know or historical periods you don't know--it should be that simple and that demystified and just easy and uncomplicated and normal.

    Because I fear if we go down the path of "only members can ethically write about members" we will find ourselves on a very very slippery slope. That's how too many have inverted the "Own Voices" movement on itself. As undeniably valuable as it is to get more diverse professionals who can write and illustrate with unique sensitivity and authenticity by virtue of their own membership in a demographic, it seems selfish to rigidly segregate ourselves into distinct creator camps with demographic boundaries... I really hope we aren't doing that. That seems wrong to me... We have to trust each other to take the appropriate steps to write and illustrate stories respectfully and accurately. I hope we can do that.

  • This is such an amazing discussion and I do hope it keeps going, I warn for the wall of text as I emerge from my 2019 hermit cave:

    @Coreyartus After reviewing the representation posts I found on SVS including the one Lee brought up a few months back, I've come to almost the same if not an even bigger conclusion that the children's book industry is facing changes that, respectfully, Lee White, Will Terry, and Jake Parker may have not faced in their beginnings when they were young and breaking out into the industry. Therefore the challenges I and many other queer illustrators are facing have no base to go off of, no comparison, as we venture into the industry on our own accord. That is honestly quite scary when the world barely recognizes us as people in many countries both developed and underdeveloped.

    Sure there were (are) challenges of race representation but it seems like the industry is somewhat stuck and/or stiff in changing things from "you can do it" books and minority side characters. When I saw this extremely recent statistic you posted, I honestly felt gutted. It breaks my heart that there seems to be such little representation in characters who flex their imagination other than overcoming a preconceived societal standard. This is the last I'll stray to the race representation side of things as to keep on the topic at hand. I don't think there IS even a statistic of LGBTQ+ representation in Children's media. And I think it's because you are right--it's only now starting to gain favor in the world, that anyone can love who they'd like to love and families can come in all shapes and sizes and historically things have been that way for longer than science can measure.

    It gave me a whole new New Year's resolution that's for sure! It made me question whether this industry was both the right industry for me (i.e is struggling through a changing tide is feasible as a multiple-job juggling freelancer who just got her first publishing contract and is still figuring out how to break in) and if--with again, little to no relateable base to go off of in past trepidations as a breakout illustrator--this is a movement I want to be a part of? After a few days of hard thinking, I've come to the conclusion that whether it be race, sexuality, gender, or ability, we as children's book illustrators have a skill, a superpower if you will, that allows us to paint the world for the world's children. As @peteolczyk said, we are the image markers and are at the forefront of change as artists. In mass, we are what the world will be and if the tide is shifting to this beautiful, vibrant, accepting, and colorful society that I KNOW deep down will better the world's views in each other, then that is even more powerful of a reason to be a children's book illustrator than I had ever imagined.

    @peteolczyk I have been noticing a massive uptick in specifically children's animation (Steven Universe, She-Ra, Dragon Prince just to name a few) where they go full out on queer representation. Do they lack in other areas of representation, possibly, but those have been the forefront examples on all the anti-inclusion articles I have come across. I should also note that Steven Universe has won SO MANY awards for their inclusion of sexuality and gender and even tackling as adult themes as toxic relationships that most would never think to include in a children's tv show. Not to mention that they do it in a way that is understandable to the child, not pressing a message to the parents but simply showing all of the types of beautiful humans that are out there. Children's publishing is slowly starting to sprinkle LGBTQ+ representation but in VERY gentle toe-in-water tests such as boys wearing dresses or liking girly things. This more so challenges that Toxic Masculinity you were talking about, a subject that bleeds well into accepting that boys can prefer femininity and girls to masculinity that does allow more acceptance to LGBTQ+ people down the line as it grows in acceptance.

    @Kuarahy You are absolutely right. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community I do have personal experiences to pull off of even when living in the United States right on the bible belt. Race representation I am a tad more limited to because I am a white young adult who is still learning about the world and learning all of its cultures and nationalities and has little to no income for travel exposure. But I am sound in my understanding that just because I barely have touched the surface it doesn't mean they should be limited to and waiting for someone of their nationality to represent them in children's books. The more children connect to books that aren't focused on their representation as a plot point or an over-coming story, the more artists will come from those children who are sparked to represent from personal experience. And if I can help add to those numbers, I don't see a problem in that, but I refuse to paint myself as understanding that culture until I delve into references, research and exposure in the process as to not be so egotistical as to generically represent (Not to mention I will never have that experience and for that I will always respect my place in that). A good example of how I've gone about this in previous projects is honestly Youtube. Finding personal youtube channels of people who talk about their lives, their home interiors, their families, or their day to day tasks. Going out of your way in your daily life to talk to people who you may have avoided in the past, as uncomfortable and awkward as it may be (but I'm okay with being the awkward white person if it means I can better learn about the world around me). This takes time, I will make mistakes, and I will learn from them, and that's all anyone can ever ask it to keep the mind open and learning.

    In conclusion friends, this has been a really amazing discussion and I think that as much as the world is scary and challenging and politically corrupt confusing, no matter the boundaries artists are there to shape the world. Society standards will shift and sway but acceptance is something that shouldn't be treated as a trend, this is the reality of our world and humanity as a whole and in children's books we can give children a base to form their own opinions beyond that of their parents. I think that is an extremely worthwhile venture and I am convinced there is a blossoming new generation of illustrators to help push that forward. ❤ Thanks again for all the reponses and I HOPE the trio will do a podcast episode on this subject in the future. Apologies again for the absolute WALL of text and I thank you if you got through all of my ramblings~

  • Moderator

    Well said, @Blayne-Fox !! Well said!!

  • @Blayne-Fox don’t apologise for the wall of text. I’m learning a lot from this thread.
    Thank you @Coreyartus @Blayne-Fox and @Kuarahy for your insights. It’s given me a lot to think about.
    I’m sorry I couldn’t add more to this thread, I’ll have a good look at the titles you recommended.

  • By the numbers shown for 2015 & 2018, whites are vastly under represented. If an artist or AD is calling for more accurate diversity, are they really?

  • Moderator

    @jimsz Hmm... I'm not sure it's accurate to use the statistics of living racial populations to dictate commensurate proportions of minority representation in the children's book publication industry... The population of a racial demographic isn't the only statistic one looks at to determine whether a minority is receiving "proportional" representation. Remember that not only are new books being counted as they're published, but those books go into a pre-existing market of books making up the cultural milieu at large from all of history. Current books published in 2019/20 aren't just competing against their particular year's books, but all of the books on the market that already exist, every children's book ever written still in print. That's a massive, impossible-to-measure body of work. And it's dominated by offerings traditionally written by and for a primarily white, straight, European-descended consumer base.

    The statistics in the graphics above only count books from a particular year. But note that classic books from the mid-20th century are still being printed and selling thousands and thousands of copies every year, so an accurate picture of what is truly available to consumers is impossible to determine.

    How a racial minority is proportionally represented against the current population pool is also impossible... The population is constantly shifting. Statistics suggest that the white population will be below 50% by 2045.

    Also, just because a book exists doesn't mean it's actually serving a specific minority population as representation. Representation can only exist if those characters or stories are actually reaching the population they're ostensibly representing. There may be dozens and dozens of self-published books out there that are going nowhere because their reach is limited due to lack of industry-only channels of distribution. So their "representation" is incredibly limited. Existence doesn't necessarily mean anything.

  • @Coreyartus very true! That's a great way of putting it 🙂

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