LGBTQ Non-Fiction for Teens: A Collection Development Guide

“I read books about schools that have gay/straight alliance clubs.  These are fictional books.  And so I believe gay/straight alliance clubs must also be fictional. ”
-A.S. King, Ask the Passengers

A few months after starting my new position, I culled Deal With It!  A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL by Esther Drill from a donation pile to be added to my library’s collection.  I knew the book was a few years old but the level of information was perfect and appealing for teens.  A few days later when our cataloger came to me with the book and said, “I don’t think this book belongs in the children’s section.”  Knowing about the sexual content, I had to agree.  “Yes,” I told her, “that’s why I want you to add it to the teen collection.”  She looked at me for a second, probably thinking about how new I was to my position, how much I still had to learn.  “Well, the problem is that we don’t actually have a teen non-fiction collection.”

Imagine my surprise!  My library didn’t even have a separate collection for teen non-fiction.  Imagine how many books we’d skipped buying.  Imagine how many books were misfiled in the children’s collection where they simply did not belong and weren’t circulating.  Imagine how many teens had walked away because they refused to go look in the children’s area.

Naturally, there was only one thing I could do.  I had to start a teen non-fiction collection.

The teen non-fiction collection is now almost five years old (that’s just how long I have been at my library) and it’s not only consistently expanding but it circulates quite well.  It contains everything from biographies to video game guides, books on how to make clothes and memoirs about recovering from drug addiction.  There’s poetry and books about getting into college.  Creating and growing this collection is one of my proudest achievements at this job.

I thought about that moment my chagrined cataloger told me we had no teen non-fiction again the night of a teen event when one of my openly gay teen patrons held out to me the book Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens.  “This book,” he asked, entirely serious, “will it help me get gaydar?”

I explained that you can’t really “get” gaydar but that he’d picked a GREAT book and that it would help him figure out dating and flirting and it even talked about gaydar.  “Perfect,” he said, adding it to his huge pile of books to be checked out, “That’s just what I need.”

I thought, later, about how glad I was that book was on my library shelves, that it had a place where it belonged so it could end up in that patron’s hands and his life.  In that moment, I knew I had to write this post.

It is so important that EVERY public library have fiction books featuring LGBTQ characters.  We, as a library profession, have spent years getting this message across – there are blogs (great blogs!) and professional development books (great books!) and pre-conferences and seminars and workshops and panels (I was on myself back at PLA in 2010) and it’s AMAZING, all of it.  I am beyond words glad that these books keep getting published and that, more often than not, the conversations we find ourselves having now revolve around not “Should I buy these books?” but “Why can’t I buy more of these books?” 

But the moment my patron came up to me with Queer in his hand – that was an indelible moment for me.  He also had a giant pile of fiction books he couldn’t wait to check out but not one, might I add, had an LGBTQ character in it.  He had no interest in fiction with LGBTQ characters but a book that could help him understand gaydar and dating and coming out and kissing boys?  He wanted that immediately. 

In that moment, I knew one thing absolutely: We owe our teen patrons all the fiction they can read about LGBTQ life, that’s for sure.  But we have another responsibility to them too: we owe them the facts.

Does your library own Queer?  If not, why not Does your library have Queer shelved somewhere teens can easily access it, in a collection of non-fiction of their own?  If not, why not? Does your library have other books  similar to Queer – the kind of books that speak honestly to LGBTQ teens about their lives and about queer life in general?  If not, why not?

Sure, there are budget issues.  And sure there might even be community issues.  But I know librarians who probably wouldn’t even blink twice at buying YA fiction with LGBTQ characters and that’s the place we need to get at when it comes to buying LGBTQ non-fiction: it’s a no-brainer, it’s being published and by buying it and having it on our shelves we’re not only supporting our teen patrons who need to find it but the publishers who are putting it out there.

This is my rally cry to all of you! Librarians: start today!  Don’t have a teen non-fiction collection?  It’s time to start one.  Do have a teen non-fiction collection?  It’s time to make sure it’s LGBTQ friendly.  Patrons and community members: ask your library to purchase these books!

This post is going to hightlight some of my favorite LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly titles published for teens.  By no means do I claim this is all of them and, of course, there is always the hope more will be published.  But these are great titles I recommend for library shelves, titles that can enrich a teen non-fiction collection for all your readers and researchers.

If you are on a limited budget, there are four titles I think are essential.  Start with these.

Gay America: Struggle for Equality by Linas Alsenas (Abrams, 2008) The first book of its kind: a non-fiction book tracing the history of the LGBTQ liberation and activist movement.  This one, more than any other, is my most recommended.  This is the book that tells teens they have a rich history of activists who have protested and worked for change, that they are not alone and never have been, that their story is America’s story.

Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke (Zest Books, 2011) This book has it all: gaydar, flirting, sex, dating advice, quizzes, and first person narratives from queer co-authors Kathy and Marke.  It also contains a truly great and special chapter, one I can see being a lifeline for LGBTQ teens: Navigating Your Queer Sphere: Finding Your People.  

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens by Kelly Huegel (Free Spirit Publishing, 2011, second edition) It’s amazing and gratifying to have a second edition of this ground-breaking book.  This is a comprehensive and even-handed book that covers a wide range of topics using straight-forward and clear language.  There’s a chapter on coming out, one about growing up and facing challenges in the workplace or college, and even one about religion and culture.

S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corrina  (De Capo Books, 2007) I’m going to be completely honest with you: this book pulls no punches.  It is frank and explicit.  It has lots of detailed information about sex.  It’s also a wonderful book for teens: it speaks honestly and clearly to them about real questions they have, it covers STIs, birth control, masturbation, changing teen bodies and so much more.  You, as a librarian, need to make the decision if this is a book your community will support.  That having been said: if you want to have a relevant non-fiction collection for teenagers, no matter their sexual orientation, you must have at least one contemporary, progressive sexual education book.  That’s just the plain truth of it.  (I also have Christian books that tell teenagers about the joy of waiting until marriage because, again, that’s how balanced collection development works). And this is about the best progressive sexual education book out there.  Well, one of the best anyway.  There will be others in my list!  Corrina’s is just particularly awesome and relevant because she is the founder and editor of Scarleteen, still the best sex education site for teens.  And, no coincidence, this book is also one of the most frequently browsed books in my entire library collection.  It doesn’t circulate outside the library much, but it has off the charts in-house circ.

So, there they are.  The four books you MUST HAVE for the LGBTQ teens in your community who are looking for answers, looking for a reflection of the truth about their lives, and looking for reassurance that, no, they aren’t alone in all this.  But now, of course, you must certainly want more.  So let’s start collection developing!

 Recommended Queer Non-Fiction For Teens

(a note about this list: Not all of these books are focused only on the experiences of LGBTQ teens.  Some are LGBTQ positive sex education books, books that present LGBTQ sexuality as an accepted part of the sexuality spectrum.   Further, remember that none of these books are perfect, there are faults and weak areas in them.  As ever, you should evaluate multiple reviews before you chose to add them to your collections.

Most importantly: these are all books published specifically for teens.  There’s an exception for It Gets Better, which was published by Dutton adult but is really, so much, a YA publication.  But while there’s LOTS of great non-fiction about this subject published for adults that no doubt has  high teen appeal, this is NOT a crossover list.  I wanted these titles to be books published for teens because I really feel it’s important we buy, promote, and feature these books first.   Why?  Well, because we want to promote young adult non-fiction, is why.  Because by doing this we want to show publishers that, yes, non-fiction books about this subject written specifically for teens are something librarians/the buying public want to BUY MORE OF.  That’s what will motivate them to publish more.  So, yes, this list could be longer and yes, there are adult books that could fit in a YA non-fiction collection but that’s not this list.)

Doing It Right: Making Smart, Safe, and Satisfying Choices About Sex by Bronwen Pardes
The Gallup’s Guide to Modern Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Lifestyle (I haven’t reviewed every book in this series, but the ones I have seen are pretty good but not what I’d rate as outstanding.  These can be VERY expensive in HC but are cheap in PB.  They’re short and easy to read and would be great for curriculum and reports, though, which is important.  The two I really recommend are Statistical Timeline and Overview of Gay Life and Gay and Lesbian Role Models)
Gay Power! The Stonewall Riots and the Gay Rights Movement, 1969 by Betsy Kuhn (let me give a shout-out to this entire Lerner series, Civil Rights Struggles Around the WorldEvery title is really amazing and this one … it was overwhelming to see that a book like this had finally been published.  I choked up a tad.)
Hear Me Out: True Stories of  Teens Educating and Confronting Homophobia  a project of T.E.A.C.H. and Planned Parenthood Toronto
It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller
It Will Get Better: Finding Your Way Through Teen Issues by Melinda Hutchings
The Letter Q: Queer Writer’s Notes to Their Younger Selves edited by Sarah Moon
The Little Black Book for Girlz and The Little Black Book for Guys compiled & edited by the St. Stephens Community House
Sex: A Book for Teens by Nikol Hasler
Speaking Out: LGBT Teens Stand Up, edited by Steve Berman
What if Someone I Know is Gay?  Answers to Questions About What It Means to Be Gay and Lesbian by Eric Marcus

And, as always, I direct you to The Rainbow List, which features non-fiction.

What I’d MOST Like To See Published (PUBLISHERS/AUTHORS TAKE NOTE!) 

A YA biography of Harvey Milk.  Seriously, how has this never been done?!  I mean, frankly, more YA biographies of famous/well-known LGBTQ  people in general.  Or even any YA biographies of LGBTQ people that, you know, manage to mention their sexual orientation. Larry Dane Brimner’s SUPERB We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin is a great example/template for this, but it skews a little too young for YA).

Anything I missed?  Have any favorites that you think should be included in a teen non-fiction collection?  Share them in the comments.

* * * * *

Every day we have the chance, as librarians and educators, to raise questions.  “Why doesn’t my library have a teen non-fiction collection?  What can I do about that?  Why doesn’t my library have LGBTQ friendly non-fiction for teens?  What can I do about that?”  I think these questions deserve legitimate, well-reasoned, and defensible answers.

And perhaps most importantly, I think, whether we know it or not, whether they can articulate it or not, our teen patrons are asking these very questions too.

So I think today you should start answering them.

3 thoughts on “LGBTQ Non-Fiction for Teens: A Collection Development Guide

  1. We’re so honored to have TWO books included in your list. Thank you for helping to get this information in the hands of teens. Librarians rule!

  2. FatGirl this is an insightful post. I just read my first work of LGBTQ fiction; Alex Sanchez’ Rainbow Boys, and it had interesting characters in it but I see what you mean about teens needing access to facts. THe descriptive criteria you use in choosing these books is excellent specifically ” books that speak honestly and frankly”

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