Talking queer with kids

  • Gender and sexuality are often seen as tough topics to discuss with children
  • But need not be, if you read these books together

In a heteronormative, gender-role-obsessed society, it can be tough to talk to children about queer lifestyles and the freedom to choose one’s gender and sexual identity. There are plenty of books and movies to make right-thinking adults see queer relationships as perfectly “normal" (who would have thought Schitt’s Creek would turn out to be an ode to the sweetest gay couple?). But, unfortunately, most of this is too complex for children—whether they are primary schoolers or young teens. Thankfully, children’s writers across the world have written thoughtful books about sexual identity with honesty, love and empathy. Here’s a selection:

AND TANGO MAKES THREE (2005)By Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

Recently, the internet was buzzing about a same-sex penguin couple at the Berlin zoo that has adopted an egg and is trying to raise a chick—it could be the zoo’s first penguin baby in decades. Over two decades ago, a gay penguin couple at the New York zoo, Roy and Silo, became famous when they actually hatched a female chick, Tango, from an egg. Their story formed the basis of a famous children’s picture book, And Tango Makes Three. Although anti-gay rights groups have tried to have the book banned from children’s libraries—including Singapore’s National Library Board in 2014—the book continues to be a beloved read for parents and children across the world. Who can resist papa penguins?

SLIGHTLY BURNT(2014)By Payal Dhar

Unusually for a story about a gay teenager, this one is told from the point of view of the 16-year-old’s best friend. Komal and Sahil are BFFs, but when Komal finds out she didn’t know this very important thing about her closest friend, it hits her hard. The book deals sensitively with her confusion and angst (and the teenage tendency to make everything about oneself) and her eventual support for her friend. Dhar’s book was published a few months before the phenomenally successful Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, which tackles many of the same issues in an American setting. If your children loved that book (and the subsequent movie based on it) but haven’t read this one yet, you know what to do.

I AM JAZZ (2014)By Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas

American YouTuber, model and LGBTQ+ rights activist Jazz Jennings is a role model for teens and tweens around the world. She even has her own reality TV show on TLC, which follows her family and her through the ups and downs of teenage life. Jazz is transgender, and, in 2014, she co-wrote an autobiographical picture book called I Am Jazz with Jessica Herthel and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas that captured her coming to terms with her own gender identity (having “a girl brain but a boy body"), and the challenges of making her family see things from her point of view.

GUTHLI HAS WINGS (2019)By Kanak Shashi

This sensitive and nuanced picture book by writer and artist Kanak Shashi is one of the most recent in this category, and one of the most heartwarming. Guthli loves to wear frilly frocks and knows she is a girl—even when the world keeps telling her she’s a boy. It’s the “performative aspect" of gender that fascinated the writer, especially the way “gender roles are framed, taught and performed…(from) fairly early in life," she told Lounge in June. Don’t we all know a Guthli, and wouldn’t we love to learn how to support her?

FRIENDS UNDER THE SUMMER SUN (2019)By Ashutosh Pathak, illustrated by Kanak Shashi

Nimmi is bored, trapped in the house with her mother and tiny baby brother, running household errands during the summer vacation—till her mother sends her to Akka, who runs a bakery. Nimmi is expecting a white-haired grandmother but finds a slender young man with long hair, kohl in his eyes, brightly painted nails and a wide collection of shoes—some men’s shoes and some colourful heels. Nimmi asks Akka if she is a girl or a boy. Akka responds, “Does it matter?"

“When I was growing up, it was almost impossible to come across a children’s book that had a trans character in it. Times are changing," writes film-maker and queer activist Pradipta Ray, on whom the character of Akka is based.

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