From left to right: Ashleigh Yates-MacKay, Danielle Bettridge, Alissa Droog, and Alyssa Martin
Focus On: LGBTQ+ Children’s Picture Books
March 14, 2019
Highlighting research by members of the Canadian library and information management community.
Researchers: Danielle Bettridge, Alissa Droog, Alyssa Martin, and Ashleigh Yates-MacKay
(MLIS Candidates, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Western University)
What is your research topic?
Generally speaking, our research focuses on LGBTQ+ children’s picture books.
In our research, LGBTQ+ children’s picture books refers to stories with either LGBTQ+ characters or LGBTQ+ issues/topics. Diversity in children’s picture books is important for two reasons: it exposes us to different worldviews, which fosters empathy, and reflects our own world back at us, which validates our lived experiences. The existence of these books is pivotal for affirming not only the identities of children, but for validating their families. The genre of books is still young and has a lot of potential for growth – which is great for our research because it means it’s constantly evolving. It’s only really been in the last ten years that the genre has gained traction and received more widespread recognition. The belief that representation matters and has real world implications has been the driving force of our research.
Under the guidance of Dr. Pamela McKenzie we were able to complete a guided research project that was comprised of two parts. In the first part of the study, we looked at the inclusion of 33 LGBTQ+ children’s picture books in 40 of Ontario’s public libraries, and we analyzed 5 factors that we thought might affect whether these books were included or not. In the second part, we read a lot of books! We read over 100 of these titles, and completed a detailed content analysis. We examined things like which identities were included, what sort of plotlines were present, and how the LGBTQ+ characters lives intersected with other identities. We are largely concerned with what books are present in the library, and whose identities are represented.
What interested you in that topic?
Unlike a lot of other MLIS projects, we have completed our research as a group. We work together every week, we write as a group, and we make decisions together. We believe that by collaborating on this project, our work is stronger than it would be if we were alone.
The downside is that it takes four times as long (what with all the debating), but we work well together and have found a unified voice. With all of our various education and professional backgrounds, we each have a different interest in this topic.
I initially decided to join this group because I’ve always loved children’s picture books and believe that they can teach both children and adults many lessons about the world. My educational background is in Religious Studies and Education and I had previously conducted research on the ways that children’s Bibles represent certain characters and change stories to make them palatable to a younger audience. In some ways, this project is similar in that we are looking at the representation of characters in a different genre. What I love about this research is that it has potential to change library collections and raise awareness about this important genre.
I saw a lot of homophobia growing up, and when I was working in the children’s section in the library I would hear a lot of homophobic remarks coming from the kids, even though for the most part they didn’t understand the history or the impact of what they were saying. When Orlando’s Pulse shooting happened in 2016, I wanted to do something more than send thoughts and prayers, so I decided to start at home. I started looking into and ordering LGBTQ+ picture books for my library that would foster empathy and educate our youngest community members. My first degree is in illustration, so I’ve always been interested in children’s literature, so when the chance to study this in my MLIS came up, I took it.
My background is in gender studies and feminist research and I really yearned for that familiar environment when I started my MLIS. When I finally realized I could merge my two interests, librarianship and feminism, into one topic, I jumped at the chance. Researching LGBTQ+ children’s picture books felt like a natural extension of my prior work. On a more personal level, I was drawn to the research because I have a number of young children in my life. I want to ensure that the children that are important to me are able to see themselves, and are given the language to talk about their experiences and identities.
My interest stems from my experience working in the children’s section of a bookstore for the last 5 years. I started to have these moments with customers where they were asking for books like the ones we study, and I noticed that we didn’t carry them. It was a really jarring moment for me, when I realized that we were failing to provide resources that people in the community needed. Diversifying our representation within the collection became a personal goal. When I had the opportunity to look at the subject more broadly, and possibly have a larger impact in ensuring this sort of representation is present within libraries as well, I was excited to take part.
What impact would you like to see your research have on LIS practitioners?
As a group, it’s really important to us that our research is transformative and has a tangible, real-world impact. Our research aims to raise awareness about this genre of books, and encourage libraries to include these books in their collections. This can be done by empowering librarians to make research-informed decisions, and help them to combat calls for censorship. We’re trying to achieve this through a few avenues. We have done presentations, poster presentations, a podcast, and we’re currently writing a toolkit that we will be using in workshops to help librarians build and maintain their LGBTQ+ children’s picture book collections. We also have a lot of informal conversations with people about these books and their importance.
What emerging topics do you foresee in the future of LIS research?
In general, we hope to see more research on this topic that has practical applications. One of the problems we have noticed is how difficult it is for people to access these books, specifically through the catalogue. There is a vast disconnect between the language LGBTQ+ communities use to identify themselves, and the way libraries label them in our subject headings. This means that our catalogues current state renders them useless for finding these books by subject heading. Future research on more effective subject headings that would facilitate people finding these books in the collection is needed. Another problem that we have noticed is the lack of diversity within the genre of LGBTQ+ children’s picture books. There are many books published about lesbian and gay couples and families, but far fewer about transgender, bisexual, asexual and other identities within this genre. As this is a growing genre, we hope that our research is continued in the future in a way that evaluates the new representations of these identities.
What advice would you give to LIS students or practitioners hoping to engage in research?
If you think that research needs to be done, be the one to do it. Don’t wait around for someone else to take on the work. If the thought of doing research alone is alarming you can work as team. You can reach out to others who want this research to exist and create an support network that can strengthen the research. When you do research as a group, you bring more perspectives to the table, you have built in accountability, and you have other people’s motivation to keep you going. We would also suggest finding an amazing mentor who can point you in directions you didn’t know exist. We have all found a lot of value through being involved in this and think you will to.
Bettridge, D., Droog, A., Martin, A., Yates-MacKay, A. (2019). Building and maintaining LGBTQ+ picture book collections.
Droog, A., Bettridge, D., Martin, A. & Yates-MacKay, A. Is Tango all we get?: evaluating LGBTQ+ children’s picture books. Alberta Library Conference. April 26, 2019.
Bettridge, D., Droog. A., Martin A. & Yates-MacKay, A. LGBTQ+ Picture Books in Ontario’s Public Libraries. Ontario Library Association Super Conference. January 31, 2019.
Droog, A., Martin A. Yates-MacKay, A. & Bettridge, D. (September 2018). LGBTQ+ Stories. So What? Library and Information Science Podcast.