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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gender and sexuality books offer children, parents the language, knowledge to discuss important, sometimes awkward topics

Books can help teach both children and parents the language to use for conversations that may otherwise feel awkward.  (Stephen Templeton/The Spokesman-Review)

Vanessa Delgado says that when she was growing up, gender and sexuality weren’t discussed as being on a spectrum. She didn’t see books that addressed such topics.

That’s changed, said Delgado, the director of community learning and liberation at Spokane’s Spectrum Center, a nonprofit that supports the 2SLGBTQIA+ community through advocacy and education.

Now, “they’re making books about gender diversity that are board books” for toddlers, she said.

Delgado, who has a master’s in mental health counseling and has previously worked in Pride and multicultural centers on various college campuses, said that isn’t too early to be talking about gender with kids. On average, she said, at age 2, children know what their gender is and can assign gender to others.

“And so that is actually a really good time to say, ‘Yeah, you are – insert whatever language they’re using, whatever they feel,” Delgado said.

Books can help teach both children and parents the language to use for conversations that may feel awkward.

Sometimes as parents, “we think we have to have all the answers,” Delgado said. “We can learn with them and learning doesn’t stop, because we are adults.”

For Delgado, one of the key pieces is keeping the books age appropriate.

“I want to remind people, the literature, especially the younger-age literature, is not giving details about anything that we think of as sex-based,” Delgado said. “It’s just saying Joey likes to wear dresses.”

But books about gender and sexuality are often challenged by people who believe they are inappropriate for children to be able to access at libraries or schools.

Sheri Boggs, a youth collection development librarian for the Spokane County Library District, said that often when adults are upset about language or images in a book about gender or sexuality, it’s because they aren’t paying attention to what age the book is intended for. In a library’s children’s nonfiction area, for instance, books meant for 4-year-olds might be next to books meant for 8- or 10-year-olds.

“It can be a little jarring to see, you know, nudity in a book that’s intended for kids, but it’s informative, and I think it’s important for kids to have the right information,” Boggs said.

And in both works of fiction and nonfiction, finding books for the right age will keep topics at the right level for children.

“Most of the books for kids K-6 that I know about are books that talk about kids with two moms or two dads, and that’s the extent of it,” wrote Chris Crutcher in an email. Crutcher is a retired therapist and young adult author in Spokane whose novels have been challenged and banned for things like including gay characters.

“There are plenty of kids out there who live in that situation. Those books normalize it, and open up easy conversations,” he wrote. “Parents don’t have to make judgments when they talk with kids about those books; but they can talk about their kids’ responses to the books, and explain how people who love each other and love their kids make the best parents.”

Plus, Crutcher said, books offer parents the opportunity to, “talk to their kids about what to do when they run into situations that seem strange or different to them.”

For children on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, reading books with characters like themselves can help them find “a sense of normalcy and a sense of empowerment,” Crutcher said. They feel like, “I’m not alone, and I can find characters in books that feel exactly the way I feel,” he wrote.

It’s equally important for children not on the LGBTQ+ spectrum to learn about the diversity around them.

“Even if you have a particular value set or belief system at home, I think it’s important for kids to be aware of the bigger world that they’re going to enter and to not pretend that certain aspects of society or biology don’t exist,” Boggs said.

When she’s looking at which nonfiction books on gender and sexuality to add to the library’s collection, she looks at a variety of criteria and suggests families use some of the same when choosing books to read.

“The kind of things that I look for in books about gender and sexuality for the collection for youth are the same things I look for in any kind of good nonfiction,” she said.

Is it current? She looks for books that are regularly updated (if not new) with factual, easy-to understand information speaking to the questions children have today.

“Some of those questions are perennial, but, I think with each generation like there are different concerns that get tacked on,” Boggs said.

Is it researched? Boggs said the back of the book should have a bibliography and/or a list of other resources. It should also have an index so that readers with specific questions can quickly access that information.

What is the tone of the book? “I look to make sure it’s engaging the children,” she said, “but I also look to make sure it’s positive and affirming of the child in their experiences … that it doesn’t talk down to kids.”

She looks for books that tell children about the world they live in without saying any particular way of being is bad.

Boggs said the library has a wide range of books about gender, and “even books that come from a more conservative or biblical place, I think, can still be positive about this aspect of human growth.”

She also appreciates it when books offer resources for further family discussion.

“You know that these are awkward conversations … but they give tools to parents to talk about these things,” she said.

And the books can help develop the language for those discussions, Delgado said.

“You don’t have to have the language,” she said. “The book has the language, right? Books are teaching you (the parents) as well.”

Having those conversations at home helps parents teach their children their own values.

“If you’re not having these conversations at home, it doesn’t mean they’re not happening. It means they’re not happening at home,” Delgado said. “So maybe your kid is learning stuff on the school bus and you are none the wiser. Or maybe it’s not the way that you would like to talk about that.”

For parents who are worried about a book, Crutcher said the best thing to do “is read the book along with their kids and explain why it makes them uncomfortable, or angry or whatever … and then listen to their kids’ responses.

“Talking about sex is tough for most adults, but it’s smart for them to get it into their heads ahead of time, that sexual magnetism is going to be a big deal for any kid, and if they take themselves off the short list of adults to turn to, those kids will get their information wherever they can,” Crutcher said. “You have to decide as a parent whether you want to be part of the process, or be loud and angry in the quest of ‘keeping my kids innocent.’ ”

It can be hard for families to have conversations about gender and sexuality, but books can provide a starting point, Boggs said.

“It’s awkward for everyone,” Boggs said. “It’s awkward for the parents. It’s awkward for the kids.

“I’m glad there are books out there that kind of help you through it.”