As the nation observes LGBTQ+ Pride month, Santa Cruz County continues to be at the forefront of representation and inclusivity while celebrating diversity. On Tuesday, June 14, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (SCCOE) held a press conference to announce the newly created LGBTQ+ Top 40 Booklist: a comprehensive guide to age-appropriate queer and LGBTQ+ reading for students ages pre-kindergarten through high school.
“I’m really proud to live in Santa Cruz,” project consultant and task force member Rob Darrow tells GT. “We’re helping to encourage and empower students to read a diverse set of books across our county.”
The Top 40 Booklist is the culmination of four months of collaboration between 16 different task force members—from education consultants like Darrow to public and school librarians, book lovers, a Bookshop Santa Cruz employee and a high school student who inspired the project. The Queer Youth Task Force and the Safe Schools Project also contributed to the list.
Ten books each were chosen for grade groups K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12, and the list provides fiction and nonfiction picture books, as well as anthologies and graphic novels. Each title had to meet a particular set of criteria, including a protagonist who was part of the LGBTQ community and positively represented. The stories also had to represent different genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities, and had to be published within the last 10 years.
“We want to make sure that every student in our county has access to these resources,” said Santa Cruz County Office of Education Superintendent Dr. Faris Sabbah at the press conference. “Not only for our LGBTQ students to see themselves reflected in the books, but also for allies to be able to learn about each other so we can grow together as a community of strength.”
Among the other speakers at Tuesday’s announcement was Lisa Bishop, ex-president of the California School Library Association. She agreed that students at all developmental stages of learning should have access to the widest and most diverse books.
“I want to let you know the California School Library Association fully, fully, fully supports and applauds the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and the LGBTQ+ Book Selection Task Force,” she told the audience.
Ivy Quirk, who identifies with the LGBTQ+ community and is the head children’s book buyer at Bookshop Santa Cruz, says her task force group–-which was for grades 3 through 5–vetted around 50 titles to choose their top 10.
“We also researched the author’s own stories—is it someone speaking from the community or to the community?” she explains to GT. “Multiple authors write at varying age ranges, so we wanted to make sure we spotlighted everyone that we can [without much crossover].”
The project’s origins date back to 2020, when a Scotts Valley High School student named Q Licht started the Purple Sticker Project. The Santa Cruz County of Education credits Licht with conceiving the project after he visited Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma and saw how they highlighted books with positive LGBTQ+ representation.
“I wanted to make a difference in my community by putting a system in place that could make school libraries more like Copperfield’s books,” writes Licht, who didn’t respond to an interview request, on his website.
He proceeded to work with Soquel High School librarians to place square purple stickers on queer books, and created an ever-growing online list of titles.
At the same time, Darrow—who used to work as a history teacher and a librarian before becoming an LGBTQ+ support consultant—says educators are constantly asking for affirmative queer reading for their students.
“As I’ve been doing workshops around the state for the last five years, one of the great needs educators say to me is, ‘Can you just give me a list of the best books to read?’” he says.
In 2021, Darrow met Licht at an LGBTQ+ Town Hall webinar sponsored by the SCCOE, and the two discussed furthering the Purple Sticker Project. Momentum continued when a guest speaker at the webinar donated his stipend back to SCCOE to further LGBTQ+ undertakings as well as the Purple Sticker Project. Last October, Bookshop Santa Cruz ran a promotion to raise funds for LGBTQ+ book purchases to be used in school and public libraries.
Quirk says she’s proud to be part of a project that helps LGBTQ+ students feel seen.
“It’s important for many reasons, but two very specific fronts,” she explains. “First, it helps kids in the LGBTQIA community who maybe are still figuring things out about themselves to see themselves be represented in some way. When you can put a name to something, it often helps anyone get through it.”
She says representation is also important for students who don’t identify with the queer community, because it allows them to develop empathy and understanding for what their peers might be going through.
“Having them in the library highlighted and visible says a lot to the kind of support the queer community can get in schools, and that it’s something their peers should be thinking about in how to support each other.”
According to the research, LGBTQ+ students are some of the most at risk. A 2021 California student study by WestEd—a nonprofit agency that works with education communities to promote student welfare and learning—discovered youth who identified as queer were twice or more likely to report being bullied, and fewer than half reported feeling safe at school. Transgender and bisexual students were most likely to experience depression and report suicidal thoughts.
The authors of the study asserted that if LGBTQ+ students received the same support and safety as other students, disparities would drop by half.
A 2019 study by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found the statistics are similar throughout the nation, and also affects students’ studies as well. That report discovered LGBTQ+ youth who experienced discrimination were three times more likely to have missed school, had lower GPAs and were more likely to drop out than those who did not face discrimination.
Banned in the U.S.A.
On the national level, the LGBTQ+ Top 40 Booklist comes at a time when school districts across the country continue to ban books at an alarming rate.
In January, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee unanimously voted to ban Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by cartoonist and former UCSC guest lecturer Art Spiegelman, because of objectionable language and its depiction of nudity, violence and suicide. Maus details the author’s first-hand experience of coming to terms with his parents as Holocaust survivors, only to lose his mother to suicide years later.
Last December, a bill was introduced in the Oklahoma State Senate that would prohibit the state’s public school libraries from keeping books about sexual activity or sexual and gender identity. According to the American Library Association, last fall they received 330 challenges to books, an “unprecedented” number.
“It adds emphasis to the importance of why we need government agencies, schools and libraries like ours,” says Santa Cruz County Office of Education Communications and Public Relations Officer Nick Ibarra. “To come together and say, ‘It is appropriate for students to read these stories.’ When other states and schools are banning these books, it underscores the importance of what we’re doing.”
“There is no research that shows teachers forcing kids to read a certain book causes them to think a certain way,” Darrow says. “It’s a political tactic to get publicity, and it does not serve our students well to deny them a broad list of books to read.”
Among those chosen for the Top 40 list are a number of books with Bay Area authors or a focus on Bay Area history and the queer community. For grades 9-12, notable Bay Area authors like James Brandon (Ziggy, Stardust & Me) and Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer: A Memoir) are favorite picks for Darrow.
For Quirk, some notable books are National Book Award For Young People’s Literature Winner King & The Dragonflies by Kacen Callender (grades 3-5), Julián Is A Mermaid by UC Santa Cruz alum Jessica Love (pre-k-2) and Grandad’s Camper by Harry Woodgate (pre-k-2).
“I love Grandad’s Camper because it shows a biracial family and an elder queer, which we don’t see a lot of representation for,” she explains. “As a Millennial, a lot of previous-generation queers did not make it to old age, so it’s really lovely to see.”
The books chosen for the LGBTQ+ Top 40 Booklist are available in public and school libraries and are also for sale at Bookshop Santa Cruz. For Darrow, the hope is to keep the list alive and growing, adding books as they are published for future generations of students.
“What’s most exciting is that there are now hundreds of titles with great LGBTQ representation that have come out in the last 10 to 20 years.”
Moving forward, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education is working on how to provide schools with the newly chosen material.
“It is our goal to provide a set of these books to every school library in Santa Cruz County,” said Sabbah at Tuesday’s meeting. According to Darrow, it will cost an estimated $30,000 to accomplish that goal.
Bishop told the conference there should also be money coming soon from the state legislature.
“We’re trying to make sure it goes directly to school libraries instead of being dispersed all over the place,” she said. “Please ask your principals and your superintendents to earmark that money for this project.”
The LGBTQ+ Top 40 Booklist can be found at sccoe.link/lgbtqbooks.