Few things in life are free, but three different initiatives are now offering free LGBTQ-inclusive books and more to educators and schools throughout the U.S.
Hope in a Box, which launched a pilot program with 30 schools in September 2019, is now a national nonprofit that focuses on public middle and high schools in rural areas and those receiving Title I federal funding. Founder Joe English, a former consultant for McKinsey & Company, grew up gay in a small rural town, and explained in an interview, “For a lot of kids who still live in rural towns, it’s scary to grow up queer. There isn’t the same type of acceptance that we see now in cities like Boston or New York or San Francisco.”
By the end of October, Hope in a Box will have sent books to 300 schools across 50 states. The need for these books is greater than ever. “I think one of the most underreported stories in the mainstream press in the last six months has been how hard COVID has been on LGBTQ kids,” English said. This year, whether virtually or in-person, “It’s even more important for educators to have the materials and the resources to make these kids feel safe and welcome and included.”
Before agreeing to a request for books, he noted, Hope in a Box considers whether the situation is “right for potential impact” and if there are educators there who are “passionate” about the program and can put the materials to use. If so, they first sent a “library builder” box of many curated titles, from classics like “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” by Oscar Wilde to just-released works like “Red at the Bone,” by Jacqueline Woodson. After that, “If an educator wants to formally incorporate one of the books into their curriculum, then we will provide a class set.”
But books are only the first step. After the project first began, many teachers asked them for help incorporating the books into the curriculum and responding to concerns from parents. This fall, therefore, the organization is launching a new program working with experienced English teachers to write a “detailed, Common Core-aligned curriculum” for each book, along with guides that include tips on teaching LGBTQ topics, sample student activities, additional resources, and more, all available for free online. They also have two educators running a private Facebook group and monthly, small group Zoom calls for educators to connect, share, and find coaching and support.
Another similar project, Pride and Less Prejudice (PLP), is focusing on much younger children, offering free, LGBTQ-inclusive books for pre-K through third grade classrooms. Founder Lisa Forman has been a music teacher for 25 years and has two grown daughters. When her daughter Rebecca Damante, who is queer, was a teenager, “She started to see some LGBTQ representation on TV and to relate to the queer storylines,” Forman said. “I saw what a huge difference that made for her.” Forman “realized that must have been a big hole not just in her childhood, but in other children’s developmental years.”
After doing her own research and soliciting help from friends who were teachers, Forman launched PLP last November. Rebecca is the outreach coordinator and content editor; her other daughter, Ally Damante, is the creative content editor and videographer. They also have about 10 volunteers working on everything from resource guides, social media, partnerships, and development. They’ve had requests from public and private school teachers in 36 states and have shipped over 200 books so far. Forty-five percent of the requests are from Title I schools.
They usually send two to three books per request, and Forman noted, “We’re trying to be really personal and customized” if there are particular topics a teacher wants to cover or if they already have certain books.
Most of the project’s growth has been through word of mouth, but when Rebecca posted about it last spring at Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group with over three million members that had been founded to help elect Hillary Clinton, they realized they needed more money to support the flood of requests. Ally came up with the idea of a celebrity video; Rebecca reached out to more than 100 publicists. More than a dozen celebrities, including Adam Rippon, Nicole Maines, Tig Notaro, and Rufus Wainwright then offered their voices in support of the project. PLP used the video to launch their #ReadOutProud campaign in August, which seeks to raise $10,000 to provide 800 books to classrooms across the U.S. and Canada. They’re also offering an online professional development workshop on October 12.
A third initiative, the Make It Safe Project, gives free LGBTQ-inclusive books to schools, youth homeless shelters, and juvenile detention centers. It was founded in 2011 by Amelia Roskin-Frazee, an out lesbian student, when she was 14 years old. She’s now a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of California Irvine. Make It Safe has given more than 160,000 youth access to books. For three years, they have also offered a writing scholarship to LGBTQ teens, and the best submissions will be published in an upcoming anthology, she said. They’ll be including it in their free book boxes and selling it online, with all proceeds supporting the project.
English and Forman say that while donations from individuals have been the bulk of their support so far, they are now also seeking grants from foundations and other organizations. If you are an educator interested in receiving books or would simply like to support any of these projects, visit hopeinabox.org, prideandlessprejudice.org, or makeitsafeproject.org.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.