As the marketing director for a small publisher, I’m very familiar with the power of Amazon categories. Although I am Team Bookstore, not Team Bezos, Amazon is not just a reseller—it has become the search engine for books.
Amazon has more than 10,000 book categories to choose from—including subjects as niche as woodworking and Arthurian folktales. Choosing the right category affects a title’s discoverability and even credibility with bestseller lists.
Which is why it was surprising when an author I work with, Julie Schanke Lyford, noticed something missing from the Amazon page for her children’s book, Katy Has Two Grampas: there was no LGBTQ+ category for kid lit.
This felt like an oversight—Amazon is known for its sophisticated algorithm. Many general categories have children’s books counterparts, such as physics, Renaissance history, and disaster relief and preparedness. Classification gets granular: fiction vs. nonfiction, print vs. Kindle, and even paid vs. free e-books. But representation for queer kid lit was noticeably missing.
“The hardest thing was having LGBTQ+ still thought of as something other than family,” Lyford explained. Her picture book, which she coauthored with her father, Lambda Literary Award finalist Robert A. Schanke, is one of the few picture books to depict married, gay grandfathers as part of the family unit.
So beginning in December 2020, Lyford contacted Amazon’s support team via emails, phone calls, and even snail mail. Sometimes representatives expressed surprise that the category didn’t already exist. Other times they recommended that she choose an existing children’s category, like Growing Up and Facts of Life.
But Lyford was persistent. And the LGTBQ+ Families children’s book category launched just a few days before January 2022. [Amazon declined to comment for this article.]
“Amazon adding this category is a huge win for the LGBTQ+ community,” says Alaina Lavoie, program manager at We Need Diverse Books. “Many people intentionally seek out children’s books that include LGBTQ+ parents and families. This makes it much easier to find these books as the category grows.”
The publishing company I work for, Wise Ink, centers mission-driven authors whose voices oftentimes have not had access to mainstream publishing. I see a big part of my role as empowering authors to claim spaces that have traditionally shut them out. The absence of this category—and then its quiet, unannounced launch—felt like a disservice.
Amazon added the category to certain titles. But since it wasn’t publicized, authors were left unaware, even as they became bestsellers for the first time. One of those newly bestselling titles, Calvin, is a joyful picture book about a transgender boy. Its coauthor, Vanessa Ford, says, “I had no idea about the category—or that Calvin is ranking as a bestseller! This validates the demand for books with diverse experiences.”
The addition of this category is certainly something to celebrate. It also raises the question: why was queer representation an afterthought? Eighty-eight percent of people who work in publishing identify as straight, according to Lee & Low’s 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey. It took an individual author to call out this basic exclusion. What else are we missing in publishing?
The Rainbow Book List, facilitated by the American Library Association, featured a record-setting number of librarian-approved LGBTQ+-inclusive children’s books in 2021. While strides have been made to spotlight LGTBQ+ books—with indie bookstores leading the way—inclusivity initiatives cannot be a peripheral issue, especially with current events.
There’s been an alarming spike in attempts to ban LGTBQ+ books in schools. More than 100 anti-trans bills were introduced in 2021, making it a record-breaking year for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Amazon’s category wording choice of “LGBTQ+ Families” is especially powerful considering that queer content is often censored on the belief that it is “inappropriate” and goes against “family values.” Normalized representation is essential, especially with the continued fight for basic rights. “Children need to see themselves in books,” Lyford says. “When they search for an LGTBQ+ title, I want 50 books to pop up.”
OurShelves, a book subscription box advocating for more diverse books, states on its website, “There are enough of us to accelerate change in the children’s book industry, but only if we ensure we’re counted.”
Queer characters should be uplifted on bestseller lists, in bookstores, and with press and awards. The book industry should celebrate these historic wins for representation—but also acknowledge that they should have been the default.
Hanna Kjeldbjerg is the marketing director at Wise Ink Creative Publishing.