Last week, Hope in a Box and Channel Kindness (Born This Way Foundation’s storytelling platform) announced that Zee Taylor, a 10th-grade student from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was chosen as the winner of their national contest to celebrate LGBTQ-inclusive literature. The competition was open to students in grades K-12 from across the country, and a panel of educators and editors from Hope in a Box and Born This Way Foundation selected the winners.
The mission of Hope in a Box is building LGBTQ-inclusive schools, providing educators with boxes of LGBTQ-inclusive books, access to the largest library of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum available in the US, and data-backed training and mentorship. They work with nearly 500 schools across all 50 states, reaching 70,000 students.
“I grew up in a rural town, and as a kid, my exposure to LGBTQ people came through slurs and stereotypes. For me, it would have meant the world to have read even one book with a single gay character at school—to see some validation that I was not alone or abnormal,” explained Hope in a Box founder and executive director Joe English. “After college, I started Hope in a Box to bring positive representation of LGBTQ people into school libraries and curriculum. I believed that literature and storytelling have a unique power to open hearts and minds and, in the hands of a caring teacher, cultivate empathy.”
The isolation of brought to many students by the COVID pandemic also illustrates why representation is so important, English added. “During COVID, many LGBTQ youth have been isolated from their support networks and stuck in homes where they don’t feel accepted. Books and stories have an incredible ability to show students that they are seen, valued, and loved.”
The response to the contest gave an eye-opening look into just how important this is for young people.
“It was incredible to receive so many stories of hope, resilience, and compassion from students across the country. Zee’s essay, in particular, shows how powerful it can be for a young person to deeply connect with a book or character–in some cases, that connection can change or save a life.”
“This past year has been mentally and emotionally taxing on many levels, especially for young people, and our research has proven how essential kindness is for our collective mental health and wellbeing,” said Maya Smith, Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation. “It’s important that we recognize the transformative impact that kindness can have on someone, and be there for one another as we work to create a kinder and braver world.”
Zee, who attends Siegel High School in Murfreesboro, was named the grand prize winner for writing a letter of hope, resilience, and encouragement to their younger self. They received a $500 cash prize and their essay is featured on ChannelKindness.org.
Zee’s letter to their younger self highlighted the importance of representation in literature, and its power to save and inspire.
“Growing up in the south,” Zee said, “I was always very aware of how other people viewed queer life and individuals. I heard ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ or ‘gay people go to hell’ on a common basis. While I do not agree with either of those comments, it gave me a sense of dread regarding my own sexuality. I do not think that really changed until I started to read books with people like me. People who loved like I did.”
“Representation matters. It matters because when everyone is telling you that you are unnatural or sinful, it matters to see someone like you who is a hero. Who takes charge of their own story. I think representation can save lives, but it can also inspire others to help make change for the better.”
Given how impactful representation in literature is, I asked both Joe English and Zee what recent book they would give to their younger self. Zee said, “If I could only ever make one recommendation for the rest of my life, it would be for The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This book takes young, queer readers through a journey of all the pain and false help, but it is also hopeful in a sense. The ending feels almost like a breath of fresh air.”
English recommended A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi, a memoir published in 2020. “The author traces his journey of growing up in an immigrant Muslim family and coming to terms with his sexuality. It's a compassionate, honest, and hopeful story. Given my own multiethnic heritage, I think Mohsin's story would have really struck a chord with me as a kid.” For more about the Hope in a Box Foundation and to support their work, visit their website. The organization is hosting a fundraising event, Books That Make Us: A Pride Month Celebration of LGBTQ+ Stories, on June 24, 2021 to support its mission. Donations of any amount are appreciated, but anyone may also attend for free.
And for you readers, check out recent list of suggested reading for Transgender Day of Visibility!