When Joe English was growing up in a town of about 1900 residents in upstate New York, he rarely saw himself represented in the books he read for school. This lack of LGBTQ+ literature not only seemed like a gaping hole in the curriculum, but also a missed opportunity to foster a safe, welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ students. So in 2018, he launched Hope in a Box, a nonprofit organization that ships boxes of books with a variety of LGBTQ+ themes to schools around the country.
“The idea behind Hope in a Box is to use the power of literature and storytelling to bring some of these themes, narratives, and stories into rural communities to help cultivate empathy, open hearts and minds, and dispel stereotypes—especially among younger people who are just starting to understand where they fit in the world and what their own identities are,” English tells Mental Floss.
After consulting with university professors and poring over awards lists and college syllabi, the Hope in a Box team devised a 50-book definitive primer of LGBTQ+ literature. The list covers the classic (Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway) to the contemporary (Adam Silvera’s 2017 bestseller They Both Die at the End) and includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and more.
Educators who opt for the starter box will receive one copy of each book on the primer, or they can request up to 30 print copies of a single book (which doesn’t necessarily have to be chosen from the primer, though it does have to be LGBTQ-inclusive). According to English, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a favorite among middle school educators, while Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a popular pick at the high school level.
The organization also provides multimedia like movies, musical soundtracks, and audiobooks that can help the students further engage with a book. Watching the 2018 film adaptation of Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, for example, fosters dialogue about how certain directorial or acting choices alter the students’ impressions of the original characters or themes.
“There’s a lot of power that comes through a physical book, and it can be even more powerful if there’s a film, or script, or soundtrack,” English says. “Things that can bring it to life in other ways.”
In addition to giving LGBTQ+ students an opportunity to explore their own identities, the boxes help teachers, librarians, administrators, and non-LGBTQ+ students better understand their perspectives, which is a crucial part of creating a positive environment. Adding LGBTQ+ writers and historical figures to the curriculum also helps fill in the hole that English encountered during his own time in grade school.
“LGBTQ+ people have been part of our society and our culture for as long as there have been society and culture,” English says, “And by bringing their stories through literature or through history into schools, you give every student—whether they’re queer or not queer—a richer, more accurate, and more complete understanding of the world around them. And that’s a fundamental part of what the education system should promise every single child.”
By this fall, Hope in a Box will be working with 100 to 150 schools, and they’re on track to hit somewhere between 300 and 500 by the end of the year. And, while their focus is on LGBTQ+ stories for now, the model itself could easily be used to expand school curriculum in other directions, too—English could see future boxes focused on racial and ethnic identity, religious diversity, and beyond.