Picture Books for and About Gender Expansive Children

In the last two years several books have been published that introduce young children to ideas of gender independence. The following bibliography of eleven titles fall into three categories. Some of these books directly address gender stereotyping and gender identity. Other books use illustrations or metaphor for nonbinary or trans identity. The final group of books included in this bibliography feature children with non-stereotypical expression or interests.

Pearlman, Robb and Eda Kaban. Pink is for Boys. New York: Running Press Kids, 2018.

“Pink is for boys. And for girls.” Thus, begins the pattern of this simple book for preschoolers. The following page reads, “And bows on fancy clothes.” Each two-page spread stating that a given color is both for boys and girls is followed by an example of those children engaged in a variety of activities.

The book provides an opportunity for preschool-aged children to think and talk about linking colors to genders. In some ways the text breaks down gender stereotypes. It normalizes boys and girls playing together and engaging in activities that have traditionally been seen as more appropriate for one gender than the other. The illustrations include children of various races and dis/ability; however, the activities and dress are solely Western. It should also be noted that the illustrations depicting fancy events show the boys in “boy” clothes and the girls in dresses.

Pessin-Whedbee, Brook and Naomi Bardoff. Who are You?: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017.

In kid-friendly language Pessin-Whedbee defines biological sex, gender expression, and gender identity. She explains that cisgender is a word that means the sex one is assigned at birth matches one’s gender identity. Readers are introduced to the gender spectrum and the various ways non-binary individuals might describe themselves. Throughout the text Pessin-Whedbee emphasizes that you know you best and that things you feel and like may change as you grow. At the back of the book is a gender wheel that readers may use to explore variations in body, identity, and expression. Seven pages of resources for adults offer support and suggestions for reading the book with children, as well as identifying further information.

This no-nonsense, kid-friendly nonfiction text manages to employ an informative voice without being didactic. The structure of the book lends itself to caregiver and young child interactions. Following pages that succinctly define topics such as gender expression, two two-page spreads are found that ask “What do you like?” with illustrations depicting a wide variety toys, activities, and clothing. Using developmentally-appropriate descriptions of biological sex and gender-as-spectrum, Pessin-Whedbee affirms children’s self-knowledge. She provides many of the words non-cisgender people may use to self-identify. Bardoff’s illustrations show a diverse group of children dressed in both gender-confirming and gender-independent clothing actively playing with one another. A word of caution about this text, maya gonzalez has asserted that Pessin-Whedbee has plagiarized the gender wheel gonzalez introduced in 2010. Both authors use three movable concentric circles that address body and expression, but the wheels are not identical. If Pessin-Whedbee was inspired by gonzalez’s work as a starting place, attribution should have been given. The only sites addressing the plagiarism accusation are managed by gonzalez, therefore I am unable to address the veracity of the claims.

Gonzalez, Maya Christina, and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez. They, She, He, Me Free to Be! San Francisco, CA: Reflection Press, 2017.

This picture book is broken into three distinct sections. In the first, illustrations of diverse people are drawn with a pronoun located below each person. In the second section, gonzalez has included kid-friendly text explaining the use of pronouns, how we can free, claim, create, and play with pronouns. This section ends with information about maya and matthew and centers their place in the work. The final section of the book is for caregivers, providing guidance for using the book and for creating gender-free space for their children.

One of the great strengths of this #ownvoices book is maya’s distinct artistic style. This is the only text in the collection that shows people in indigenous or culturally-specific clothing. Characters are predominately indigenous or people of color. Unlike most texts that include a single dis/abled child in a wheelchair or with a walker, gonzalez has included characters with crutches, sound-blocking earphones, a wheelchair, and a white cane for low vision individuals. One character is shown on both the “he” and “she” page, communicating that gender identity can be fluid. The structure of the text itself lends itself to readings and conversation over several days.

Hong, Jess. Lovely. Berkeley, CA: Creston Books, 2017.

Structured as a concept book, Hong answers the question “what is lovely?” with illustrations and pairs of opposite single-word labels. Hong dismantles traditional concepts of beauty. The picture that is labeled “fancy” is a pair of male legs in high-heeled dress shoes. An athlete with a prosthetic leg is “sporty”. Hong’s illustrations normalize vibrant hair colors, piercings, tattoos while showing people with different capabilities, sexualities, gender expressions, races, and ethnicities.

While this text is not marketed or labeled as a text about gender expansivity, many of the illustrations depict gender independent expression. This book has a simple message that lovely comes in all shapes and sizes. While affirming for gender independent children the book also affirms expressions of both cultural and outsider expressions, as well as gay relationships. The illustrations which demonstrate “simple” and “complex” are two arms: one with black-line tattoos and one with intricate henna work. Among the dis/abilities that Hong affirms is deafness. In one spread “lovely” is spelled in ASL.

Loney, Andrea and Carmen Saldaña. BunnyBear.Chicago: Albert Whitman and Company, 2017.

 Bunnybear looks like the other bears in the forest, but inside he feels like a bunny. When the other bears mock his bunny-like behaviors, Bunnybear runs away. After rejection from a warren of bunnies, Bunnybear meets the ferocious Grizzlybun, a bunny who feels like a bear inside. The two animals quickly become friends, commiserating about the challenges of not feeling like the physical animal they appear to be. The book closes with a forest-wide party where a small menagerie of animals displays characteristics that do not conform with their species.

This book, which does not directly address gender, tackles the inbetweeness of not identifying with traits others expect based on outer appearance. Bunnybear must listen to other bears tell him how to behave, listen to both bears and rabbits laugh at him, and experience both loneliness and self doubt. It’s in his acceptance of Grizzlybun that Bunnybear experiences his first hug.  It is notable that Bunnybear’s mama does not show up in the book until he has found a friend. Then she displays pride, but how did she feel about him, express herself toward him before? We don’t know because it isn’t addressed. The message ends up being that you need to find another nonconformist in order to find a friend. There could be value in finding someone who just accepts you for you without having similar situation.

Sima, Jessie. Not Quite Narwhal.New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017.

Sima starts the story sharing that Kelp, the narwhal, was born deep in the sea. In the illustrations, however, we see that Kelp is a unicorn. Kelp knows that he is different from other narwhals, but they all accept him, so he accepts himself. One day Kelp is swept away in strong currents and finds himself near land where he spies an animal that looks like him. When he finally finds these “land narwhals”, they let him know that they, and he, are unicorns. Following time getting to know about unicorn life, Kelp returns to the sea, where he wonders which life to choose. Happily, he discovers, he doesn’t have to decide.

Sima’s tale of Kelp is one of unconditional love and acceptance. Unlike Bunnybear, Kelp’s challenge is not one of nonacceptance, but rather figuring out his own understanding of self through exploration.

The illustrations complement and extend the story. One of the strengths of the book is the humor that will engage all readers. While the story is clearly a metaphor for non-binary identity, the text does not directly address gender. However, there are LGBTQ+ symbols, such as unicorns and rainbows, found in the illustrations.

Anderson, Airlie. Neither. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

“Once upon a time, there were two kinds: this and that.” With these openings words Anderson sets up a clear binary between yellow birds and blue rabbits. Until a green animal is born with the characteristics of both birds and rabbits. Shunned by both birds and rabbits, this creature they name “Neither” flies off to find a place they belong. Neither finds the Land of All where they are assured they will fit in. The books closes with the words: “Once upon a time, there were many kinds: this and that, somewhat and whatnot, either, very, sort of, just, rather, a little, neither and both… And all were welcome!”

Anderson has created text that carefully avoids the use of pronouns. Neither the sex nor gender of the characters is addressed. The book is visually engaging, yet the text is didactic and the story itself is not well structured. The creativity of the creatures could be fun for extension activities, but the value of the text for celebrating gender independence is limited. As the characters all have external features that are mixed, the book might be better used as one to affirm bi/multiracial children.

Love, Jessica. Julián is a Mermaid. Summerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018.

Julián is a young Afro-Latino in New York who is enthralled by three mermaids he sees on the subway. He decides that he is a mermaid, too. While his abuela takes a shower, Julián creates a mermaid costume for himself from Abuela’s plant and curtains. When Abuela sees what Julián has done, she brings him a necklace to finish his ensemble and then takes him to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade to be with his kind.

The Illustrations in this book, from end papers to end papers, are lovely and extend the story. Unlike the characters in the texts Sciurba examined, Julián is affirmed for who he is. His Abuela not only gives him the necklace, but she helps him find his (mer)people. Julián has agency and does not need to change anything about himself in order to find love and acceptance.

Shraya, Vivek, and Rajni Perera. The Boy & the Bindi. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016.

The gentle text, written in rhyming couplets, introduces the reader to the Hindu (and Jain) tradition of bindi. The young boy in the story asks his ammi about the dot on her forehead. Her answer intrigues, and the boy asks if he may have one. He shares how his bindi helps him find calm and know his place in the universe.

The book does not address the tradition of bindi as a women’s practice. The reader needs certain background information to understand that the book addresses expansive gender expression. There isn’t any contextual information in the back of the book, which could have supported non-Hindu/Jain readers. For readers who aren’t familiar with the practice of bindi, the text will be more informative as a cultural introduction, rather than a gender-expansive story.

Trimmer, Christian, and Madeline Valentine. Teddy’s Favorite Toy. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2018.

Inspired by the author’s childhood love of a Wonder Woman doll, Teddy’s Favorite Toyis Bren-Da, Warrior Queen of Pacifica. Unlike Wonder Woman, Bren-Da is not an action figure. Initially dressed in a pink polka-dotted dress, Bren-Da is a doll of many talents. Teddy tells us she is well behaved, has sick fighting skills, and loves to “pull off a number of different looks.” In the heat of battle, Teddy accidentally breaks Bren-Da’s leg, and in an effort to fix the doll he covers her completely in tape. While Teddy is at school, his mom accidentally throws out Bren-Da. All resolves well after mom goes in to action and rescues Bren-Da from the trash truck.

While this book breaks down gender stereotypes, the problem of the story isn’t about Teddy’s gender-expansivity. Rather it is about a doll inadvertently thrown out. It normalizes gender independence by not problematizing it. In many ways it is a typical “something is lost” picture book. Teddy’s mom is the action hero, not because Teddy lacks agency, but because she caused the problem.  Her apron becomes a cape as she races to catch the garbage truck and save the day. A non-action-figure doll is completely normalized as a toy that a boy could play with. An additional feature of the book is the biracial makeup of Teddy’s family. The language of the text makes for a fun read aloud. Creativity of all kinds are celebrated. Teddy’s mom is an artist and Teddy is budding fashion designer who thinks outside the box.

Davids, Stacy B, and Rachael Balsaitis. Annie’s Plaid Shirt. First Edition. ed. North Miami Beach, FL: Upswing Press, 2015.

Annie wears her favorite plaid shirt everywhere, but when it is time for her uncle’s wedding, her mom insists that Annie must wear a dress. Albert, Annie’s brother, questions their mom about why Annie can’t wear what she wants. Mom is caught between society’s expectations and what she thinks she should do for her daughter. The kids save the day when Albert gives Annie his old suit, which she pairs with her plaid shirt.

I included this book specifically because it is about a girl who prefers to wear “boy” clothes. There are many books about boys who want to wear dresses, and this is the only one I could find that was about a girl who “felt weird in dresses”. Considering this text in the light of Sciurba’s assertion that stories about gender non-conforming girls are seen as feminist rather than gender variant, it is notable that “appropriate attire” for a wedding isn’t strictly about feminism. The outfit that Annie and Albert create is clearly gendered. Annie has both agency and an ally in her brother. I really wanted the book to be better than it is. The story is fine, and the craft is okay. But it lacks sentence variety and distinctive voice – especially when compared with the craft in Teddy’s Favorite Toy.

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