by Kerry Woodward
In the last few years, there has been a remarkable increase in children’s books that explore gender identity and gender expression. While there have long been a few books highlighting “tomboys,” and, less frequently, boys who play with dolls or like to dance, this new body of children’s literature moves beyond these rather “palatable” forms of nonconforming gender expression to include a wider range of acceptable and “normal” ways to be girls and boys. In these books, boys not only play with dolls at home, but they wear dresses in public and contend with the bullying that ensues. An even newer topic for children’s books is nonconforming gender identity. Books like When Kayla Was Kyle tell the story of children who have been biologically and socially identified as boys but feel like girls. A few books, like Meet Polkadot, have characters who do not relate to either gender (or relate to both).
For parents who feel confident their children are cisgendered—and I do not recommend making this assumption without dialogue—it may be tempting to ignore books featuring children struggling with gender identity. For several reasons, however, I encourage all parents to read and discuss these books with all their children. First, as many of these books make clear, bullying of various types is common for children who do not conform to normative gender expression and identity. By reading these books, we can help transform our cisgender children into allies. Secondly, many of these books address feeling like an outsider, feeling different from one’s family, or being bullied/shunned at school or at home. Our adopted children of color may share similar experiences and feelings unrelated to gender identity/expression, and these books may open important dialogue about their feelings, as well as show our children that many people feel “different.” Finally, our adopted children may fear losing us or being rejected by us, just as they lost their first parents. Any opportunity to reassure them that we love them unconditionally—including if they were to tell us that they were transgender or genderqueer—is an important opportunity for connection.
As enthusiastic as I am about many of these new books, I am disturbed by two significant absences: 1) Biological females who identify as boys, and 2) characters of color. I was unable to find even one book about a biological female who wants, or has already transitioned, to live as a boy. A couple books listed below include significant—though rarely main—characters of color. However, many of these books portray only white children and families. While these absences are significant, there are some fantastic books that address non-normative gender identity and expression, including the complicated and often less-than-ideal responses of parents, teachers, and peers.
Sex: Biological distinction between male and female. This designation is typically based on visible anatomical differences; however, it also involves invisible biological factors, including internal organs, chromosomes, and hormones.
Intersex: One who has biological characteristics of both male and female.
Gender: The socially expected behaviors and traits associated with each sex.
Gender Binary: A socially constructed system that includes two genders that are situated in opposition to one another: People are expected to be either men or women. Men are associated with and expected to display masculine characteristics, while women are associated with and expected to display feminine characteristics. Masculine and feminine are positioned as opposites.
Gender Identity: One’s internal sense of gender identification. In other words, whether you feel like a man, woman, both, or neither. The social expectation is that one’s gender identity matches their sex.
Gender Expression: The way one expresses one’s gender through clothing, mannerisms, language, behavior, etc. The social expectation is that one’s gender expression fits social norms for how men or women should appear and behave.
Transgender: A term used by many whose gender identity does not match one’s sex. Term may be used by those who have undergone surgery/hormone treatment, those who plan to undergo surgery/hormone treatment, or those who choose to live as a gender that does not match their sex.
Cisgender: One whose gender identity does match one’s sex.
Genderqueer: A term used by some whose gender identity does not match their sex. Typically used by people who feel like neither a man nor a woman, or like both.
Sexual Orientation: The type of sexual or romantic attraction one experiences: Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual. More common, and often preferred, terms include gay, lesbian, and queer.
Books about nonconforming gender identities
Meet Polkadot by Talcott Broadhead (picture book, 2013)
In this fantastic book, children not only meet Polkadot, a child who is neither boy nor girl, but they also meet Polkadot’s cisgender sister, Gladiola, and best friend, Norma Alicia. Norma Alicia is identified as an ally who reminds Polkadot that other types of identity matter too—she is a “brown girls with freckles who speaks Spanish.” In addition to these compelling characters, children are introduced to very important terminology: Gender binary, gender identity, cisgender, biological sex, transgender, and gender queer, among others. While intersex is not explicitly discussed, there is lots of space for this dialogue because biological sex is explained as having four parts. Similarly, gender expression is mentioned as being fluid and varied as well. While clearly most useful for school-age children rather than preschoolers, this book is the most comprehensive look at gender identity in any picture book I have seen. And it avoids the problems—such as reifying gender roles and stereotypes—found in many other books in this category. Kids will love this book, and surely parents will learn a lot from it, too!
When Kayla Was Kyle by Amy Fabrikant (picture book, 2013)
Of the picture books that detail the “coming out” of transgender children, this story is the most complex and moving. Exceptionally well-written, When Kayla Was Kyle focuses on the internal emotions of the child, and her experiences of being taunted and shunned at school. Yet it avoids a focus on pink and princesses and never talks about “boy brains” or “girl brains.” While the characters are white, this book shows the immense damage that bullying and exclusion do to children. For that reason, this book is particularly important for all kids. I really love this book and highly recommend it for every home.
Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr (picture book, 2010)
This book begins with Nick seeing himself in a mirror as a girl. Throughout the story, Nick’s parents support his request for changes that eventually lead to him living as a girl, Hope. This book is likely to be helpful for families with young children beginning such a transition—or for those who suspect their child might want to make a transition. While Nick/Hope is white and seemingly middle-class, one other child is depicted as feeling similar to Hope, and this child is Black. There are a lot of good things about this book, but I am concerned with the twice-repeated phrase that Nick/Hope has a “girl brain.” This suggests that there is something inherently different about brains based on gender, and thus implies that the “girly” things Nick/Hope prefers are somehow wired into girls’ brains.
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (picture book, 2014)
Co-authored by Jazz Jennings, arguably the most well-known transgender youth, this book tells the story of her young life and her transition at the age of six to living as a girl. Like Be Who You Are, this book describes being a transgender girl as having a “girl brain,” and I find this notion troubling for all boys and girls who express their gender in non-stereotypical ways, but who do not identify as trans. In a society in which gender discrimination and inequality persist, differentiating between girl and boy brains will only lead to continued devaluation of girls and women. With the exception of one page, this depiction of a leading youth trans activist is sweet. Unfortunately, the most significant portrayal of people of color in this book includes a Black child and a Black teacher on the page about the teacher being “confused” about Jazz’s transition.
10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert (picture book, 2008)
Bailey, who feels like a girl, dreams of dresses. But she is rebuffed by each member of her family for sharing her desire to wear them. At the end of the book she finds a friend who sees her, accepts her, and appreciates her as a girl. While perhaps beneficial in showing the disdain many families have for gender-variant children, this book does little to explain gender identity or to reassure children who may feel like Bailey. All characters are white.
But I’m Not a Boy by Katie Leone (picture book, 2014)
In this rather awkwardly-written book, Sarah, known as David by everyone around her, plays sports and builds treehouses with her father despite her desire for dolls and princesses. Eventually her parents acknowledge her sadness and ask her about it. She tells them, and they immediately call her Sarah, after which she “lived happily ever after.” Not only is there no evolution in Sarah’s journey, but with the abrupt and unrealistic ending, the book fails to allow for varied gender expression. All the main characters are white.
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky (for upper elementary/middle school readers, 2014)
In this emotional novel aimed at middle school students, sixth grader Grayson knows that he is a girl on the inside. The story is one of tremendous courage and great loss, including the death of Grayson’s parents when he/she is four. Grayson basically lives as a boy until the last moment in the book, but even before their deaths, his parents suspected he was a she, making it difficult to know what pronouns to use when speaking of Grayson. Readers see varied reactions to Grayson’s emerging self from the perspective of peers and family members, but mostly we see his/her inner struggle and emotions. While Grayson is white and upper middle class, this book is applicable for our adopted children of color because it deals with deep loss and addresses head-on what it is like for a child to perpetually feel like an outsider, even within their family.
Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill, with Ariel Schrag (for teen readers, 2014)
In this memoir, Katie Rain Hill, currently a college student in Oklahoma, details her transition from Luke to Katie, her experiences with family and friends during this time, her transgender activism, and her emerging love life. An incredibly compelling and moving read, Rethinking Normal shows Katie’s self-knowledge and reflexivity as well as her academic knowledge about gender identity and other LGBT issues. Much of the book is focused on Katie’s romantic and sexual relationships with boys, so parents may want to screen this for tweens and younger teens. Katie and virtually all the people in the book are white, but this is nevertheless an excellent memoir.
Books exploring gender expression
My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis (picture book, 2009)
Written by a Black mother of a child who is her “princess boy,” this book exemplifies unconditional love and acceptance. Arguably aimed at gender-normative children (and parents) more than at children whose gender identity does not match their sex, this beautiful, simple book is ideal for everyone.
Play Free by McNall Mason and Max Suarez (picture book, 2012)
Written in rhyming verse, this book encourages children to express their genders in all the varied ways they want. Children are depicted as bright, multi-colored monsters, and the goal of the book is to make it okay for a boy to “read a book or play with a toy that some might think is weird for a boy.” Girls whom we might call “tomboys” are embraced as readers, and are encouraged to accept boys who cross stereotypical gender lines as well. This book is ideal for all young kids, and is a good reminder for parents that strict gender norms can be damaging.
Made by Raffi by Craig Pomranz (picture book, 2014)
In this sweet story about a boy whose gender expression differs from the norm, Raffi, who is white, learns to knit from a Black woman, and discovers a passion for fashion. Raffi asks his mother if there is such a thing as a “tomgirl,” pointing out the less fluid gender expression acceptable for boys. While initially teased at school, Raffi earns the respect of his peers—many of whom are Black—when he makes a cape for a school play.
Call Me Tree by Llámame Árbol (picture book in English and Spanish, 2014)
A short book written in verse with vivid illustrations, Call Me Tree is not explicitly about gender identity or gender expression. It is, however, about being free to grow into who you are. All children in the book are trees, and the narrator says, “Call me tree,” a notably non-gender specific name. The bilingual aspect of the book and the images of children in a variety of shades make this a nice read for our kids.
All I Want to Be Is Me by Phyllis Rothblatt (picture book, 2011)
This is a short, cute book written in verse about children with a variety of gender identities and ways of expressing them. Children who feel like neither boys nor girls are included. Some racial diversity is depicted.
Pugdog by Andrea U’Ren (picture book, 2001)
This is a funny book about a dog whose owner thinks it is a male. When he finds out his dog is a female, he stops playing with her and starts dressing her up instead, which she hates. In the end, the owner learns that the sex of a dog does not determine what it likes to do. I have a slight hesitation around the extreme gender stereotypes portrayed in the book, but ultimately I think the humor and message outweigh this weakness. All human characters are white.
Yuck! That’s Not a Monster! by Angela McAllister (picture book, 2010)
A monster couple watches their three eggs hatch, and one is not like the others. Two (a boy and a girl) are typical, ugly, fierce monsters. But the third is a cute, gentle, pink boy. After initially rejecting him, the parents embrace him and eventually, his siblings do too. Not a literary masterpiece, but cute. An added bonus of this book is that within this family, the monsters come in an array of colors.
Tutus Aren’t My Style by Anne Wilsdorf (picture book, 2010)
In this fun and endearing picture book, Emma opens a package from her uncle and is horrified to find a pink ballerina outfit. Although she tries to make good use of it, she is not your traditional ballerina. She is relieved when she finds out that her uncle had intended for the package to contain a “safari outfit.” All the characters are white, and the idea of a safari outfit is potentially problematic as it is reminiscent of white colonialism and voyeuristic travel to Africa. However, I appreciate that by the end, we find out that everyone in the book understands Emma and accepts her gender expression.
Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino (picture book, 2014)
Morris’s favorite part of school is the dress-up area, where he likes the tangerine dress. He wears it as much as possible and gets teased as a result. While the bullying is upsetting, Morris persists in wearing the dress and by the end, he wins over some of the other kids because of his vivid imagination and adventurous play. There is no indication that Morris feels like or identifies as a girl—he identifies as a boy who wears dresses. Morris, and most of the other children pictured in the book, are white.
Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman (picture book, 2014)
Written by two parents about their child, this book shows the struggle of a young child who wants to wear dresses but is told by other kids that “boys don’t wear dresses.” Jacob’s parents support him in his choices, although their initial unease is apparent. I particularly appreciate that this book does not come to a conclusion about the gender identity or sexual orientation of Jacob, but instead leaves it open-ended. The note to parents at the end describes Jacob as “gender non-conforming” and explains that gender non-conforming children may “grow up to be gay, straight, bisexual, or transgender.” The authors’ refusal to put their child in a box at such a young age, while allowing full exploration and choice, is noteworthy. Jacob is white, as is the bully in the story; Jacob’s friend and ally, Emily, is Black.
Not Every Princess by Jeffrey Bone and Lisa Bone (picture book, 2014)
A very short book written in verse, Not Every Princess depicts boys and girls in atypical fairy-tale roles. For example, the verse, “Not all super heroes fly. Some don’t even soar,” is accompanied by a girl rescuing a kitten. The variety of gender expression is subtle and the book concludes with a rather long “Note to Parents and Caregivers,” in which the authors encourage parents to challenge gender roles and stereotypes. Illustrations depict mostly, but not exclusively, white children.
Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yoken and Heidi E. Y. Stemple (picture book, 2010)
This book tries to show that “princesses” (which seems to be a proxy for “girls”) can do all sorts of things: They can play sports, drive a truck, become farmers, work in construction, play rough, and so forth. While a great sentiment, I have two issues with this book: 1) Both the pictures and story depict the princesses wearing “sparkly crowns” throughout. For girls not so interested in crowns, or parents trying to veer away from the princess trope altogether, this is not ideal. 2) More concerning is the depiction of the only dark-skinned black girl on the last page. While light-skinned black girls (and other girls of color) are pictured throughout the book, the only dark-skinned girl, who also has short hair that appears to be in dreadlocks, is on the last page and is pictured with her arms folded, standing apart from all the others during a dance party.
Kerry Woodward is an adoptive parent and a professor of sociology at California State University Long Beach.