“There are lots of ways to be a boy.
There are lots of ways to be a girl.
There are lots of ways to be a kid.
Be who you are.”
—Brooke Pessin-Whedbee in Who Are You?
Children’s literature can reflect and reinforce traditional gender expectations, but it can also interrogate stereotypes and open up new, empowering possibilities. The recent increase in books representing gender nonconforming and transgender children is good news for all readers. In addition to enabling gender nonconforming children to see themselves in books, these stories cultivate empathy and expand readers’ overall concept of gender. By challenging traditional masculine and feminine stereotypes, these books remind readers that “there are lots of ways to be a kid.”
Since clothing choice is one of the ways children express their identities, it’s not surprising that conflicts about clothes are the focus of many picture books and middle grade novels. There are a number of stories about boys wanting to wear dresses or girls not wanting to wear dresses while the people around them—classmates, siblings and/or parents—accept or reject these choices and the characters’ identities.
In the picture book Sparkle Boy, for example, a boy named Jessie wants to wear sparkling skirts, jewelry, and nail polish. A group of older boys tell him that “dudes don’t wear skirts…. because that’s just the way it is.” Regardless of a readers’ gender identity, the story begs us to ask why? Why can’t boys wear pink or wear skirts? In addition to questioning gender norms, the book allows readers to sympathize and empathize with Jessie and cheer him on when he insists on being true to himself.
In novel The Pants Project, Liv is a transgender boy who has not yet come out. He–still “she” to others—is horrified to learn that his new middle school will require him to wear a skirt. Liv devises creative ways to protest the dress code and be honest about his identity with his family and new-found school friends. Gender nonconforming readers might recognize and appreciate Liv’s struggle to be himself in a world that does not truly see him; all readers can empathize with and appreciate Liv’s sense of humor as he navigates family relationships, friendships, and socially constructed gender roles.
These books let readers explore the complex relationship between bodies, identities, and expression. More importantly, they encourage readers to trust themselves. As Brooke Pessin-Whedbee notes in Who Are You?, “The important thing to remember is that you are the one who knows you best.” I can’t think of a better message for all children, and I hope that teachers and students alike will take advantage of these books both to see themselves and to understand gender non-conforming and transgender experiences.
Lowell’s Libraries have a number of books that further such understanding, ranging from picture books and middle grade novels about children questioning traditional gender roles to young adult memoirs about transitioning. Below is a sampling of titles in our collections with age recommendations following each title.
Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story about Gender and Friendship by Jessica Walton (Pre-Primary–Kindergarten)
Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah Hoffman (PP–2nd grade)
Annie’s Plaid Shirt by Stacy B. Davids (Kindergarten–1st grade)
Sparkle Boy by Leslie Newman (Kindergarten–2nd grade)
Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino (Kindergarten–3rd grade)
George by Alex Gino (3rd–6th grade)
The Pants Project by Cat Clarke (3rd–6th grade)
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky (4th–7th grade)
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart (5th–8th grade)
Not your Sidekick by C.B. Lee (5th–8th grade)
One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi (4th–7th grade)
Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle (4th–8th grade)
Happy Families by Tanita Davis (6th grade and up)
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (6th grade and up)
Identifying as Transgender by Sara Woods (6th grade and up)
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater (6th grade and up)
LGBTQ+ Athletes Claim the Field: Striving for Equality by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (6th grade and up)
A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni (6th grade and up)
Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings (6th grade and up)
The ABCs of LGBT+ by Ashley Marsdell (6th grade and up)
Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill (7th grade and up)
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin (7th grade and up)
Brightly has a nice article about one family’s experience with their transitioning child.