On Monday we talked about family list books including same-sex parents. Yesterday we talked about the slightly more sophisticated books for toddlers explaining that same-sex parents are just like other parents and their kids are happy. Some of these books are adorable and great, but they don’t talk about gender, bisexuality, or trans identities for parents, which is pretty typical for the mainstream narrative at the moment — it’s easy to say “these people are just like us except they fall in love with their own gender,” but it’s a lot scarier to challenge gender itself.
What concerns me even more, though, is that these books don’t talk about queer kids. They’re about helping “normal” kids understand adults in same-sex relationships. There’s a massive fear of recognizing that kids might know they’re queer, because people instantly jump to sexuality and don’t want to ascribe any kind of sexual consciousness to children. The thing is that it’s not about sex. It’s about who you want to hang out with on the playground, about which TV characters you have crushes on, about how you imagine yourself as a grown-up. It helps to have same-sex couples in picture books because it gives kids a framework, sure, but why can’t they see themselves too?
There is one exception to this absence, and that’s trans* and gender-nonconforming kids! While gender is still a huge issue for adults, it seems to be easier for writers to do picture books about it, because so many things in life are gendered. You can talk about trucks and dolls without talking about sex. Unfortunately a lot of them reduce it to just the wearing of dresses or not, but at least there are a few options, especially for trans girls and gender-nonconforming boys:
- I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings — Based on the true story of Jazz Jennings. She also has a teen book and an upcoming reality TV show. The book is good except for the unconscionable decision to whitewash Jazz.
- Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman — One of my personal favorites, it’s SO STINKIN’ CUTE but also balances challenges with encouragement really well.
- My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis — Which I haven’t read but hasn’t gotten great reviews.
- Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldaccino — The interior art isn’t as great as the cover, but still has a good story.
- 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert — Not super entertaining for an adult, but has some light repetition and other stuff younger kids will probably like more.
- Rough, Tough Charley by Verla Kay — The only one I know of about a trans man, and it’s not great, although it is based on a historical person. The poetry isn’t good, and it’s very much “Look, a woman can do anything a man can do” and consistently uses “she” for Charley. Possibly accurate but probably not.
This is a small sample size, but it definitely seems trans boys have to do a lot more to be “counted” as queer, and girls have to do a lot more to be “counted” as gender-nonconforming and be put on queer picture book lists. There are a gazillion books about tomboys — books like The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke — but they rarely show up when you’re trawling the internet for queer-positive picture books. (Try “tomboy” as a keyword instead of “queer/lesbian/LGBT” etc.)
So, they’re sometimes problematic, but if you want books showing different gender expressions you can get them. Tomorrow we’ll talk about another strategy some authors use to get queer characters into picture books, and one time-honored in the genre: anthropomorphic animals.