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8 Beautiful Kids’ Books that Challenge Gender Norms

May 5, 2017

There have always been kids whose gender expression is expansive, kids who don’t fit into the category of boy or girl. And there have always been families, communities, and cultures that have not just tolerated, but embraced their children whose gender expression is more complicated, messy, and beautiful than a black checkmark in a white box.

But that doesn’t describe all families, all communites, and it doesn’t apply to the world of children’s publishing. In the past, gender didn’t feature very prominently in children’s books except to reinforce stereotypes about what it means to be a girl or a boy, and drive home the point that if you aren’t one or the other, there’s something seriously wrong with you.

In the '70s, books like Free to Be You and Me and Oliver Buttons is a Sissy addressed binary sex-based gender roles, not by challenging the idea of them — that one’s genetalia determines one's gender and one's gender determines what one can do with one's life — but by arguing for their expansion: Boys can play with dolls and cry and girls can be tough and smart. But boys and girls were still clearly boys and girls.

For the first time that I can remember, gender can be found in children’s books in ways that are subtle, complicated, and most importantly, beautiful.

In the 2000s a new story emerged; the boy who likes to wear dresses. Sometimes this boy is a boy who likes to wear dresses. Other times this boy turns out to be a girl, a girl who, like many other girls, wants to wear a dress. With varying degrees of success, and often at the expense of accurate portraits of trans experience, these stories began to chip away at the seemingly impervious lines between boyhood and girlhood as well as the pervasive understanding that genitals are destiny.

For a lot of different reasons, it feels like things are changing. Mostly this has to do with who is getting to write and publish books. For the first time that I can remember, gender can be found in children’s books in ways that are subtle, complicated, and most importantly, beautiful. Being beautiful is the most important part because that is precisely how most people think kids should feel about themselves. And one of the most powerful ways to give a kid the chance to feel that is to give them books that reflect something of themselves back to them. 

Here then are three books that each deal with gender in ways that feel not only educational and expansive, but beautiful:

Sweetest Kulu (Celina Kalluk, Illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis)

Sweetest Kulu is a lyrical and beautifully illustrated welcome of one child (Kulu) into the world. Each two-page spread tells Kulu about how their arrival was greeted with gifts from the winds and the animals of the earth. The arctic hare brings love, the seal creativity, the polar bear respect and gentleness. Equally suitable as a bedtime ritual read for infants (be forewarned the text is like a lullabye, and more than once I fell asleep before getting to the end) or a book to read along with an older child, one of the best things about Sweetest Kulu is something it doesn’t do. It doesn’t care about or address the gender of the child in the story or the child being read to. This isn’t possible (or desireable) in every story, but having books that neither address gender nor conspicuously avoid it either creates space for your child to think about themselves as a kid first, and a boy, girl, or someone else, later. 

An image of the cover of Sweetest Kulu.

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Call Me Tree/Llámame Árbol (Maya Christina Gonzalez)

Not that long ago I saw a post on Facebook where an adult who was frustrated by the limiting nature of gender wondered out loud if they couldn’t just pick “tree” as their gender. It turns out, award-winning author and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez imagined that desire years before. Call Me Tree is about our roots, both literally and figuratively, imagining children as trees. Trees that dance and sing in the wind, trees that stand very still, trees that, when given what they need, grow strong and, most importantly to Gonzalez, free. In an essay for her publisher, Gonzalez explains that she intentionally left gendered pronouns out of the book (although her illustrations depict a range of genders) because every tree, just like every kid, belongs. It’s fun to talk with kids about this and suggest that the title character isn’t just telling us their name is tree, they are telling us that tree is who they are. 

An image of the cover of Call Me Tree

The Boy & the Bindi (Vivek Shraya, Illustrated by Rajni Perera)

The Boy & the Bindi is many wonderful things. It’s a story about a boy’s relationship with his mother, an introduction to one element of South Asian culture that is a site of many children’s questions (“What is this dot? I want to know!”), and most precious and rare of all among children’s books, it’s a well told, richly illustrated representation of expansive gender that isn’t white. This matters because, like so much of children’s publishing, books that feature kids exploring gender in non-traditional ways almost always feature white characters. Taking from intimate moments at home to conversations in the playground, Shraya’s warm and entertaining rhyming text tells a story about difference without relying on bullying, and shares with all kids something about the world told through the intimate lens of a child’s experience of their body, mind, and spirit. 

An image of the cover of The Boy & The Bindi

More to Explore:

As gender diversity becomes a more common topic of discussion we’re seeing an increase in books that take a more intentional, educational approach to talking to kids about gender expression and identity. Here are a few such titles:

Gender Now Coloring Book by Maya Christina Gonzalez
An activity and coloring book that explores gender diversity.

Is That For a Boy or a Girl? by S. Bear Bergman, illustrated by Rachel Dougherty
One of several titles about gender from independent publisher, Flamingo Rampant.

Stacey’s Not a Girl by Colt Keo-Meier, illustrated by Jesse Yang
A picture book about a kid who knows they aren’t a girl, but isn’t sure if they are a boy.

Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity
A primer on gender identity written and illustrated for younger children.

Sex Is a Funny Word by me and Fiona Smyth
The first sex ed. book to include a significant discussion of gender, for kids 7 and up.

Article Author Cory Silverberg
Cory Silverberg

Read more from Cory here.

Raised by a children's librarian and a sex therapist, Cory Silverberg grew up to be a best-selling author and award-winning educator focusing on sexuality and gender. He received his master's of education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and teaches on topics including sexuality, gender, disability, access and inclusion across North America.  His most recent book, Sex Is a Funny Word (with Fiona Smyth) was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association and won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.

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