culture, lgbtq+, social-emotional

Book List: Gender Identity

For the life of me, I can’t understand it. This month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed an executive order that criminalized parents helping their children transition. Framed as “child abuse,” the new directive allows Child Protective Services to investigate parents whose children are going through any level of transition, whether it be allowing them to wear clothing of their choice or taking hormones after consultation with doctors. The bizarre push for parents to make their love for their children conditional on societal norms is a dangerous idea. The large number of trans people who commit suicide or cannot find work/housing because of how their gender identities are received by society is heartbreaking. These books help to break down these destructive norms and embrace love. 

Pink is For Boys (Running Press Kids)
Written by Robb Pearlman
Illustrated by Eda Kaban

For ages: 4-8
You may not know it, but there was a period in Western culture where pink represented boys and blue was associated with girls. It’s so silly to frame colors as representative of gender, but they do for some people. Pink is For Boys seeks to break down this stereotype, showcasing how all the colors can be for everyone. Through simple text and (naturally) colorful illustrations, author Robb Pearlman tells us about the beauty of the color spectrum and how everyone can appreciate and wear these colors. It’s a delightfully illustrated book, but it slightly misses the mark by adhering to gender binaries (boy/girl). It’s not a huge misstep, but maybe we will get a more inclusive update in the future. 

Julián is a Mermaid (Candlewick)
Written & Illustrated by Jessica Love

For ages: 4-8
This is my absolute favorite on the list due to the gorgeous illustrations of Jessica Love. She is simply one of the best artists working in contemporary children’s lit at the moment, and when she has a book out, you need to scoop it up. Julian is riding the el train with his Abuela when he spies three beautiful mermaids that enter their car. The Afro-Caribbean child imagines himself like them, swimming under the sea with all sorts of creatures. When he gets home, and Abuela goes to shower, Julian uses objects from around the house to make himself into a beautiful mermaid. He worries he’ll be in trouble, but Abeula accepts his identity and embraces it. The book ends with a lovely parade of people dressed in drag having a small parade down the street. Very heartwarming, with minimal text and illustrations that tell the story.

Annie’s Plaid Shirt (Upswing Press)
Written by Stacy B. Davids
Illustrated by Rachael Balsaitis and Sam Pines

For ages: 4-8
Annie doesn’t like to wear dresses. Instead, she wears her favorite plaid shirt when she goes outside to play. Then, the news comes that Annie’s uncle is getting married, and so her mother wants to buy a lovely new dress for her child for the event. While going through the clothes, the young girl never feels comfortable in the things her mother picks out. Eventually, Annie figures out a way to keep her identity her own, and her mother comes to understand her child better. The book is well illustrated and does an excellent job of pointing out a typical scenario where gender is questioned in our society. Clothing, much like colors, has been categorized when in reality, we should let people wear what they please and what they feel represents them best.

A Fire Engine For Ruthie (Clarion Books)
Written by Leslea Newman
Illustrated by Cyd Moore

For ages: 4-8
Toys are another venue where we push gender binaries. In this book, we have tension between Ruthie and her Nana. Nana wants to share toys with Ruthie that she loved while growing up. These are dolls and dressing up, but Ruthie doesn’t fit into the same mold her grandmother does. The little girl prefers toy cars and wearing clothes more commonly associated with masculinity. Eventually, Nana begins to open her eyes and learn more about Ruthie. By the end, she finds a way to play with her grandchild that incorporates all the things they both love. This is a great book to help adults and kids understand how we play and how that reflects our identities.

Jack (Not Jackie) (little bee books)
Written by Erica Silverman
Illustrated by Holly Hatam

For ages: 4-8
Susan is so excited to have a new little sister. However, as Jackie gets older, it becomes clear that the new child doesn’t want to play in the same way as Susan or wear the same clothes. Instead, the other sibling wants to be known as Jack and cut their hair short. Susan goes through a process where she has to learn how to understand Jack and remembers how much love she has for her sibling. Unfortunately, the story is still very rooted in cisgender binaries. Still, it does provide an excellent tool to help siblings understand their transitioning peers. We should never forget how gender binaries ultimately serve to confuse children. So we need books like this to help them understand when someone they know transitions. It’s the same person; they just look slightly different from before.

I Am Jazz (Dial Books)
Written by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel
Illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas

For ages: 4-8
If you are familiar with any transgender person in America, it might be Jazz Jennings. This book does a fantastic job of telling an individual’s story of realizing they are not the gender they were assigned and how their family learned to understand them. Through Jazz’s words, we learn to understand how she saw things growing up and the distress she felt when being told she had to adhere to a specific way of being based on her birth assignment. However, what’s so important in this story is how we see her family never stop loving her and make an effort to understand how she sees herself. Jazz has helped make such vital advances in the popular culture’s understanding of what it is like to be trans.

They She He Me: Free To Be (Reflection Press)
Written by Maya Christina Gonzalez
Illustrated by Matthew SG

For ages: 6-9
While other texts on this list deal mainly with gender binaries, this book highlights the fluidity in gender expression. The book’s opening pages are simply images of characters with their pronouns listed underneath. The art does an excellent job of presenting so many ways gender can be expressed. If you have not been exposed to much beyond the man/woman binary, some lovely surprises are here—Shes with facial hair, Hes with long flowing skirts. The book’s back matter is much wordier, which is why I think the book is better for older primary students. Many of these pages are big blocks of text with some accent drawings. This section includes short pieces about what it means to express yourself and how you can communicate your pronouns to others. The duality of the book means it has parts that work, especially with the little kids and other sections that help take the conversation deeper with our older friends. So far, this has been the best book I’ve seen when it comes to breaking down the binary. Please let me know if you know of any other books that present this subject well.

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