Nonbinary, Gender Creative Children Summon Courage in New Picture Books

Nonbinary, Gender Creative Children Summon Courage in New Picture Books
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Two new picture books, including one in English and Spanish, show nonbinary and gender creative children being proud and confident even as they face bias. This post is also my contribution to Multicultural Children’s Book Day today! #ReadYourWorld

Toby Wears a Tutu

Toby Wears a Tutu, by Lori Starling and illustrated by Anita DuFalia (Brandylane), is told from the first-person perspective of the titular character, a young, Black child who is ready for the first day of school with a “freshly shaved head, purple glasses, button-down blouse, dapper blue bow tie, and frilly pink tutu.” Toby confidently asserts, “The world is mine to discover.” In class, Toby sits with a group of diverse children and their Black, male teacher (which hearkens back, intentionally or not, to the 1979 picture book about a gender creative boy, Jesse’s Dream Skirt, and the supportive Black, male teacher there). All is well until recess time, when a boy tells Toby not to play kickball because it’s only for boys. Another child asks, “Wait, what are you?” while others giggle and laugh as they variously identify him as a boy or a girl. “Confused” and “nervous” from the questions, Toby goes off to sit alone.

At home, Toby and Toby’s mother (who reads as White) talk. She “lets me be my own person” and offers the reminder that some people will think “boy” and “girl” labels are important, but they don’t really matter. Toby also relates her advice that “it’s important that I talk to my friends about my thoughts and feelings. If I need to, Mom tells me, I can always talk with them in front of an adult I trust, like her or my teacher.” The slight pedantry is offset by Toby’s first-person narration, which makes this feel a little less like an adult lecture.

They decorate cookies together and Toby’s mother advises Toby to grab the courage to speak with friends just like grabbing the bag of icing, and to “put love and kindness into your words.” Toby promises “to always grab hold of my courage and speak words of love about myself,” which feels like a bit of a cognitive leap for a young child. On the surface, the mother was talking about speaking to others with love and kindness; for Toby to take away the message about loving oneself feels like an unbelievable amount of self-awareness. While this passage doesn’t quite ring true, though, the sentiment about loving oneself is certainly an important one.

The next day at school, the children again confront Toby, asking “What are you?” Toby summons courage and says, “I’m Toby,” and then proceeds to share the things that Toby likes to eat, wear, do, and be. Toby tells them “Sometimes I feel like a boy” and sometimes a girl; most days, though, Toby is somewhere in between. Another child asks, “So… you’re just a Toby?” Toby nods, and gets invited to go play kickball. “It’s amazing to just be a me,” Toby concludes.

There are now a number of picture books about nonbinary or gender creative children being teased or told they can’t do certain things at school. While the storyline here is very similar in particular to that of Sarah Savage’s Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?, the bullying children are harsher in Savage’s book. Adults not wanting to scare young children might prefer Toby—though Toby still gets teased and laughed at. Those seeking a book about gender creative and nonbinary identities that doesn’t include teasing or bullying might want to try Laurin Mayeno’s One of a Kind, Like Me/ Único Como Yo (where some kids are initially surprised by the protagonist’s gender creativity, but don’t tease), or Elana K. Arnold’s What Riley Wore (where there is no teasing or questioning whatsoever).

At the same time, Savage’s book is a little clearer in affirming that there are no such things as “boy” activities and “girl” activities. Other books that also handle this point well are Afsaneh Moradian’s Jamie Is Jamie and Deborah Underwood’s Ogilvy, where it’s clearer that the nonbinary protagonist has caused the other kids to rethink their gender stereotypes. In Toby, while “all” the kids go play kickball at the end and we see at least one girl in the illustration, it’s unclear what motivated the boys not only to let the nonbinary Toby, but also the girls, play what they’d previously seen as a “boy” thing. Adults may want to bring that up as a point of discussion.

Toby’s self-confidence is inspiring, though, reminding me of the similarly confident protagonists in What Riley Wore (nonbinary) and Dazzling Travis (gender creative boy). While Toby doesn’t step too far from the storylines in many of these other books, it nevertheless holds its own with them. Readers’ preferences may depend on whether they are dealing with real children whose identities or situations are closer to one particular book.

Pepito Has a Doll/Pepito Tiene una Muñeca

Pepito Has a Doll/Pepito Tiene una Muñeca, by Jesús Canchola Sánchez and illustrated by Armando Minjárez Monárrez (BookBaby), is the bilingual story of a boy who takes his favorite doll to school with him every day, but hides her in his backpack so that no one will know. In his case, his family is cautious; he asks his grandmother, “Abuela, why do I have to hide Lola at school?” and she responds, “We have to be careful. Someone can make fun of you or hurt you. If someone does something to you, tell me. I will always protect you.”

At night, the shy Pepito prays that nothing happens to Lola or his abuela and that he finds a friend at school. One day, a new boy, Miguel, arrives at school and the two become friends (or “amigos” even in the English portion of the text, which sprinkles in Spanish words that are easily understood from the context, illustrations, or glossary). Miguel likes Lola, too. Soon we see the boys walking hand-in-hand to school together. When Lola falls out of Pepito’s backpack one day, however, the other kids tease him and call him a “girl.” Pepito cries as Miguel defends him by holding out his hand in a “stop” gesture. Pepito then finds the courage to speak up about how much he loves Lola “and there’s nothing wrong with that.” The other kids leave. Thankful to his friend, Pepito gives Miguel a “besito” (kiss) on the cheek—and then three more.

“Today, Pepito feels the same freedom at school that he does at home. He is fearless,” the book tells us, and then offers a final page reminding us that some boys play with dolls, some girls climb trees, and some do both. “It’s so wonderful to be a child and play freely,” it concludes. I’d add that it’s also wonderful to have a supportive friend or significant other, as Pepito does.

This #OwnVoices book is also one of few LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books that shows the protagonist as a person of faith. Several times we see Pepito praying at his bed; in one image, we see a cross on the wall above it. Those seeking such representation should welcome it here.

Again, though, Pepito is yet another book about a gender creative or nonbinary child in which the child is teased. Such books have their place, especially in settings where such teasing has occurred, but I’m still hoping the future brings us more stories about gender creative and nonbinary children in which their gender is not a focus of the plot.

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