Tag: Creative

Nonbinary, Gender Creative Children Summon Courage in New Picture Books

Nonbinary, Gender Creative Children Summon Courage in New Picture Books

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.

Board Book with Same-Sex Parents, Gender Creative Kids, and Pregnant Trans Man Wins Prestigious Stonewall Book Award

Stonewall Book Award Winners for LGBTQ Kids’ and Young Adult

The American Library Association (ALA) today announced its 2021 Stonewall Book Awards for LGBTQ-inclusive children’s and young adult books, part of the Youth Media Awards that also include the prestigious Newbery and Caldecott Medals. The winner was a board book that includes not only same-sex parents, but also gender creative kids and a pregnant transgender man.

We Are Little Feminists: Families

The Stonewall Book Awards — Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award (to distinguish them from the Stonewall Book Awards for adult books) are chosen by a committee of the ALA’s Rainbow Round Table, “the oldest professional association for LGBTQIA+ people in the United States.” This year’s winner is:

  • We Are Little Feminists: Families, by Archaa Shrivastav (Little Feminist), a board book that uses simply rhymes to celebrate many types of families as it shows photos of real families around the world engaged in everyday activities. While other books may have similar themes, this one is notable for the photos of actual families and the broad LGBTQ inclusion. Several of the families include two moms and two dads; there are also children who seem nonbinary or gender creative, and one image of a transgender man who is pregnant. (Readers may recognize him as trans advocate Trystan Reese, who posts about his family on Instagram at @biffandi.) Some images are below; note the publisher has not made the one with Reese available to the media, but it’s very similar to this one on his Instagram. This is truly a joyous book that belongs in any library or bookshelf for young children.

Four honor books were also selected:

  • Beetle & The Hollowbones, written and illustrated by Aliza Layne (Atheneum Books for Young Readers): In this middle grade graphic novel, 12-year-old goblin-witch Beetle, who lives in the eerie town of ‘Allows, fits in neither as a sorceress nor as a ghost whose spirit is trapped in the mall, like her nonbinary best friend Blob Ghost. When Beetle’s old best friend, Kat Hollowbone, returns to town for a sorcery apprenticeship with her Aunt Hollowbone, Beetle is reminded of her inadequacy. Yet plans are afoot that endanger Blob Ghost and force Beetle to act, confronting her fears and her feelings for Kat. A fun and clever story that is surprisingly human despite the fantastical characters.
  • You Should See Me in a Crown, by Leah Johnson (Scholastic): In this middle grade novel, Liz Lighty is a Black, nerdy, poor, wallflower, which sets her apart in her small, rich, Midwestern town. But when a scholarship to an elite college falls through, she unexpectedly finds herself in the social spotlight, running for prom queen and the prize money that brings. As if that’s not hard enough, she may also be falling for one of her competitors. Full review.
  • Darius the Great Deserves Better, by Adib Khorram (Dial Books): This sequel to Khorram’s young adult novel Darius the Great Is Not Okay, continues the story of Darius, an out gay Iranian American teen navigating romantic relationships and family as well as bullying, racism, and his family’s financial struggles. He also has queer grandmothers.
  • Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender (Balzer + Bray): A young adult novel about a Black, transgender teen whose plan to foil transphobic harassment lands him in an unexpected love triangle—but also leads him to redefine how he feels about himself.

In addition to the above, Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail, by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Susan Gal (Charlesbridge) won the Sydney Taylor Book Award, presented annually to “outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” While the LGBTQ content is slight (one pair of visiting relatives to the Passover seder is a two-dad couple), I’m still going to mention it. Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies and many other LGBTQ-inclusive works, arguably brought LGBTQ picture books into mainstream awareness, so I’m happy to celebrate any recognition of her work. Full review.

And queer mom Jacqueline Woodson won the Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award for her middle grade novel Before the Ever After (Nancy Paulsen Books) about a 12-year-old whose father, a retired football player, is grappling with traumatic brain injury.

The full list of ALA Youth Media Award winners is here.

Congratulations to them all!


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Imagination and Community in Two New Picture Books with Nonbinary and Gender Creative Characters

Imagination and Community in Two New Picture Books with Nonbinary

Two new picture books show us nonbinary and gender creative kids having imaginative adventures in their fun, welcoming, queer, and sometimes magical communities.

Imagination and Community in Two New Picture Books with Nonbinary and Gender Creative Characters Creative fun! Posted on October 26, 2020 Two new picture books show us nonbinary and gender creative kids having adventures in their fun, welcoming, queer and sometimes magical communities. Hooray, What a Day - A More Graceful Shaboom A More Graceful Shaboom - Jacinta Bunnell

A More Graceful Shaboom, written by Jacinta Bunnell and illustrated by Crystal Vielula (PM Press), is a surreal romp of a book that follows Harmon Jitney, a nonbinary child with “an extravagant collection of belongings” that they find hard to keep organized. They decide a purse is the answer, but their two mothers and sister are too busy with their own projects to help. Mama Millie Mapletush, for example, is “building an XJ-6350 Millennium Bipedal Astro Welding Robot from scratch,” whose components include a dishwasher and a movie theater popcorn machine.

Finally, a gender creative neighbor says he has a collection of purses, though he can’t quite remember where he put them. He and Harmon look behind a series of doors that reveal things as varied as a giant Muffin Monster, polar ice caps, and 66,500 Brussels sprouts. Ultimately, they find the purses. Harmon selects the purse of their dreams and proceeds to collect all of their treasured things into it, from belongings to friends, town, and, well, the entire universe. The magical ending is a celebration of community and love.

There’s an inspired silliness about the whole tale. It’s unclear exactly what age group the book is targeting, though, as the wordiness and level of vocabulary seem geared far above the usual picture-book range. Not that I’m against books that stretch young readers in this regard; adults should just be aware that they may need to do some explaining as they read through the book with kids, as least the first few times. What I appreciate most about it, though, is that the book isn’t “about” gender or identity, but rather about gender diverse characters simply having joyous adventures. We need more books like this.

Hooray, What a Day - Molly Allis

Another new book that takes a similar joyous approach is Hooray, What A Day!/¡Viva, Qué Día! by Molly Allis, available through Allis’ website. The bilingual book is an extension of All Together Now, an animated kids’ show that Allis is creating. The show stars a child named Frankie, described as gender non-conforming in the show notes, who uses “they” pronouns and lives with their grandma. Frankie’s best friend is Jesse, who lives with his two dads and uses male pronouns, but likes to wear skirts, jewelry, and sometimes makeup. The book takes us on a day-long adventure as the two friends explore their queer and colorful community. They go to a parade, visit the community garden, stop at the cafe owned by one of Jesse’s dads, and make zines at the local bookstore.

Queerness is everywhere—Grandma makes rainbow pancakes and has Indigo Girls and ACT UP posters in her kitchen; we see rainbow and trans flags in the community; and several characters at the parade are clearly gender creative. More general progressive messages are also strewn throughout: one character wears a “Black Lives Matter” shirt; the parade marchers carry signs saying, “Otro Mundo Es Posible,” and “Be the Change.” At the end of the day, after storytime with Grandma, Frankie reflects on how happy they are to have spent the day in their community with friends and chosen family.

Hooray, What A Day!/¡Viva, Qué Día! doesn’t have the fantastical tone of A More Graceful Shaboom, but Allis’ multi-colored people and richly detailed backgrounds are equally imaginative and fun. Potential readers should know, though, that while queerness abounds in the community, Frankie and Jesse’s identities aren’t clear from the book alone, but only from the show notes on Allis’ website. We don’t learn that Frankie uses “they”; we might assume from the illustrations that Jesse is a cisgender, gender conforming girl; we meet one of Jesse’s dads, but never know he has two. It’s true that the story isn’t “about” Frankie and Jesse’s gender or family structure, and as I’ve explained, we need more stories like that. But is the lack of clarity about their identities a missed opportunity for queer representation or a chance for readers to assume identities for them that the readers can relate to, no matter what the author intended? I leave that to your interpretation. (Now that you’ve read this post, of course, you can inform young readers of the author’s intended identities for the characters as you see fit.)

Regardless, the community that Allis depicts is clearly full of other, if minor, characters who are more obviously queer, and it’s packed full of queer iconography. Frankie and Jesse are at ease with it all, so even if their identities are here unknown, this remains an empowering, queer-inclusive book that will brighten any bookshelf. Let’s hope there are more books (along with the still-pending show) about the diverse people of this cheery and inclusive world.


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Classic Picture Book About Gender Creative Boy Is Back in Print

Classic Picture Book About Gender Creative Boy Is Back in

One of the first picture books about a gender creative boy, published in the 1970s but long out of print, is now available in a new edition produced by its illustrator, Marian Buchanan. She recently shared with me some details about the lengthy journey to its reprinting and why it still holds lessons for today.

Jesse's Dream Skirt by Bruce Mack. Illustration by Marian Buchanan

Jesse’s Dream Skirt, written by Bruce Mack (under the name “Morning Star”) was first published in 1977 in the second and final issue of Magnus, a gay men’s magazine, with illustrations by Larry Hermsen. It was picked up by Lollipop Power Press, a small, feminist publishing collective in North Carolina, who put out a call for a new illustrator. Buchanan, who belonged to a women artisans’ co-op that sold their books, submitted samples of her work. Lollipop Power and Mack chose her to illustrate the revised story that they published in 1979. (See her blog for an interesting discussion of their specific revisions.) Lollipop Power in 1979 also published the first LGBTQ-inclusive picture book in English, Jane Severance’s When Megan Went Away.

In Jesse’s story, we meet a young White boy who likes to wear things that “whirl, twirl, flow and glow.” One night, he dreams of a skirt of his own and his mother agrees to help him make it. She asks gently, though, if he’s considered what other kids might think. Jesse is undeterred.

When Jesse wears his skirt to daycare, the teacher, a Black man, is supportive. Some children smile but others criticize; one calls him a “sissy.” Jesse is upset.

The teacher then gathers the racially-diverse class and asks why they were teasing Jesse. They have an animated discussion about their own varied experiences with gender and clothing. This variety of perspectives is “one of the book’s strengths,” Buchanan said.

Jesse's Dream Skirt by Bruce Mack. Illustration by Marian Buchanan

Jesse’s Dream Skirt: Interior image of Jesse and teacher by Marian Buchanan. Used with permission.

Most of the children, it turns out, like Jesse’s skirt, which prompts him to share his dream. The teacher then takes a piece of material from a box and wraps it around his waist. Some children follow and make dresses, capes, or turbans from pieces of fabric. They parade and dance around the room, although “Jesse didn’t mind that some just watched.” On the last page, he twirls in his skirt, just like in his dream.

The teacher provides a good model for adults in similar situations, Buchanan observed. He facilitates “an exploration of [the children’s] feelings and behavior rather than telling them off or guiding them towards any particular perspective,” which may help children hearing the story to have “a similar exploration and discussion.”

Additionally, she said, in some other books, bullies simply “become villains rather than small children under the influence of the culture of prejudice in which they’re being raised.” In contrast, Jesse shows readers how to engage with bullies and sometimes bring them over “to a more open-minded point of view.” Yet the book also conveys “that this isn’t about trying to convert anyone to being a certain way themselves; it’s about letting everyone be the way they are individually.”

Despite its strengths, Jesse’s Dream Skirt was never reprinted as a standalone book after Lollipop Power closed in 1986 and Carolina Wren Press, a non-profit North Carolina publisher, acquired the rights. Jamie Campbell Naidoo, in his 2012 book about LGBTQ children’s literature, Rainbow Family Collections, opined that Jesse, which was “much more blatant in its treatment of gender nonconformity,” was overshadowed by the 1979 publication—from a larger publisher and an established author—of Tomie DePaola’s Oliver Button Is a Sissy, about a boy who prefers drawing and dancing rather than sports.

Still, some found great value in Jesse’s story, as Buchanan discovered when she investigated reprinting it for its 30th anniversary in 2009. She found expensive used copies online and realized it had become “a sought-after classic in some educational and LGBTQI+ circles.” The San Francisco-based Lesbian and Gay Parents Association and the Buena Vista Lesbian and Gay Parents Group had included it in their 1999 anti-bullying guide “Preventing Prejudice – Lesbian / Gay / Bisexual / Transgender Lesson Plan Guide for Elementary Schools.” That, too, went out of print (though not before rousing the ire of some conservative Christians, who claimed Jesse’s story was pushing children to “‘become’ homosexual,” Buchanan said).

When she contacted Carolina Wren, they suggested she republish Jesse herself. She didn’t want to do so without Mack’s permission, but none of them had his contact information. She eventually discovered that he had died in 1994 of complications from AIDS, she noted at her blog. She later tracked down his heirs—his brothers—via a genealogy website, and they agreed to a reprint at the end of 2019, just in time for the 40th anniversary. The updated edition has the 1979 text and interior images, a new, full-color cover, a clearer font, an introduction by Buchanan, and reader testimonials.

She admitted that the black-and-white illustrations are “a little dated.” Nevertheless, she said, she’s gotten praise for their “soul and emotion,” adding, “The story itself is not outdated—which I suppose is unfortunate in a way, because it means there’s still a need for this kind of counteracting of stereotyping, prejudice, and bullying.”

She does think there’s more “awareness and acceptance” of many diversity issues today, including “non-conformity to culturally defined gender expression.” Yet she reminds us to remain aware of the differences between gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Jesse is not necessarily transgender or gay, she notes in her introduction. “He may just be what is nowadays called a ‘pink boy.’”

Whatever Jesse’s identity, the book remains a gem of thoughtfulness about a gender creative child. This new edition, available only at Amazon.com, should find its way back to many bookshelves.

Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.


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