Here’s my third and final review for this week’s mini-theme of picture books about gender creative boys—this one focusing on the importance of allies.

Bling Blaine - Rob Sanders

A Glittery Tale

The titular character of Bling Blaine: Throw Glitter, Not Shade, by Rob Sanders (Sterling Publishing), loves to sparkle. “He bedazzled his book bag. He added sequins to his baseball cap,” Sanders tells us. He “spread happiness like confetti.” Blaine is popular and active in the school community, decorating the library and giving out shiny bookmarks to the other kids.

A few kids, however, don’t understand him. One says that only girls wear sparkles. A new kid pushes him and calls him “sissy.” Eventually, their words begin to affect him, and he shows up one day in plain, dull clothes. Blaine looks glum and this casts a pall over the whole school.

The next day, several other students—boys and girls—show up wearing sequins and sparkles in defiance of the detractors. Blaine’s friends then talk with the new kid and with a grown-up library volunteer who had rolled her eyes at Blaine’s bling. Sanders avoids heavy-handed messaging, though—we’re never told what the friends say, but it’s clear from the illustrations that they’re explaining their support for Blaine’s style.

Blaine then gives a sparkly gift to the new kid, who thanks him and smiles “just a little”—a soft touch conveying that change sometimes takes time. The final spread declares that from then on, “everyone was free to be themselves” at the school. That feels a bit optimistic—but we could all use some optimism these days.

Letizia Rizzo’s cartoon-like illustrations are cheery and colorful, emphasizing pinks and purples. Blaine has medium brown skin and dark brown curly hair. The other children are of various racial and ethnic identities and body types.

Several other books about gender creative boys in school situations have plots that may seem similar on the surface—the child gets teased and then everyone learns a lesson about diversity. Yet Sanders, an elementary school teacher and author of numerous LGBTQ-inclusive books, goes beyond that to offer some different perspectives: Blaine’s being bullied has a negative impact on the whole community. The students find the solution themselves, without adult intervention. Importantly, too, allies are key.

In fact, allyship is really the main theme of the book, more so than Blaine’s personal journey. That’s not a criticism; there are already many other books about gender creative children that more fully explore those children’s feelings. Bling Blaine, however, seems less a story for gender creative children than it is for their peers—it’s a tale on how to be allies, and that’s sorely needed, too.

Defining Allies

Two supplemental pages at the end offer a definition of “ally” and how to be one. An ally, it says, is “a person or group associated with another or with others for a common cause or purpose; a person who cooperates with another; supporter; friend.” That definition seems borrowed and only very slightly edited from the entry. It’s true enough—but oddly omits the meaning of “ally” that seems most relevant to matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion: “a passive or active supporter of a particular politicized or marginalized group, usually not a member of the group.” Yes, that wording is too complex for the picture book age range (and I’d drop “passive,” as I think that true allyship requires action). The idea of supporting someone even if they are different from you could have been incorporated, however.

The additional suggestions on “How to Be an Ally”—in brief: stand up for what’s right, learn, listen, and keep trying—are good but also don’t really get at the idea of allying across difference, except to note somewhat vaguely that, “as an ally, it’s not about you, it’s about the other person.”

Certainly, it’s a fine goal simply to encourage children to stand up for anyone being bullied, similar or different. That’s a good place to start talking about allyship, especially with younger children. But parents and teachers should be aware, particularly as kids get older, that there’s a further layer to explore about supporting people who may not look, act, or believe the same way.

Final Thoughts

I offer those thoughts because I really do like the story as a way to begin conversations about allyship, even if it’s only a starting point. I hope it sees much home and classroom use. It shows that the burden shouldn’t always be on gender creative kids (or kids of any marginalized group) and their families to solve problems of bias; it’s a community problem and allies have a big role to play. That’s a hugely important lesson for us all to remember these days, in a world where the shade threatens to overcome the glitter. Bling Blaine might just help turn that around.

You may also be interested in Sanders’ other two recent books, both biographies: Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg (my review here), and The Fighting Infantryman: The Story of Albert Cashier, about a transgender civil war soldier (my review here).

See also my reviews from earlier this week of two other books about gender creative boys: one for the youngest children and one from 1979 that has just been republished.

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