Last December, Pamela Paul, an opinion columnist for the New York Times (who once edited children’s book reviews at the newspaper), published “Free To Be You and Me. Or Not,” a piece bemoaning current attitudes toward gender. “In lieu of liberating children from gender, some educators have doubled down, offering children a smorgasbord of labels—gender identity, gender role, gender performance and gender expression—to affix to themselves from a young age,” she lamented. Paul’s answer? A return to the ethos of the ’70s, embodied by actor Marlo Thomas’ album, book, and television series Free To Be...You and Me, in which a slew of talents, among them Mel Brooks, Roberta Flack, and Harry Belafonte, boldly toppled gender stereotypes and assured children that they could be anything they wanted.
While groundbreaking for its time, however, Free To Be still upheld the gender binary (“Every boy in this land grows to be his own man / In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman”); it also didn’t acknowledge trans children. I would urge parents interested in fostering a more expansive view of gender to look instead to the picture books being published right now. These rich, beautiful, and varied stories speak to genderfluid children, to nonbinary children, to transgender children, to gender-nonconforming cisgender children, and to children still figuring it all out. Rather than “box[ing] children in,” as Paul fears, these books open up new worlds, letting young people know that no matter how they identify, they are seen.
Several recent titles use age-appropriate language and accessible narratives to explain topics related to gender. Laura Kate Dale’s Me & My Dysphoria Monster: An Empowering Story To Help Children Cope With Gender Dysphoria (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2022), illustrated by Hui Qing Ang, centers a transgender girl who, with support and guidance from a trans mentor, realizes why it’s so painful for her to be called a boy and eventually takes steps to embrace her true identity. Blue Jaryn’s Payden’s Pronoun Party (Page Street Kids, 2022), illustrated by Xochitl Cornejo, is a joyful romp of a book that follows a child who realizes that he/him/his pronouns don’t feel right before landing on e/em/eir—a decision that’s greeted with celebration by eir family and community.
By contrast, Jyoti Rajan Gopal’s My Paati’s Saris (Kokila, 2022), illustrated by Art Twink, doesn’t directly discuss gender identity. A male-presenting Tamil child is drawn to this garment that’s traditionally worn by women and even dons a sari of their own by book’s end. We don’t find out how the protagonist identifies, but the message comes through loud and clear: This child is loved and accepted.
Christian Trimmer’s The Good Hair Day (Abrams, May 23), illustrated by J Yang, and Irma Borges’ Leo’s Lavender Skirt (NubeOcho, 2022), illustrated by Francesco Fagnani and translated from Spanish by Cecilia Ross, are about boys who enjoy, respectively, having long, flowing locks and wearing skirts. Neither child expresses discomfort with being a boy (indeed, Leo becomes upset when a passerby calls him a girl)—they simply want the freedom to define what that means.
Aida Salazar’s Jovita Wore Pants: The Story of a Mexican Freedom Fighter (Scholastic, March 7), illustrated by Molly Mendoza, chronicles the life of Jovita Valdovinas, “Mexico’s Joan of Arc,” who, in the 1920s, defied gender norms by leading soldiers into battle during the Cristero Revolution. The book is a reminder that throughout history, many have chafed against gender norms—and triumphed.
Our conceptions of gender have transformed radically in the last several decades, and, happily, our children’s literature reflects those changes with books that will leave readers feeling empowered, affirmed, and loved.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.