Monday, June 15, 2020

Books with Transgender, Non-Binary, and Gender Non-Conforming Themes for Younger Kids - Updated

Children's books with transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming characters and themes

I originally put this list together 3 years ago for a patron who had a young transgender daughter and was having a very hard time finding any books with transgender characters or themes that were not for teens or older tweens. At that time, we had very few books to meet her needs and I had to do quite a bit of digging to come up with titles to give her that she could request the library to purchase. After 3 years I thought it was time to update the list and add any new titles that have come out since then, and reconsider some of the older and/or self-published ones I had originally included. (Click here if you're curious about the original list and comments.)

*One caveat: I could not get my hands on some of these and had to go by samples, summaries, and reviews, so please don't take these as recommendations but rather as suggestions.

Picture Books (ages 4-8)

It's Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr (2004). 

While this book doesn't specifically address being transgender, it does provide a positive message about being different in general. Some of the examples are physical characteristics, some are random, but it also includes having different kinds of families.

Written for the youngest readers, it features short, simple text, and bright, colorful illustrations with heavy black outlines that look as though a child had drawn them.

Be Who You Are by Todd Parr (2016). 

This is a companion to the book above, continuing the positive message about diversity and individuality, encouraging kids to be proud of what makes them unique, and to express themselves however they need to. It does not specifically address transgender, but it does show a boy wearing a feather boa.

Illustrated in Parr's signature primitive style with bold colors, this book is an excellent way to teach acceptance and individuality to young children.

Ogilvy by Deborah Underwood & T. L. McBeth (2019).

Ogilvy is excited about the new opportunities moving to a new town can bring, only to find the population divided into two distinct groups: bunnies who wear dresses that play ball and knit socks, and bunnies who wear sweaters that make art and climb rocks. Not really about being transgender per se, but  does an excellent job of showing how arbitrary traditional gender stereotypes really are, and not only supports, but celebrates individuality, personal choice, and the freedom to dress and play however you want. I would recommend this book for all families! 

Worm Loves Worm by J. J. Austrian & Mike Curato (2016). 

Two worms fall in love and decide to get married. Their friends excitedly ask them about their wedding plans: Who is going to wear the wedding dress? Who will wear the tux? The worms can't figure out which one of them should wear what, and in the end they decide that it doesn't matter

(Fun fact: Worms each have both male and female reproductive organs. When they mate, both sets of sex organs are used by both worms, and they both become mothers and fathers!)

Neither by Arlie Anderson (2018).

In the land where there are only two kinds of creatures, blue bunnies or yellow chicks, a creature hatches from an odd green egg that is a little like both, yet is Neither. Despite their efforts, Neither just can't fit in, so leaves and ultimately finds a new place that has all colors and all different kinds of creatures.

This story can be used to promote embracing differences and diversity in a general way, but can also be used as a parallel for being non-binary.

What Riley Wore by Elana K. Arnold & Linda Davick (2019).

Riley knows just what to wear for any occasion: a bunny suit when feeling shy, a superhero cape when trying to be brave, a ball gown for dinner. Throughout the story we see Riley, whose gender is never mentioned, express themselves in many ways through their clothing, and engage in a variety of play. Riley goes to the park wearing purple jeans, a tutu, and a hat with dinosaur spikes, and another child asks "Are you a girl or a boy?", to which Riley replies, “Today I’m a firefighter. And a dancer. And a monster hunter. And a pilot. And a dinosaur.” And everyone is fine with that.

Red: A Crayon.'s Story by Michael Hall (2015). 

A crayon is labeled Red, but no matter how hard tries, he just can't color anything red; everything keeps coming out blue! His teacher just thinks he needs more practice, and his friends and classmates try to show him how. But he still draws blue strawberries. He is very frustrated and sad, until he finally realizes that he isn't a defective red crayon, he is in fact a brilliant, but mis-labeled, blue!

An obvious parallel to being transgender can by drawn from the story, but it can also be used to relate to not being defined by your appearance or others' expectations in general. Author Michael Hall said though he realized many people would interpret this as being about transgender and that was fine, the story was actually about his experiences growing up with dyslexia, and the expectations and pressure from his father to perform better in school.

BunnyBear by Andrea Loney & Carmen Saldana (2017).

Bunnybear was born a bear, but feels more like a rabbit. He prefers bouncing through the bushes to tramping in the forest. In his heart, he is light, bouncy, and fluffy. But, neither the bears nor the bunnies understand him at first, and when they make fun of him it makes him feel sad and anxious. Eventually he learns to be true to himself, and helps others as well.

Julián Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love (2018).

Julián and his grandmother see some people dressed as glamorous mermaids on the subway, and later he decides he wants to dress up as one, too. Instead of being shocked or angry, his grandmother is supportive and takes him to join what appears to be the Coney Island Mermaid Parade on the beach.

Some interpret this as a transgender child, but others (myself included) see it as a child engaging in creative play that is not defined by traditional gender roles, and having a supportive grandparent. Either way, it is a sweet story about unconditional love and acceptance with lovely illustrations, and a recipient of the Stonewall Award, among others.

The Boy & the Bindi by Vivek Shraya & Rajni Perera (2017).

A young boy becomes fascinated with his mother's bindi, a dot worn on the forehead by some Hindu women. She explains what it is, and the cultural significance. When he wants to wear one, she does not tell him it's only for women, but gives him one. Rhyming text and vibrant illustrations enhance the story.

My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis & Suzanne DiSimone (2010). 

This story is based on the author's experiences with her son, who is not presented as transgender, but a boy who happens to enjoy dressing up as a princess and stereotypical "girl" things. The story also addresses teasing and bullying, but shows a very supportive family, including the brother and dad. 

One criticism of the illustrations is the blank, featureless faces, that some readers found creepy or disturbing.

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino & Isabelle Malenfant (2014). 

Morris is a boy with a vivid imagination who loves to play in the dress-up center at school, where his favorite thing to wear is a bright tangerine dress. The other kids tease him and tell him he shouldn't wear a dress because he is a boy, and should be doing "boy" things, and won't let him play in their spaceship. But then Morris uses his incredible imagination to construct his own spaceship, which draws the other children and they begin to accept him as he is. This was a Stonewall honor book.

Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman & Maria Mola (2017). 

Casey loves puzzles, blocks, trucks, AND shiny, sparkly things. While his parents support his experimenting with sparkle, his older sister Jessie doesn't like it when he wears her old sparkly skirt or wants his nails painted. But, when he is teased by other boys at the library, Jessie sticks up for her brother.

This is by the author of Heather Has Two Mommies. One thing worth noting is that the illustrations show a family of color. I am disappointed the author chose the library as the setting for Casey being bullied; kids should be encouraged to see libraries as a safe place!

One of a Kind, Like Me / Único Como Yo by Lauren Mayeno & Robert Liu-Trujillo (2016).

In this bilingual story based on the author's own experience with her son, Danny wants to wear a purple princess dress in the costume parade. He and his mother go shopping, but can't find just the right dress, so they make the perfect custom dress that is one of a kind, just like him. Celebrates being yourself and not being confined by gender stereotypes. When another child says they have never seen a boy princess before, Danny smoothly replies that he's never seen a walking pineapple or talking butterfly (referring to other costumes).

Jacob's New Dress by Sarah & Ian Hoffman & Chris Case (2014).

Jacob loves playing dress-up and pretending to be anything he wants. He wants to wear a dress to school, even though some kids say he can't because he's a boy. His mother agrees to help him make a dress, and when he is teased about it at school, he tells the bullies that he made that dress and will wear it proudly. His father and teacher are supportive; the teacher gives the example that only a relatively short time ago, girls were not allowed to wear pants, and that everyone should wear what they are comfortable in.

Roland Humphrey Is Wearing a WHAT? by Eileen Kiernan-Johnson & Katrina Revenaugh (2013). 

Roland likes sparkly things, rainbow colors, butterflies and barrettes. But the girls in his class tell him these things are only for girls. Roland questions why there is a double standard for girls and boys; why are the rules for boys so much more rigid? He sticks up for himself and decides to express himself the way that feels right for him.

Ho'onani: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale & Mika Song (2019).

Based on a true story, Ho'onani doesn't really see herself as a girl or a boy, and feels somewhere in between. When her school announces they will be doing a performance of a traditional hula dance, she decides she wants to do the dance traditionally reserved for boys. Also provides a glimpse of Hawaiian culture and language.

Annie's Plaid Shirt  by Stacy Davids & Rachel Balsaitis (2015). 

Annie loves her plaid shirt, and wears it every day. But, when her uncle is about to get married, her mother tells her she must wear a dress to the wedding, even though she hates wearing dresses. 

In the end, Annie comes up with an alternative her mother accepts, by wearing her plaid shirt with one of her brother's old suits.

Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story About Gender and Friendship by Jess Walton & Dougal MacPherson, (2017).

Errol's teddy Thomas is his best friend, and they do everything together. One day Thomas is sad, and nothing Errol tries seems to cheer him up. At first Thomas is afraid Errol won't want to be his friend if he tells him what's wrong, but finally confides that in her heart she has always known she was really a girl teddy, and wishes to be called Tilly, not Thomas. Errol says he doesn't care, and that "What matters is that you are my friend."

I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings & Shelaugh McNicholas (2014). 

This is based on the real-life experiences of Jazz Jennings, a young transgender girl who is now well known as a spokesperson for transgender children. With this book she tries to explain in simple terms what transgender is, and what it was like for her as a young child. She does use the "born in the wrong body" explanation and gender stereotyping to explain how she knew she was really a girl, which some people object to.

Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr & Bea Rumback (2010). 

One day at school the teacher asks them to draw a self-portrait, and Nick draws himself as a girl, because that how he has always seen himself. Nick's family joins a support group and are supportive when Nick asks to be recognized as a girl, use feminine pronouns, and changes her name to Hope.

This is a self-published book, based on the author's own experiences with her children. There are no professional reviews, but reader reviews, including those by parents of transgender children, are overall positive, and I like that it portrays the family joining a support group.

When Aidan Became A Brother by Kyle Lukoff & Kaylani Juanita (2019).

This own-voices story featuring a multicultural family tells how Aidan was first thought to be a girl, but his feminine name and girly things never felt right, so his parents helped him transition to a boy. Now his mother is pregnant, and Aidan is concerned about being a big brother and making sure everything is just right for the new baby. A Stonewall award winner, but still relies heavily on rigid gender stereotypes to show why Aidan was really a boy and not a girl.

Jack (Not Jackie) by Erica Silverman & Holly Hatam (2018).

In this heartwarming story, a big sister begins to realize that her little sister identifies as a boy. Though this was published in partnership with GLAAD and is one of the very few picture books about young transgender boys, I have concerns about how it actually reinforces rigid gender stereotypes. A girl has long hair, wears dress, and likes to play fairy games. If they don't, and prefer superheroes, bugs, short hair, and pants, then they must really be a boy. I think this over-simplification can be confusing and problematic. Boys and girls can do any and all of these things and engage in play exploring gender roles without necessarily being transgender.

About Chris by Nina Benedetto (2015)

Chris knows he is a boy, even though his body looks female. This is a self-published book with no professional reviews, and the author is an educator, not a psychologist and does not mention any personal experience with the subject. Some reader reviews mention parts of the story as being confusing or problematic, but I am including it as there are so few picture books about transgender female to male children, and some reader reviewers that identified themselves as parents of transgender children did report it was helpful. The author also has a companion book called My Favorite Color Is Pink.

Chapter Books (ages 9-14)

*NOTE: This book was re-released under the title of Melissa in 2022.*

 by Alex Gino (2015). 

George knows she's a girl, but everyone else thinks she's a boy, and she thinks she will have to keep this secret forever. She looks at magazines for teen girls and imagines having the freedom to express herself the way she feels as "Melissa". Then one day the teacher announces they will be putting on a production of "Charlotte's Web", and George's strong desired to play Charlotte gives her to motivation to show her true self, and finds support from her best friend and brother.

This was a Stonewall award winner and is considered to be a ground-breaking book, the first with a transgender character, written by a gender-queer author. However, some reviewers have found the writing to be weak, and gender is rather rigidly-portrayed: girls wear skirts and makeup and are sensitive and cry easily; boys cannot be sensitive, must be tough, and enjoy playing 1st person shooter games. The plot is also somewhat similar to Gracefully Grayson, published the year before. My Full Review

Gracefully Grayson  by Ami Polonsky (2014). 

Twelve-year old Grayson has a secret; she is a girl, stuck in the body of a boy. She generally keeps to herself for fear of someone figuring out her secret, until an unlikely friendship gives her the courage to try out for the part of Persephone in her school play and deal with the bullies and disapproval from adults.

This book came before the very similar George, and is perhaps better written. However, the author is not transgender and relies on the more simplistic "born into the wrong body" explanation of transgender, rather than the more nuanced explanation of being a girl but being perceived as a boy by everyone else in George.

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart (2016). 

Lily is an 8th grade transgender girl who has not yet come out, but knows she must if she is to start hormone blockers to prevent male puberty. Dunkin is a boy who recently moved to the area and has bipolar disorder, plus is hiding a family secret. The two meet and form an unlikely friendship.

This book has received many positive reviews, though some feel the author tried to cover too many issues in one book. A few also feel that the author should not have written about a transgender character as she is not transgender herself and feel her portrayal showed a lack of understanding.

The Pants Project by Cat Clarke. (2017).

Eleven-year old Liv looks like a girl, but inside knows he's a boy. To make matters worse, his new school has a ridiculous dress code requiring all girls to wear skirts! Liv is not quite ready to come out to everyone as a boy, so instead launches a campaign against the outdated, sexist dress code. Also includes same-sex parents.

From the sample I was able to read and several reviews, I think this book is not as heavy as some of the others, and has a fair amount of humor. It is told in first person, avoiding the issue of pronouns. My Full Review

The Other Boy by M. G. Hennessey. 

This book is a bit different than many others in that the main character is already living as his true gender. Shane is a typical boy: he plays baseball, writes a sci-fi comic, and has a crush on a girl named Madeline. But, he also has a secret. Shane appeared to be female at birth, and his father is still treating his transition like a phase, not his true identity. Then, someone finds out and outs him to the whole school, and Shane has to deal with prejudice and hate, but is surprised by who is left standing by him in the end.

I like that the author's endnotes explain that this is only one fictional character's experience, and that not every person experiences being transgender in the same way; each person's journey is unique to them.

Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker (2019).

This “own voices” book provides greatly needed representation of several queer identities in addition to that of the main character, a transgender girl. After the deaths of both of her parents, Zenobia is sent to live with her aunt Lucy and her wife and is finally allowed to be her true self. She becomes friends with a group of “misfits” who are delightfully diverse, quirky, and queer, and uses her computer skills to solve the mystery of who is hacking the school’s website with anti-Muslim and anti-queer hate-speech. Much better than the author's previous Felix Yz. My Full Review

Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power by Mariko Tamaki (2017).

This is the first book of the series of middle-grade novelizations based on the popular YA Lumberjanes graphic novels. Lumberjanes features a diverse cast of girls, including Jo, a transgender girl with same-sex parents. 

As of this writing, there are two other titles in the series, The Moon Is Up and The Good Egg. Diverse, with themes designed to empower girls.

Non-Fiction Books

It Feels Good to Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn & Noah Grigni (2019).

This book explains gender identities and expression in kid-friendly language with attractive illustrations. I like that it makes a point that there are many different ways to be a boy or girl (or neither/both). There is also a section for parents that covers the definitions of sex, gender identity, gender expression, intersex, transgender, cisgender, and non-binary, as well as a discussion of pronouns. Kirkus, Booklist, & Pubisher's Weekly all gave this book starred reviews. Ages 4-8.

They She He Me: Free to Be! by Maya Gonzalez & Matthew SK (2017).

This is a non-fiction book to help parents introduce gender identity and pronouns, illustrating the different pronouns and identities that they might express. The book has three parts, the beginning is just a series of people with pronouns, then a section with more explanation for young readers, and finally a section directed to parents. Parents should read this section and review the rest of the book prior to discussing with their child. Ages 4-8.

Who Are You? by Brook Pessin-Whedbee & Naomi Bardoff (2016). 

This book is not exactly a book for kids, but more of a tool to guide parents in a discussion of gender with young children. It makes a distinction between sex, gender identity, and self expression. There is a part to be read to the child, followed by a page-by-page guide with more information on key points for the parents. This book should definitely be read cover to cover by the parent in advance to be sure they are prepared for what questions may come up. For ages 4-8.

Sex Is a Funny Word  by Cory Silverberg & Fiona Smyth (2015). 

In comic book form, this Stonewall honor book uses a diverse cast of children and families to help educate children about their bodies, gender, and sexuality. It gives opportunities for parents to discuss their values and beliefs, as well as safety and setting boundaries. The book places emphasis on thinking for yourself and forming one's own opinions, as well as showing respect for yourself and others. It does not specifically talk about sexual intercourse, but provides a foundation to build on. I personally find the illustrations to be a bit garish, but kids may find that appealing. For ages 7-10.

The Every Body Book: The LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids about Sex, Gender, Bodies, and Families by Rachel E. Simon & Noah Grigni, (June 18, 2020).

A comprehensive and inclusive guide to sexuality and gender that covers puberty, consent, sex, pregnancy, and safety. No excerpts or professional reviews were available, but early reader reviews are positive, and indicate that it is very inclusive of all sexualities, genders, and body types; thorough, detailed, and age appropriate. Ages 9-14.

Click here for more middle-grade LGBTQ+ representation. 

I would like to re-iterate that these are NOT recommendations, merely suggestions. As M. G. Hennessey stated in the author notes at the end of The Other Boy, there are many different ways people experience being transgender, and the preferred terminology is rapidly evolving. Some object to the "wrong body" explanation as being overly simplistic and not an accurate portrayal of how they feel, while others say that is exactly how they feel. 

I personally am concerned with how some of these resort to, and thus reinforce, traditional rigid gender stereotypes in trying to explain or portray how a character knows they are one gender over another. I wish someone would write a really good book explaining transgender to children without reducing it to traditional gender stereotyping, as children should be free to dress, play, express themselves, and explore different roles regardless of their sex, gender, or sexuality.

Each situation is different; therefore, there may be objections voiced about any of these books, and not every book is right for every family. I would *strongly* encourage parents to read any book carefully before reading/giving it to a child and consider if it is the right book for them. For example, many of these books address teasing and bullying, but some children have not experienced that, and a book that describes it may cause them to become fearful and anxious that they will be bullied. For others, it may help empower them to handle it if it does happen. A parent is usually the best judge for what book is best for their child.

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