After accepting a solo elementary school librarian position, I increased our collection of picture books with transgender protagonists by 400 percent. That is, I purchased four books with transgender characters, and, with approximately 7,000 titles, the library previously had zero. Picture books are a significant percentage of the collection, and since shelf space is limited, I try to acquire books that are artistically compelling, well written, entertaining, and/or informative. However, I compromised that goal in this case. These books are important because of their subject matter, but I’m not convinced that they measure up to other titles in the competitive picture book market—and that’s a problem.
Picture books tackle gender nonconforming behavior in ever-evolving ways. Compare, for example, Tomie DePaola’s classic Oliver Button Is a Sissy (Harcourt Brace, 1979), in which bullies learn that calling Oliver a “sissy” hurts his feelings, with Harvey Fierstein’s The Sissy Duckling (S. & S., 2002), in which Elmer states, “I’m a big sissy and proud of it!” Instead of DePaola’s simple message about hurtful name-calling, Fierstein’s story presents an unapologetically queer protagonist, where the main character finds strength and confidence in his much-maligned femininity.
In Cece Meng’s Tough Chicks (Clarion, 2009), three smart young chickens (girls, of course) use their math and engineering skills to rescue a farmer’s tractor from a mud patch. And Michelle Knudsen’s Big Mean Mike (Candlewick, 2012) takes on the fragility of masculinity: the toughest dog in the neighborhood is terrified that other dogs will see him hanging around cute fuzzy bunnies and decide that he’s “not so big and mean after all.” In these books, gender nonconformity goes beyond just boys playing with dolls or girls rejecting princesses, presenting much more nuanced and complex ideas of how behaviors are gendered and how to navigate those complex strictures. Meng’s chicks are adorable and fluffy and strong, and Knudsen’s bunnies out-tough the meanest dog, challenging a range of gender assumptions with humor and subtlety.
Where are the great trans picture books?
As of this writing, there are few picture books that address specifically transgender issues. Of those that do exist, most don’t succeed with this challenging format. “In picture books, as in poetry, every word counts,” Kathleen Horning writes in From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books (HarperCollins, 2010). Horning says that when evaluating picture books, “we must ask ourselves not only ‘What is this story about?’ but also ‘How is this story told?’”
Let’s apply these criteria to some of the picture books out there that touch on trans themes. One of the more well-known titles, 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert (Triangle Square, 2008), is also the most successful. A young girl named Bailey dreams about expressing her creativity through designing dresses, but she’s constantly referred to as a boy by her family before finding an ally in a neighborhood girl. The text needs a bit more editing for pace, but the structure is easy to follow, with consistent language. The attempt to show, not tell, information about transgender identities is admirable, but many audiences will require more of an explanation. The main climactic event, when Bailey’s brother tells her, “Get out of here, before I kick you!” isn’t quite dramatic enough, and none of the characters exhibit growth or development. However, this picture book meets some basic standards for structure and text, and it is one of the better selections.
Another title, Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr (AuthorHouse, 2010), is a sweet and supportive story about a child coming out as transgender, but the text does little to advance the narrative. Many scenes lag, especially while the protagonist is figuring out her transgender identity, which impedes a straightforward understanding of the plot. The overall tone and message is touching, and the story is suitable to read with young children, but the didactic messages could be leavened with more artistic intent.
Flamingo Rampant, a progressive publisher based in Toronto, describes itself as “a micropress with a mission—to produce feminist, racially diverse, LGBTQ-positive children’s books.” It’s an admirable stance, but the first two titles, Backwards Day and The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy (both by S. Bear Bergman, 2012), present some challenges with the picture book format. Backwards Day is about a planet where, once a year, everything is backwards and people switch genders for a day. One child experiences a long-term switch, meant to be an introduction to transgender identities. Tulip is about a fairy who grants wishes and who at the end of the story develops an affinity for granting children’s wishes to transition. Both stories have some complicated plot points, in addition to being lengthy and rambling with no organizing textual structure. They would be more easily understood by children reading independently, perhaps those seven years old and up, but are difficult to place as picture books. Flamingo Rampant is coming out with new titles soon, which will, I hope, improve upon this beginning.
A recent title, the nonfiction I Am Jazz (Dial, 2014) by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel, tells the protagonist’s brief life story with lovely illustrations, focusing on how her gender identity was established at an early age and highlighting the parental support she received while she came out as transgender. The impulse to present a transgender coming-out story in a positive light is admirable, but the authors forego any textual depth or emotional complexity to achieve it. There is no larger narrative structure, as the book starts as a list of Jazz’s favorite things and continues in a cheerful first-person. I Am Jazz is a simplistic introduction to transgender stories, but, ideally, it will also provide a foundation for future authors to work from.
What we need
The May 29, 2014 issue of Time magazine bore the cover line “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” Despite growing awareness of trans issues, transgender people—particularly youth, women, and people of color—still endure particular oppressions. Seventeen-year-old Leelah Alcorn, whose suicide note went viral via Tumblr, provides a recent example of the urgency of these issues, but the crisis of murder and suicide among trans people goes far beyond her case. It also bears noting that none of the above titles address the ways race intersects with transgender identities.
Children deserve books that are well done, not just well intentioned. However, I also believe that exacting literary standards should not preclude providing services to vulnerable populations. My collection includes the above titles, in spite of my misgivings, because it is vital for transgender children to see books that acknowledge and affirm their identities. It’s just as important for non-trans children and their families to include transgender people in their sense of the world.
There is a growing body of literature for young adults with transgender themes or protagonists, such as Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta (Candlewick, 2014) and the memoirs by trans teens Katie Hill and Arin Andrews, Rethinking Normal and Some Assembly Required (both S. & S., 2014). Trans YA literature deserves its own discussion and analysis, due to the recent growth of that genre by a variety of authors. I am looking forward to the day when I can be excited about trans-themed picture books because they’re as engaging as any title that earned a School Library Journal starred review. I call on authors and publishers to take up this challenge.
Kyle Lukoff is the librarian at the Corlears School in New York City.