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Beyond the Binary: Why We Need Gender Creative Characters In Kidlit
Image description: Illustration from ‘Neither’ by Airlie Anderson. Blue bunnies and yellow birds gape at a newborn green bird-bunny saying ‘HONK!’
In this post: Gender non-conforming kids books featuring nonbinary and gender-fluid characters.
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Stories Celebrating Nonbinary Characters
Kids need nonbinary, gender-fluid & intersex heroes
Something about the use of ambiguously non-gendered characters in kidlit feels…off.
You’ve seen them, right? Those gender-ambiguous characters referred as the child, with neutral names like Frankie and Jaime. Full of awkward text that tap-dances around the use of nonbinary or gender-fluid pronouns.
Doesn’t it feel kinda… don’t ask, don’t tell-ish? Are authors really being inclusive?
It’s kind of gross, when you stop to think about it. Let’s break it down slowly.
Mainstream publishers are willing to feature gender-ambiguous characters, so long as there’s wiggle room for readers to perceive the character as a binary gender.
That ambiguity is a subtle way of negating a child’s gender autonomy. The character’s gender is the viewer’s decision. Our kids get to choose the gender that they are most comfortable with – not the character themselves. By telling our kids that they can perceive the someone else’s gender however they want, we’re reinforcing the idea that gender is determined by outside factors like our names, how we dress, our bodies, and the sex we’re assigned at birth.
This doesn’t break the dominant narrative of a gender binary. We’re just reinforcing it. Keeping nonbinary characters in the closet does nothing to teach our kids that gender expands way beyond boys and girls.
Ambiguously gendered characters silences and erases the existence of real-life nonbinary kids while using their identities to make cisgender kids comfortable.
Nonbinary kids get the message every day that their acceptance is contingent on being able to pass as male or female. That they are not welcome or safe as their full selves in all of their gorgeous, complicated, human glory.
Most kidlit authors are not featuring nonbinary characters to balance out gender representation.
(Oh heck, what are the odds that most cisgender authors even know that nonbinary genders exist?)
Cisgender authors exploit nonbinary genders as a selling tool. This tired, broken theory – kids can only empathize with a character when they see their own gender reflected back. The pink and blue branded toys, pink legos, and divided clothing departments. The books that claim to be ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls.’
Publishers want to sell twice as many books, assuming kids will … I dunno, explode or something?… if they read a book featuring a character who isn’t identical to them in every way.
Which is hilarious. ‘Cause we’re pretending that generations of girls and nonbinary kids have been reading stories starring masculine protagonists for hundreds (thousands?) of years – and this whole time we haven’t been capable of really empathizing with the characters’ journeys. Marketing departments don’t have much faith in kids.
You smell the bullshit here though, right?
This quiet, cis-passing inclusion is gentle, insidious bigotry. Cisgender makers aren’t featuring nonbinary characters to empower them – they’re appropriating a targeted group and twisting that identity as a device to sell books.
This isn’t okay! Why are we okay with this?! Let’s stop being okay with this.
It’s insulting (and cowardly) to assume marginalized gender identities aren’t worth representing and celebrating. This doesn’t just hurt our nonbinary kids. It’s ageist and sexist against cisgender kids, too. Kids are capable of empathizing with characters who identify as a different gender. We’re not giving our kids enough credit.
By assuming gender-priviledged kids can’t cope with the stories of nonbinary, trans, and feminine characters, we’re complicit in teaching our kids that people with these identities don’t matter.
But it’s okay, we’ve got a plan. HINT: BOOKS!
You might also like: Teaching Kids About The Gender Spectrum
Out & Proud: Explicitly Nonbinary Characters
The following stories loudly & proudly celebrate nonbinary characters, pronouns and all.
- Lumberjanes – Start at issue #1 and work your way through the stories as characters reconcile, grow, and own their various gender identities. Barney is formally labeled as nonbinary (they/them) in issue #4. Characters break gender constructs, come out as trans, gay and lesbian, but mostly, they fight monsters. The characters and story are defined by way more than just gender and sexuality.
- Love, Z – Z (a robot) uses they/them pronouns in this story about belonging, family, and unconditional love. The story also features an elderly lesbian (human) and with pictures of her multiracial family on the mantle. And the sea captain is a kitten, which makes my kids giggle. While I do wish Z was a human, I’ll take it.
- Bell’s Knock Knock Birthday! – This compilation of radically inclusive social justice imagery includes: normalizing Deaf & disabled characters (hearing aids), Black Lives Matter flags, public breastfeeding, and even vermicomposting for environmental justice. Also way more. So of course they’ve got a nonbinary grandparent in this chosen family (Grandmani). It’s more of a counting book than a story, but the background details are so jam-packed I can’t even list all the good stuff in it.
Disclosure: Flamingo Rampant sent me a digital copy of this book so I could review it, but we don’t have a physical copy so I haven’t tested it out with my kids.
- They She He Me, Free To Be!*- Maybe you noticed that this book is in almost every book collection in BFL. If you haven’t read it yet, doooo it.
Disclosure: Reflection Press recently sent our family a free copy of this book as a gift, but only after years of recommending it and featuring Maya & Matthew in a Maker Spotlight, because they are awesome.
- When Aidan Became A Brother – I’ve been waiting so damn long for this perfect book, which came out this month. The story centers on a trans boy named Aidan, preparing for the birth of his nonbinary baby sibling. SO CUTE. HAPPY TEARS. ADORABLE SO MUCH!
Disclosure: I requested this from the library, but Little Feminist Book Club sent me a free copy for review right before it arrived, because I help them pick their books. Click here to get their kickass monthly book boxes (both of these are affiliate links that support this website.)
You might also like: Dismantling Cissexism In Kidlit
Engaging Stories Validating Nonbinary & Gender-Fluid Kids Who Face Discrimination
While the stories in the categories above normalize nonbinary and gender fluid kids (the stories are about something other the gender, and gender doesn’t define them), the following books are explicitly destigmatizing and validating books to learn about the experience of navigating these gender identities.
All of include some level of peer pressure, discrimination, and bullying for the protagonists to navigate in worlds where stepping outside the binary makes people uncomfortable.
- From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is an #OwnVoices story written by a trans femme author (she/her) as a validating story for gender-fluid kids. It’s a great story to start talking with our kids about how gender ambiguity can make some folks angry, and how painful it can be to hide who we are just to make others comfortable.
- Worm Loves Worm is a simple story that pokes fun at people who get all huffy about same-sex marriage, featuring two gender-fluid, intersex worms.
- Neither Both of my kids were riveted at the injustice of discriminating against a bird-rabbit creature that is not just neither, but both. The cute, simple illustrations show kids how it feels to be excluded, and how it feels to find a place where they’re accepted.
You might also like: Reassuring Books For Kids Who Feel Like Outsiders
Normalizing (Implied) Nonbinary Characters
These are the stories that hesitantly toe the line on using gender-ambiguous characters, but only when they can be perceived as either male or female. Lots of tap-dancing around so the text, and of course none of these include pronouns. I dug around and it’s clear that these characters are intentionally nonbinary.
They’re good books, but I do wish the makers had the courage to throw in a quick ‘they/them‘ or whatever. Sigh.
- On A Magical Do-Nothing Day got my screen-loving kid to set down the video-games and head outside, plus they’ve asked to check it out of the library multiple times. Our kids aren’t particularly well-versed in mindfulness or into nature, so I’m impressed. If I remember correctly, the author managed to skirt around gender by narrating it from the first person.
- Mel And Mo’s Marvelous Balancing Act is a great book about sibling conflict and cooperation, plus it fills a gap in books about twins as unique individuals. In this book, both twins present as gender-ambiguous and are referred to by name, but don’t use pronouns. Transparency: Annick Press sent me a free review copy of this book. It comes out in October 2019.
- A Beginner’s Guide To Bear Spotting is a witty, somewhat silly book that makes up for the lack of story in goofiness. My 4- & 6-year-olds understood it well enough, but the humor is tailored more towards 8+. The narrator guide speaks in the second-person, avoiding the use of pronouns.
- The Rabbit Listened is another book you’ll find plastered all over BFL – we recently used it to help the Earthquakes talk about supporting their dad while he grieves the loss of their grandmother. The character is referred to by name only (Taylor), but note to authors – my kids would have gotten the same benefits from this book if Taylor had been referred to by nonbinary gender pronouns a couple times in the book.
If you need more books normalizing nonbinary characters, these ones have unintentionally nonbinary characters. I threw those in a separate list for our supporters because those authors don’t even deserve credit for trying.
You might also like: Diverse Family Constellations In Kids Books
Series Collections Featuring Implied Nonbinary Characters
Similar to the books above in terms of avoiding the use of pronouns, the following authors use gender-ambiguity, rather than actively representing kids as nonbinary.
These ones are entire series…eses (how do you pluralize that? Whatever, I’m too lazy to look it up.)
- Babybug Magazine features re-occuring characters Kim and their stuffed rabbit Carrots in every monthly issue.
- The Baby Loves… series is are board books for toddlers, but the writing is better suited for kids 4+. Which is weird, that’s right at the age when many preschoolers eschew board books to claim their big-kidness. Most of the books don’t actually explain the science (or are just plain wrong), they’re mostly cash-grabs for parents desperate for a head start in a capitalist society that values academics over social skills. Irene Chan’s adorable illustrated babies are the only saving grace of the series. That, and some of the books, such as Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering! (which does not actually explain aerospace engineering) and Baby Loves Thermodynamics (about energy transfer, not thermodynamics) feature a non-gendered toddlers referred to as ‘Baby.’ However, most of the other books in this series include she or he pronouns. (WHY THO?!)
- Rachel Fuller’s New Baby series for toddlers and preschoolers were our top favorite books to prepare our first child for the birth of a new sibling. The series progresses from pregnancy (Waiting for Baby), being proud of being a big sibling with an infant (My New Baby), focusing on what the big sibling can do to overcome jealously (Look At Me! – our personal favorite) and playing together (You And Me). A few books in the series normalizes racial diversity and multiracial families, and all feature nonbinary (no pronouns) characters.
- Anastasia Higginbotham’s Ordinary Terrible Things series all include nonbinary characters who speak in the first person (no pronouns). I didn’t even realize this until I connected with Anastasia for a Maker Spotlight. Click here to check that out, it’s awesome.
Transparency: Dottir Press sent me a free copy of Not My Idea for review.
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Informative Books Destigmatizing Nonbinary Genders
These ones aren’t really engaging stories, but I feel like I should add them here. These informative, didactic texts explicitly teach kids about nonbinary gender identities. You can also find more books about the gender spectrum over here.
- A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is a quick-start pocket guide written by an #OwnVoices nonbinary author (they/them) for teens and adults. You can find all of this basic stuff elsewhere, but if you’re unfamiliar with pronouns and microaggressions against nonbinary people, this is handy to check out before answering your kids questions. The content is fine for kids, it’s just the text that is cognitively inaccessible (and boring) for littles.
- Jamie is Jamie is the only book in this category that I tested with my kids. It was fine for a read, but very basic and had no story. You can use it as an introduction to breaking gender constructs if your kids are unfamiliar with the idea.
- Meet Polkadot is highly didactic, and actually feels more like a text book than a picture book. The story is written by an #OwnVoices trans author (they/them). The content is fine, but my kids already knew the points from other books we’ve read, and they couldn’t sit through it due to the lack of story.
- The Gender Wheel covers way more than just nonbinary & fluid genders. This story includes intersex kids (super rare!) and touches on the history of colonization in creating the myth of a gender binary.
Disclosure: Reflection Press sent me a copy of this as a gift, but only after I started recommending it 😉
- It Feels Good To Be Yourself – This simple book covers multiple gender identities, including Alex and JJ, who both identify as non-binary, but in different ways.
Disclosure: I requested this from the library, but Little Feminist Book Club sent me a free copy for review right before it arrived, because I help them pick their books. Click here to subscribe for their kickass monthly book boxes (both of these are affiliate links that support this website.)
You might also like: Radically Body-Positive Kids Books
Watch Out! Problematic (And Common) Themes That Hurt Nonbinary & Gender-Fluid Kids
Transphobia & cis-washing in books that claim to be gender inclusive
Who Am I? I Am Me!: A book to explore gender equality, gender stereotyping, acceptance and diversity…uhh, right there, in the title gives parents the impression that this is an all-encompassing book about gender stereotyping, gender acceptance and gender diversity. NOPE! The story reinforces narrow gender binaries and spreads misunderstandings about trans folks.
This makes me anxious. How many busy, cash-strapped parents and teachers pick this book up as the one-and-done resource to teach their kids about gender?
Like many others that claim to dismantle gender stereotypes, this book erases and ignores any kid who doesn’t identify as a boy or a girl. While books like we’re breaking gender constructs and promoting gender non-conformity, the author repeatedly suggests that there are only two genders, and that trans kids’ identities aren’t valid unless they can fit into a single side of that binary. While Sanders buries a tiny a reference to trans kids in the parent notes, she consistently uses he and she pronouns in the preface, parent guides, and throughout the book. Sanders makes no effort to introduce gender diversity beyond the fact that boys and girls can enjoy the same things.
In keeping with performative books that portray nonbinary characters without actually using nonbinary pronouns or explicitly stating that the character is nonbinary or fluid, this book focuses on a kid named ‘Frankie.’ Nonbinary folks can go by their name only and not use pronouns on purpose – but given the rest of the book, I doubt that’s Frankie’s situation. Frankie’s infant sibling is assigned ‘she‘ pronouns.
What a huge missed opportunity. As a new mom, I also gave my kids binary pronouns at birth just to make life easier. I figured my kids could develop more complex gender identities as they grew up. Knowing what I do now, I’m not sure I’d still make that same decision. But I get it – here in the real world, there are still those logistical issues of giving a newborn full control over their gender identity, with all the logistical headaches and discrimination that come with it.
But in a book with a universe empowering and idealizing gender choice – one where the protagonist can be happily Frankie while pretending bigotry and bias doesn’t exist – it’s a weird choice to gender background characters (mom, dad, sister, really everyone other than Frankie.) This subtly suggests that Frankie is an oddity, even within the ideal universe of this book.
Lines such as “Children who may come to identify as a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth will be consistent, insistent, and persistent about their transgender identity” erase genderqueer, gender-fluid, and nonbinary kids. Aaaaand it’s just not true.
Suggesting that a trans kid isn’t really transgender unless they were clear, outspoken, and consistent about their gender identity from birth negates and erases the lived experience of many trans kids. Let’s see this line for what it really is – a note to reassure transphobic cisgender parents that their kid won’t turn trans if they let their sons wear tutus and their daughters play with trains. Catering to that fragility allows transphobes to remain transphobic, and it erases and de-legitimatizes the natural journey of many trans, gender creative, and fluid people.
Seriously. Don’t gaslight your kids! Who approved this!?
No matter how often your kid changes their pronouns or the gender they identify as – believe them.
Beyond all the transphobia – the book goes on like ten times longer than it needs to and it’s torture to read.
The first page starts, “You are YOU and I am me. We are whoever we want to BE!”
Vague, cowardly attempts to avoid explicitly talking about gender is confusing. My 4-year-old didn’t read that as permission to identify as the gender of his choosing. He read that as permission to now identify as his older brother. Or a giraffe. NOT THE SAME THING, KIDDO.
Vague, cowardly writing doesn’t do kids any favors, and leaves parents to do the heavy lifting. It’d be easier to discuss gender without this confusing nonsense. It’s a waste of trees and my time.
We spent 60 minutes slogging through Frankie’s intensely boring life – all the things Frankie likes to eat, do, and play with, wondering what any of this has to do with gender acceptance. The only reference to gender came at the very end where Frankie asks the reader, “Am I a boy? Am I girl? Who am I?”
As if boy and girl are the only option. UGH.
The answer: “I am ME!”
Reading this book felt like sitting through the movie AI – waiting hours for the story to go somewhere, only to be smacked with an abrupt and infuriating ending. That was hours of the Earthquakes short childhoods that we will never, ever get back.
Decentering Nonbinary Kids As Deviations & Oddities
Despite being held as the gold standard for inclusive, progressive series on sexuality, this series is full of binary language: “Girl or Boy, Female or Male.” and lines like “Either of the two main groups, female or male, into which living things are placed.” “Both boys and girls have crushes…” “sex is whether you are male or female” and so on. There’s more, but you get the point.
I go into detail in our collection about sexuality, and again in the collection about reproduction, on why I will not recommend any editions of this book until it’s been updated to stop othering and misgendering trans folks and erasing nonbinary and intersex people.
Feel-Good Books That Perform ‘Diversity’ Allyship While Saying Nothing
You know those insufferable Todd Parr books? Fragile folks love them for ‘diversity!’ collections to reinforce the idea that we live in a post-racial utopian fantasy land. So long as diversity is a vague idea disconnected from actual real-life inequality. And the ‘diverse’ folks are all friendly, assimilated and willing to be quiet about it discrimination, which I we solve by doing vague things like ‘be you!‘ – whatever the hell that means.
Books like Be Who You Are promote the ageist idea that children aren’t capable of understanding and accepting people who don’t look like, or behave like, the dominant group – unless we turn them into palatable cartoon characters. Or that sexuality, gender non-conformity, or even being a person of color are identities too icky and shameful to discuss with young children without coding people of color as blue, purple, yellow, and red.
Lines like “be a different color,” and “wear everything you need to be you” conveniently sell the idea that we live in a post-racial, post-sexist society, that life is joyful and safe for everyone with enough spunk and courage to be themselves (a nice, smiling, gentle version).
Celebrating the vague idea of ‘diversity’ without acknowledging that some folks have power while others don’t feeds into colorblind fallacy and reverse-racism. This performative nonsense teaches kids that inclusion is easy. It’s not. Inclusion is hard, messy, and difficult work. We need to stop telling our kids that inequality is over and picnics solve bigotry.
Gender-nonconforming folks are still killed just for existing. FUCK THESE LIES. Messages like this are worse than worthless, they’re arming privileged groups with the dangerous weapon of obliviousness.
We need less books like these, and more honest books about how bigotry works and what kids can do to dismantle it.
You might also like: Captivating Kids Stories To Recognize Privilege
Accountability & transparency: I am a cishet person, without lived experience in LGBTQ+ issues, and part of learning to do better means I make mistakes. If I messed anything up, or left anything out – leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to create a more inclusive collection.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Protect Trans, Nonbinary & Gender-Fluid Kids