Picture books, at their best, validate children who feel different from the norm. For more typical kids, they provide a way to open conversations about others who may appear unusual or “weird.”
While the majority of children’s books lack characters with a diversity of abilities, race, and gender identity, more and more wonderful (and wonderfully illustrated) stories include all kinds of diverse characters.
Teacher extraordinaire Ellie Rudolph, who used to work in my preschool, recently brought three of these books to my attention. Illustrating the struggles and triumphs of gender nonconforming children, they belong in the collection of every family that includes a child with a fluid gender identity or one that differs from their gender at birth. Equally as important, they belong on the shelves of families and schools with gender-typical children, where empathy and inclusion are valued.
From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea
This beautiful book, by Kai Cheng Thom and illustrated by Wai-Yant Li and Kai Yun Ching, follows Mui Lan, who was born “when both the moon and the sun were in the sky, so the baby couldn’t decide what to be.” A shape-shifter who can take on any form, Mui Lan grows feathers, scales and a tail, a turtle shell and porcupine quills. When it’s time to go to school, Mui Lan has trouble making friends. The other children don’t understand them, wondering what they are (throughout the book, the author uses “they/them” as pronouns for Mui Lan). One day, when Mui Lan dresses like a boy, the other children want to play with them. But with encouragement from a loving and supportive mother, Mui Lan remains true to their fluid identity, and gains the admiration and acceptance of their schoolmates.
Julian is a Mermaid
Written and illustrated by Jessica Love, Julian is a Mermaid employs few words and many beautiful pictures to tell the story of a little boy who, while riding the subway with his grandmother, sees three women dressed as mermaids. Mesmerized, he wants to be a mermaid, too. Back home, while his grandmother takes a bath, he concocts a mermaid costume out of some ferns and a curtain, and applies some of Grandma’s makeup. Angry at first, Grandma soon decides to offer Julian a string of pearls to complete the costume, and takes him to a parade of mermaids (drag queens) at the beach.
Jacob’s New Dress
Jacob’s New Dress, by Sarah Hoffman and Ian Hoffman, and illustrated by Chris Case, follows a little boy who loves to wear dresses. At preschool, he plays dress-up with his best friend, Emily. Another child, Christopher, keeps telling him that boys don’t wear dresses. After Jacob makes a “dress-thing” out of a towel, Christopher grabs it off of him at school. Jacob then works with his mom to make a real dress, which he proudly wears to preschool, telling the other children that he used the sewing machine. He stands up to Christopher, pretending that his new dress is armor.
The one down note about this book is the hesitancy of Jacob’s parents in supporting his choice of clothing: “The longer she didn’t answer, the less Jacob could breathe.” His mom does, finally, say, “There are all sorts of ways to be a boy,” but I would prefer full-on support in allowing Jacob to be Jacob. All in all, though, it’s a good conversation-starter.