The human brain craves categorization. Not only do we use categories to differentiate, moreover we use categories to make sense of others. Gender, in particular, is the categorization of perceivable physical features, but also is a category that holds character and behavioral stereotypes. Distinguished by both perceptual differences and societal expectations of each gender, it is not surprising “Boy or girl?” is the first question to new parents.
Children as young as six months old are aware of observable gender differences and, by five years old, children hold rigid either-or type stereotypes. The fact that there are gender categories is not controversial. The problem lies with “the patterns of behavior which the two sexes are socialized, encouraged, or coerced into adopting, ranging from ‘sex-appropriate’ personalities to interests and professions”.  As gender roles become challenged both by the ongoing work of feminists and the conversations sparked by Ryland, a transgender kid, authors of children’s books are engaging with gender-themed books in a whole new way. This post outlines trends in gender books, arguing some accelerate goals of gender equality and others hinder those efforts.
At the height of second-wave feminism and the medicalization of gender deviance, a plethora of children’s books were published during the seventies with plots about gender non-conforming children. The most famous is William’s Doll, a story of a boy told by almost everyone he cannot have a doll until his grandmother decides it will help him become a good father one day.
These gender non-conforming books are still popular today and, despite good intentions, the characters are always bullied or defiant against social restrictions. Especially for children under five who are just learning about gender concepts, these books have the potential to introduce self-consciousness by pointing out “the rules”. Books that merely reverse stereotypical roles maintain the idea of binary gender where the options are to either perform the gender corresponding to your biological sex or risk social shaming if you wish to perform the opposite gender.
My advice for choosing gender non-conforming books is to check whether they include social shaming or implicit reinforcement of who should have certain interests. Just the title of Swedish publishing house Olika’s bestseller, Give your Child 100 Opportunities Instead of 2, seems reason enough to reject stereotypical gender roles.
Even if your child identifies comfortably with a gender, it is important to use books as windows in order to convey the multiplicity of gender identities. A Kickstarter-funded book, Meet Polka Dot “introduces the concept of the gender binary and explains in easy-to-understand language some important (and often excluded) gender identity categories like genderqueer, trans, gender non-binary, and cisgender.” Author Talcott Broadhead further clarifies these concepts in the parental guide.
As the transgender community gains visibility, it will be vital to raising compassionate, inclusive children that parents confront any social confusion or anxiety associated with gender diversity. A less concept based and more story driven book about trans identity is I Am Jazz, written by transyouth advocate Jazz Jennings. Both books work to empower transkids, but also to prevent the stigmatization of becoming and being transgender.
Finally, there is a growing trend toward children’s books with no gender-specific pronouns or characters. Two in particular, Pom and Pim and Call me Tree, are beautifully illustrated. These books encourage conversations about what, and why, physical or personality traits are read as masculine or feminine. Or, more simply, they serve as a retreat from the constant bombardment of gendered messages.
We cannot succumb to the brain’s desire for categorization when it comes to gender; there are merely too many possibilities. Equality depends on the recognition and respect for diverse and complex identities that do not fit neatly into proscribed gender roles.