I got a little choked up this morning. My adorable pint-sized neighbor Ivy, who has discovered stickers and loves to twirl a leaf by its stem, stood smiling in front of our fence gate wearing a ladybug backpack almost as big as her. After Ivy’s mom crouched down to snap a photo, her dad, who on any other weekday would have left for work around 6 a.m., bent down to give his daughter a kiss. Then I watched as the three of them walked off, hand in hand. I couldn’t help but flash to Harry’s excitement on their first day of preschool. I remembered how it painted a brand new start for them, their dad and me, their classmates and teachers.
Education means learning not only math, science, geography and history, but also developing emotional and interpersonal skills. Thankfully, school districts across the country are beginning to engage with the needs of transgender and gender nonconforming students. Parents, too, can help kids get a head start on these important lessons about allyship and acceptance just by turning a page.
Books are a portal to exciting new worlds and experiences. Reading with children promotes language development, listening skills, critical thinking and imagination. Children often become anxious when encountering a new place or idea, so reading about that subject together can help ease those fears. Books that celebrate a spectrum of gender identities and expressions are vital for opening young minds to new ways of seeing and being. I’ve listed some of my favorite reads below. I think you’ll agree that all of these books would be fantastic additions to any child’s home or school library.
Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah & Ian Hoffman, illustrations by Chris Case
Jacob likes to become a princess during dress-up time at school, complete with a gown and tiara. When some classmates don’t understand how a boy can wear a dress Jacob’s friend Emily speaks up, demonstrating for kids and adults what an active ally can look like. With the support of his parents and friends Jacob learns there are many ways to be a boy, no matter what you wear. This sweet read reaffirms how important parental and community support is for all kids, including those who don’t fit gender stereotypes.
Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol by Maya Christina Gonzalez
Written in English and Spanish, the lyrical style of Call Me Tree lyrical feels like an extended poem. “Trees and trees/Just like me! Each is different too.” The book follows one child whose gender identity remains unmentioned. Rather, the child identifies with trees – growing upward and reaching out, an endless array of shades, shapes and sizes. Bursting with vibrant colors and dreamy scenes, the story encourages and inspires young people to become their truest selves, their own unique tree.
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrations by Robert Lawson
There are many wonderful new books available for young readers, but I will always hold a special place in my heart for The Story of Ferdinand. One of the best-loved and best-selling children’s books of all time, Ferdinand has defied expectations and remained true to himself since 1936. The other bulls may leap about and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand! He’d rather rest under a cork tree and enjoy the scent of his favorite flowers. Despite his pacifist tendencies, however, a poorly timed bee sting lands Ferdinand right in the middle of a bullfight. Don’t worry, though; Ferdinand has a blissfully happy ending. This book about bucking stereotypes and remaining true to yourself is a beautiful, timeless lesson for children and adults alike.
Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant
Little Morris is practically overflowing with creativity – singing, painting, and donning a tangerine dress from his classroom’s dress-up center. He likes how the dress looks, how it sounds (swishy, crinkly) and how its vibrant color “reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair.” Morris’ classmates are less enthused about his wardrobe choice. They tease him and refuse to let him join in their interstellar adventure. It isn’t easy, but by using his imagination Morris is able to show his peers that it’s not about what you wear, it’s about how you wear it. Full of stunning illustrations, the book explores the pain of being ostracized and the joy of sharing your special identity with the world.
Large Fears by Myles E. Johnson, illustrated by Kendrick Daye
While children’s books featuring LGBTQ identities and stories are becoming more common, it’s not easy to find books that also feature racially diverse characters. Large Fears tells the story of Jeremiah Nebula, a queer, black boy who dreams of traveling to Mars. “Simply, it is time there is a queer child of color that goes on adventures, tells his story, and gives children that can relate to parts (or all of him) someone to look up to,” says author Myles Johnson. Gorgeous, surreal imagery takes the reader on Jeremiah’s journey through the stars and into our hearts.
Perhaps your child is looking for the words to share their gender identity with you. Maybe they want to support their friends, family and classmates but aren’t sure how. However your child identifies, developing a love of reading will enrich their lives and minds. Try asking your kid’s classroom teachers what books and strategies they employ to impart lessons about equality and compassion. All of the books above are for very young readers, becuase it’s never too early to start learning.
“There are many little ways to enlarge your world. Love of books is the best of all.” ~Jacqueline Kennedy
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