After a year when time has seemed strangely warped, it’s hard to believe it’s back-to-school season already, but it is. To help get the school year off to an inclusive start, here are some great new picture books about gender identity. While I have long said that we need more LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books that aren’t “about” being LGBTQ, there may still be times when books that directly explain LGBTQ identities and related topics can be helpful, especially when they encourage reflection and discussion, as these do.
“What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns,” by Philadelphia-based Katherine Locke and illustrated by Anne/Andy Passchier (Little Brown), both of whom are nonbinary, gives us the first-person story of a child named Ari. Ari’s Uncle Lior uses they/them pronouns, and whenever they come to visit, they ask, “What are your words, Ari?”
“Sometimes I know my words right away,” says Ari, whom we see dressed variously in pants, a dress, and a skirt. Other times, “I have to think about my words.” These words could be feelings or descriptive words like “Happy,” “Athletic,” or “Sleepy,” or they could be pronouns. Sometimes Ari changes pronouns, and that’s okay.
When Uncle Lior asks this time about Ari’s words, however, Ari doesn’t know which ones to use. Lior encourages patience as they both head to their neighborhood barbeque, where they meet a group of neighbors who use a variety of pronouns. Ari reflects that “Sometimes I have to wait for my words to find me” — and in the end, they do. Today they use “they/them.”
I love the message that pronouns fit into a whole constellation of words to describe oneself, and that finding one’s words may be a nonlinear journey. I also like that the book features multiple nonbinary people, including a nonbinary mentor to a (likely) nonbinary kid. And Uncle Lior is more than just their gender identity; they’re also a biologist, have a great garden, and wear colorful hats. Both Ari and Uncle Lior are White; the neighbors are racially diverse. Their story will likely prompt readers to start talking about their own words, which is exactly the point.
“Being You: A First Conversation About Gender,” by Jessica Ralliand and Megan Madison, also illustrated by Passchier (Penguin Workshop), is a nonfiction board book that explores some of the same ideas about gender and includes prompting questions such as “What are some genders you know about?” and “What do you wonder about yourself? What do you know?”
“Different bodies have different parts,” we learn. Sometimes grown-ups will call a baby a “girl” or a “boy” based on whether the baby’s body has a vagina or a penis (which are not depicted in the illustrations), but “Some babies grow into a different gender” than that one—and in fact, “There are lots of different genders that people grow into.” The authors also reassure readers that it’s okay to wonder about your gender and to have that answer change.
They explain, too, how different pronouns may feel right (or not) to different people, and how people may also express themselves through clothes, hairstyles, toys, and more. And unlike many books about gender identity, this one also tackles gender stereotypes, noting that people have said many untrue things about gender and that “There are lots of unfair rules that give boys more power.” The authors quickly note that many adults and kids are now speaking up to change these rules and are called “feminists.” They ask readers to reflect on times when they have encountered unfair rules about gender and to think about ways they can take action. Rather than preaching, they’re engaging.
Two end spreads offer further information and ideas for grown-ups. Passchier’s bright illustrations augment the text by showing children and adults of various genders (and other dimensions of diversity), playing and interacting. While the content seems advanced for a board book (part of a dubious industry trend with board books), the interactive nature of the text, encouraging readers to think about the topics for themselves, makes this an excellent “first book” for pre-K and up.
Also a good choice for classroom or home use are four books from the lauded “A Kids Book About’’ series (named to Oprah’s Favorite Things list in 2020). Three are by “champions” of the GenderCool Project, a youth-led movement of transgender and non-binary teens, but aimed at children ages 5 to 9: “A Kids Book About Being Non-binary,” by Hunter Chinn-Raicht, “A Kids Book About Being Transgender,” by Gia Parr, and “A Kids Book About Being Inclusive,” by Ashton Mota and Rebekah Bruesehoff. One other is “A Kids Book About Gender,” by Dale Mueller, a non-binary trans adult. In each volume, the authors talk directly to readers as they share their personal stories and illuminate their book’s core concepts. The books use bright backgrounds and a variety of fonts rather than pictures, keeping the focus on the words and the conversational feel. They are geared towards generating new conversations, too, and all note, “This book is best read together, grownup and kid.” Find them at akidsbookabout.com and learn more about the GenderCool Project at gendercool.org/.
Looking for more LGBTQ-inclusive back-to-school resources for all grades, including sample communications to schools, policy guides, lesson plans, and even sources of free, LGBTQ-inclusive books for your school? Please visit mombian.com to see my latest annual list.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, with a searchable database of 750+ LGBTQ family books, media, and more.