While many kids’ books push the boundaries of our everyday lives with things like fantastical illustrations, magical creatures and make-believe scenarios, they also tend to be rife with gender normativity.
While we may be hyper-aware of how our preconceptions around gender and self-expression are affecting children, the kids themselves tend to be way more open to the idea of embracing their inner selves—“weird” as they may seem in society—and often that involves shying away from gender norms and pressures.
We’ve made the following list of picture books to help you choose some new and amazing choices for story-time. Each of these books presents honest and refreshing stories about the meaning and power of self-expression, acceptance and exploration, showing—rather than telling—kids that there’s no “right” way to be when it comes to identity.
1. Goblinheart by Brett Axel (Illustrations by Terra Bidlespacher)
Goblinheart takes place in a whimsical forest that is inhabited by “goblins” and “fairies”—and there are no references made to “men” and women” nor “male or female” in the book. The forest of Goblinheart is a genderless and allegorical world in which the protagonist Julep, who was born as a fairy, is adamant that they are a goblin inside. The forest tribe comes to accept Julep’s transition, challenging as it may be, and provides us with a great model for the power of self-acceptance and the supportive role community can play.
2. 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert (Illustrations by Rex Ray)
10,000 Dresses is the story of Bailey, a child with a rich imagination and a passion for dresses. Each night, Bailey’s dreams are consumed with fantasies of dresses—made out of everything from windows to crystals to rainbows. Each morning, however, Bailey is met with discouragement from Mother and Father, who repeatedly scream at Bailey, “You’re a BOY!” Fortunately, Bailey is lucky enough to meet an older girl and role model named Laurel, who finds a kindred spirit in Bailey and is buoyed by his imagination. As their friendship develops, Laurel and Bailey begin a collaborative project to make dresses, and Bailey is thrilled to realize her identity as the girl she’s always felt like inside.
3. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (Illustrations by Shelagh McNicholas)
Jazz Jennings, the 15-year-old trans advocate and YouTube sensation, is one of the first transgender children to come out publicly during childhood: Jennings appeared at age 7 on 20/20 for an interview with Barbara Walters. This book is Jenning’s story.
In I Am Jazz, Jennings tells the story of realizing she was transgender at the age of 2. In I Am Jazz, Jennings offers children, parents and teachers alike an accessible yet nuanced personal story to help them understand of what it is to be transgender.
4. The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke (Illustrations by Kerstin Meyer)
The title may remind you of The Princess Bride, and surely the story contains echoes of medieval fantasy narratives like Game of Thrones. Yet in The Princess Knight, the princess protagonist Violet isn’t waiting for for chivalry from a knight in shining armor; rather, she seeks to become a knight herself. While this story is not explicitly about transgender issues, it deals head-on with the topic of more free self-expression within a world limited by cisnormative ideals.
5. My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis (Illustrations by Suzanne DeSimone)
In My Princess Boy, Cheryl Kilodavis tells the story of her 4-year-old son in words and pictures that children as young as 4 can understand; Told form a mom’s point of view, My Princess Boy depicts a princess boy happily—and uncritically—relishing his experiences wearing dresses, searching for anything pink and sparkly, fantasizing about his life as a princess—all traditionally “girly” activities and things.
Kilodavis’ story is honest and vulnerable, as she also shares some of the less-than-friendly observations and experiences that came up for her and her son. Above all, My Princess Boy is a story about self-acceptance, the pricelessness of being unique, and the importance of exploration.
6. Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
In this allegorical tale rich with personification, a blue crayon is mistakenly labeled “red,”. His teacher instructs him to draw strawberries—to try and embody the identity his label declares him to be. His mother encourages him to own his identity as a red crayon by cajoling him to have a play-date with a yellow crayon classmate (“Go draw a nice orange, she says). Even the classroom pair of scissors tries to help red by snipping off part of his label. Nothing helps, and Red is depressed as he tries to cope with his misaligned sense of identity.
Fortunately, however, Red meets a new friend who encourages Red to help him discover his inner Blue self. While Hall’s story doesn’t engage with notions of gender explicitly, this funny and fanciful story delivers a powerful message to children of all ages: that we can often feel differently than what we are told we are, and that the most important thing is being true to our inner selves.
7. Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian (Illustrations by Mike Curato)
Worm Loves Worm is a book about the power of love, and tells the story of two worms—worm and worm—who fall and love and get married. But before their wedding, friends want more information; they approach the worms eagerly to ask which worm will wear the tux, and which will get to wear the dress. The story of worm and worm reveals that these customs around gender are nothing more than that—and that love between two beings is richer and deeper than any societal norms.
If you have any favorites, please share in the comments below!