Historian Susan Stryker has defined transgender people as those who “move away from the gender they were assigned at birth,” a phenomenon that can be documented in many societies and cultures long before medical technology allowed these individuals to bring their bodies into alignment with their identities. Writing transgender history from the perspective of the marginalized is a challenge when the chief sources until recently tended to be produced by medical professionals, psychologists, law enforcement officers, etc. belonging to institutions with an interest in controlling them as outsiders. Autobiographers had to brave enough to risk inviting readers, whose intentions and sympathies could not be known, into their confidence.
With many prospective buyers of children’s books wanting ones that promote diversity by showing child characters that look and live in accordance with their identities, there has been an explosion of books for families with transgender members, many of them by people with lived experiences or by sympathetic activists. Reviews and recommendations are relatively easy to access because so many lists of resources are available on the webpages of medical schools and psychiatric associations, specialized independent bookstores and blogs. to mention just a few.
Cotsen is assembling a cross-section of illustrated books about transgender childhoods and history for young readers which researchers can consult now, but even more importantly, in the future. With increased pressure on public and school libraries to discard or severely restrict access to controversial books for children, the responsibility to preserve these materials as historical sources falls on collections whose primary constituents are not young people and their families, the teachers, and librarians who engage with them.
I Am Not a Girl by Maddox Lyons and Jessica Verdi with illustrations by Dana Simpson is a project published in 2020 by Roaring Brook Press, one of the most prestigious imprints in the Macmillan Children’s Book Department. “Based on a true transgender identity journey” of co-author Maddox Lyons, who wrote this after he came out to his parents because they could not find books “for and about kids like him.” Simpson the illustrator considers this assignment “an honor and a privilege” for a transgender woman like herself who hopes the book will foster mutual understanding between parents and their transgender kids who “should get to be who they are.” The best incidents in the main character Hannah’s story are surely based on Maddox’s experiences—the pirate queen denying she’s a girl on Halloween, rehearsing his coming out speech to his parents in front of an audience of stuffed animals, admiring the boy’s haircut he’s always wanted for wear for class picture day. A list of transgender individuals, male, female, and non-binary, from Renee Richards “eye surgeon, veteran, athlete, and tennis coach who won a landmark case for transgender rights” to Jonathan Van Ness “nonbinary hair stylist, podcaster, and television personality” are included for inspiration.
If LGBTQIA+ parents want to be able to introduce their pre-school-age children to inspirational role models in transgender history, Little Bee Books , an independent publisher of progressive and inclusive children’s books in New York City, has started an uplifting series board books called “People of Pride” featuring biographies of television star Ellen De Generes, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in California, and drag queen, activist, and media personality, Ru Paul Charles. Victor Chen is credited for the illustrations, but no one lays claim to the pedestrian text about a “trailblazer” (defined in the glossary as “a person who makes it easier for others to succeed”) surely called for a lot more sparkle. Even if the text had more juice, it probably could not have helped a toddler grasp anything about the contributions AIDS activists and drag queens have made to society.Sarah Savage, author of She’s My Dad: A Story for Children Who Have a Transgender Parent or Relative (2020) illustrated by Joules Garcia is good example of the positive children’s books about difference that British publisher Jessica Kingsley is known for. The picture book shows without judgment a child’s joyful acceptance of her father’s transition to a changed body, new identity, and happier life. Reviewer Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir, writer and co-director of My Genderation, praised She’s My Dad as “a sweet, gentle book that doesn’t make being transgender a big deal at all. It’s presented as a part of everyday life and will allow kids to connect to the characters and at the same time learn about different types of families.”
This book seems to present an ideal scenario of unconditional love fulfilled, which the community hopes will someday be the norm. While the account covers the issue of pronouns cogently, it glides over other equally important difficulties inherent in the characters’ situations. The father is presumed to be a single parent, supported by his parents and brother, his Black wife, and mixed-race daughter. Mini’s mother is never mentioned and her daughter expresses no sadness at her absence from the family group, the perfect daddy’s girl. The process of transitioning from “he” to “she” covers the surgery and recuperation at home, which disrupts any family’s routine in tiring and unexpected ways, in a page about to a hospital visit, where Mini gives her dad a card and favorite stufftie for comfort. The chief markers of transitioning are changes in clothes and hair styles: Mini in her overalls and rainbow tee and her dad in a long layered bob and summery white dress bond over doing their nails together. How honest is six-year-old Mini’s perfect acceptance of her father’s decision, over which she has no power, yet impacts her enormously? Does Mini as an exemplar set up impossibly high standards for other children, who may be intimidated by Mini, when they compare their divergent thoughts and confused emotions to hers?
If one takes the long view of these books, they are as old as time, no matter how controversial the contents. Their purpose is to train children how they should go, so imagination and art are powerful tools to make the presentation of the values the community wants internalized compelling.