Updated: May 9, 2022
Sex is biological, but gender identity is more fluid, developed through a combination of innate and lived experiences. If our gender identity is not in alignment with our anatomical sex it may take (many) years to feel safe and secure enough to express itself, or it may express itself as soon as it can speak. Because this gender identity is an intrinsic part of who we are, diverse genders are not ‘contagious’ nor can they be developed through education.
However, as we morph into a more accepting and diverse society, these topics continue to feel more comfortable for some people, and in some contexts, more so than others. It is often safer to advocate using small kind steps rather than aggressive leaps. One of the many ways to approach the topic is using children's literature. Some of the following books can spark wonderful group time discussions, while others might feel more appropriate to read to a small group of children, or individual children. It might feel appropriate to lend one to a family to read with their own child. Trust that as early childhood educators the best way to advocate for children is to maintain trusting relationships with our communities, and that will look different to everyone.
Julian is a Mermaid
by Jessica Love (2018)
Julian is a Mermaid is a magically simple tale of imagination, acceptance and diversity normalised. When Julian’s Nanna discovers them dressed up in her curtain, she frowns. But it’s unclear whether this frown is in response to the curtain dress, Julian breaking binary expectations, or her consideration of the outfits finishing touches. The beauty of this book lies within these nuances, these open spaces which allow the reader to interpret their own meanings. Rather than highlighting adversity which is often the storyline faced by other trans protagonists, Julian is a Mermaid celebrates flamboyant gender expression through colourful yet artistic imagery. It’s for these reasons it’s a book that belongs on every early childhood bookshelf.
Extension ideas: This is a beautiful book for open ended inquiry with children to explore the messages they took from the story. Questions such as
‘How do you think Julian’s Nanna felt when she saw him dressed up? Why? Then how did she feel?’
‘Why did Julian like the mermaids?’
‘What other outfits did you see in the parade?’
‘What else did you notice?’
*Also check out the glorious sequel, Julian at the Wedding.
Introducing Teddy: A Story About Being Yourself
By Jessica Walton, illustrated by Dougal MacPherson (2016)
Introducing Teddy is a story of unwavering friendship through an affirming gender transition. Teddy expresses their true gender identity as Tilly, they fear subsequent rejection from their friends, but Errol and Ava are happy so long as Tilly is happy.
Having a teddy as the central character expressing their gender identity introduces the topic in a relatable but non-confrontational way. Although Teddy is concerned about their friend’s reactions, there are no examples of bullying or negative remarks.
Extension Ideas: This is a useful story for breaking down gender stereotypes through unpacking assumptions. You could discuss different characters or toys in the classroom. Ask the children what gender they think they are, uncover why they make those conclusions, ask if they know anyone of another gender with the same characteristic (eg long hair)?
My Shadow is Pink
written and illustrated by Scott Stuart (2020)
The analogy of a shadow as one’s true gender identity beautifully simplifies gender diversity as a concept anyone can understand. Not only does the main character have a shadow that expresses non-gender stereotypical interests, we see many other characters who’ve hidden their true interests and desires due to restrictive stereotyping. This normalises diversity and positions binary stereotypes as limiting to all. The main character overcomes adversity at school through support from their hyper masculine but understanding father.
This story would be invaluable to a child experiencing negative reactions to their gender expression. However, I would only use this for an early childhood whole class group time in certain circumstances. Solely because children’s attention spans flow in and out (especially in a large group) they sometimes take only snippets of messages from stories. Therefore, there is the potential that they will focus on the negative reaction the gender expansive child received at school, rather than the later acceptance. Young children are naturally accepting and may not have witnessed or experienced negative responses to diverse expressions before. We don’t want to introduce a behaviour that might not already be occurring.
Extension Ideas: Discuss our shadows. Model diverse interests by sharing your own gender identity, highlighting any interests that fall outside of binary gender stereotypes. Ask children to share their own shadow, what are some interests and activities they enjoy? Avoid labelling them as gendered, but simply as various interests and activities.
I am Jazz
By Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas (2014)
I am Jazz is an autobiography of a young girl assigned male at birth. The story follows her social transition journey and her experience of being born with “girl brain but a boy body”. It’s a story that will resonate with many transgender children and their parents. However, Jazz' parents require her gender identity to be confirmed by a doctor before they accept her identity, which is a potentially disempowering narrative that positions the expert 'other' as more aware than the individual. The true story first person narrative allows the reader to understand and empathise with Jazz’ experience, working towards normalising diversity.
Extension Ideas: This is a great story for fostering empathy in a group. You could re-read the book, asking the child/ren how they would feel in the different situations described, such as not being allowed to play on the same sports team as your friends. Relate the examples to the child/ren or your own personal experiences. It might also be useful for supporting a child going through a social transition, to show them they’re not alone in their experience.
Who Are You?: The kids guide to gender identity
by Brook Pessin-Whedbee, illustrated by Naomi Bardoff (2017)
This is a wonderful book for children and adults alike, especially for a young child questioning their gender. It breaks down the aspects of gender into anatomical sex, gender expression, gender identity and gender diversity and explains them in simple language. It celebrates individuality and normalises the gender spectrum. This is the perfect book for introducing the topic of gender diversity to young children, either in a group or individually. It would also be useful to lend to a family whose child is questioning their gender.
Extension Ideas: This book already has a range of extension ideas in the back, suggesting some discussion points for each section. I recommend reading through these before reading the book with a child.
Do you have recommendations for books that teach children about gender diversity? Send them through below!