The world of children, in its attempt to simplify complex topics for easy comprehension, often falls prey to damaging gender stereotypes.
Children’s books and toys mostly represent a limited scope when it comes to gender: boys as active warriors, girls as passive princesses. These strict roles can become harmful to children, forcing them to compromise their identity in order to adhere to societal expectations.
Luckily, there is a growing collection of books out there parents can use to teach their children that there is more than one way to look and act like a certain gender — and that there are even more gender options than just "girl" and "boy."
This list of books will help you get started:
When we think about the female gender-identity and the way it is presented, we often think of the princess. So, let's start with a few books that undermine the idea that a princess has to be a woman waiting for someone else to do something for her.
1. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Prince Ronald when a dragon comes and takes the latter away. The dirty, bedraggled princess uses her smarts to trick the dragon into exhaustion so she can sneak into the castle and save her beau. When the prince sees her, he doesn't thank her. Instead, he comments on her dishevelment that, mind you, stemmed from her labor to save him. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say her response to his rudeness is delightful.
2. Not All Princesses Wear Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple
In this story, the reader meets a collective of princesses who have better things to do than wait around for their princes to come. Instead, these princesses garden, play, and eat heartily — all while wearing their crowns. There is no mention of a prince in the story — just lots of different-looking princesses enjoying each other's company and doing what they love.
3. Not Every Princess by Jeffrey and Lisa Bone
Published by the American Psychological Association, this book works to undo the strict notion of "female" and shows that a princess can mean many things. Its whimsical illustrations and powerful poetry will captivate young readers. As a parent who often hears strangers call my daughter "princess" as a compliment, I like to show her books that teach her that being a princess can mean whatever she wants it to.
Reimagining the Workforce
Gone are the days when books like Richard Scarry's classic What Do People Do All Day show only men working. To continue the idea of a girl being active and wanting to learn and work, I would like to suggest the following titles.
4. Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
In this book, Rosie invents a world of wonder around her, a world that most people can't appreciate. With a special appearance from one of her ancestors, Rosie the Riveter, young Rosie learns that the only way an invention can fail is if the inventor doesn’t persevere.
5. Madam President by Lane Smith
Readers accompany Madam President through her day as the "most important person in the whole wide world!" Madam struggles with finding time to accomplish all of the tasks the leader of the free world must complete in a day — issuing executive orders, reading daily briefs, and even approving her own lunch. A fun lesson on what a president does, and a great way to show children that a president can be a woman, too.
6. Clothesline Clues to Jobs People Do by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook
Readers follow a female mail-carrier around town as she delivers mail to men and women working all kinds of jobs. By looking at pictures of the residents’ clotheslines, readers must guess what their profession is. This game will lead down a path of women who are astronauts and men who are artists, subverting children’s expectations.
A majority of the stories that fall into this category ignore issues of race or ethnicity. Thankfully, a few books do show the intersection of gender and race issues, although researchers note that more can be done in this realm.
7. Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges
This book is based on the story of the author’s grandmother, Ruby, a precocious young girl growing up in China. She wishes to prepare for university — just like the boys in her family — instead of waiting to be married off. Ruby is determined to convince her family to let her travel a different path, and readers accompany the heroine on her journey.
8. Dance! With Bill T. Jones by Bill T. Jones and Susan Kuklin
Many boys love to dance. I am so grateful that there are parents who ignore the social chatter about boys and dancing and take their kids to dance class with my daughter, despite the negative pressure they may face. Here's a book in which an African-American choreographer undoes this gendered notion that only girls should dance. He expresses his love for the art and for movement.
Much more work has been done to undo the notions society has on what it means to be a “girl;” but there are few books that are working to create a broader definition of what it means to be a boy. Most of these works focus on appearance, while the earlier sections focused on actions and achievements.
9. Jacob's New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman
Including an informative and heartfelt note to parents in the back, this picture book follows Jacob's struggle on the playground as he tries to figure out why he can't wear what he wants to wear. His parents encourage him to make his own dress and respond lovingly to Jacob’s requests for approval in a world that doesn't show any boys doing what he wants to do.
10. My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis
This book also focuses on the challenges facing a boy who wants to wear a tiara and loves pink, shiny toys. Readers go on a journey with the Princess Boy as his family learns to accept his choices.
11. Goodbye Mousie by Robie H. Harris
This book teaches boys that it’s OK to cry, even though society may often tell them to “man up” and not show emotion. Ending toxic masculinity that hurts our boys needs to start at a tender age. A book like this helps.
Understanding Gender Fluidity
A few books are helping children see that gender identity is fluid and not as fixed as we may have thought. These titles are especially helpful in learning about the transgender experiences.
12. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
This book is about Jazz Jennings, the transkids activist and founder of Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation. She explains her own gender-identity issues in a moving and age-appropriate way.
13. When Kayla Was Kyle by Amy Fabrikant
This book goes deep into the mind of a child who doesn't identify with his sex. Fabrikant does the amazing work of helping kids (and parents) understand the thoughts running through the mind of a kid who doesn't feel "normal." Every classroom, school, and library should have this book.
14. Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr
This book takes the message many kids' books have — be who you are — and encourages the characters to do so when it comes to gender identity.
The best element of all of these books is that they allow for open communication and dialogue. As parents and caregivers, we don't need to point out difference and then say we should "tolerate" them. Instead, we show our children many images to illustrate that there is no one path to identity — and there is certainly no such thing as "normal."
If you want even more suggestions, there are many great organizations doing the work to promote peace and justice through reading.
Find more ideas on Noodle with these additional book reviews by librarians, teachers, and education experts.