For back-to-school time, here are some new and soon-to-be-published picture books with LGBTQ and gender-creative characters, all involving schools and classmates.
“What Riley Wore,” by Elana K. Arnold and illustrated by Linda Davick (Simon & Schuster), is the winsome tale of a child who delights in playing dress up. On the first day of school, Riley (whose gender is never stated) wears a bunny outfit. Rather than making Riley an object of ridicule, Riley’s soft bunny ears comfort a classmate who was crying. We then see Riley around the neighborhood and at school, switching between a ball gown, a hard hat and overalls, a tutu and more — outfits that elicit praise from other children and Riley’s teacher.
At one point, another child asks, “Are you a girl or a boy?” and Riley simply answers “Today I’m a firefighter. And a dancer,” and several other fanciful things. The other child responds, “Want to play?” Arnold refreshingly conveys a message of acceptance without raising issues of teasing or bullying — important issues, but too often the only narrative told about children expressing gender creativity. The completely positive outlook makes this book stand out.
In “Ogilvy,” by Deborah Underwood (Henry Holt), the titular and gender ambiguous bunny is excited about meeting other children in a new town. Ogilvy’s medium-length garment confuses them, however, and they tell Ogilvy, “Bunnies in dresses play ball and knit socks,” but “Bunnies in sweaters make art and climb rocks.” Underwood smartly doesn’t divide the activities here along traditional gender lines, helping readers see the absurdity of such divisions. Ogilvy relabels the outfit at will and plays accordingly, until one day the other bunnies demand a fixed choice.
Ogilvy finds self-confidence, speaks out and convinces the other bunnies that everyone benefits from wearing and doing what they choose. The rhymes have a clear echo of Dr. Seuss and T. L. McBeth’s simple illustrations evoke Mo Willems, but the story blends its influences into an original tale whose combination of message and merriment should find many fans.
More heavy handed is “Dazzling Travis: A Story About Being Confident and Original,” by Hannah Carmona Dias and illustrated by Brenda Figueroa (Cardinal Rule Press). “Dresses and armor: Pink, black or green. I pretend I’m a knight, a king or a queen,” proclaims Travis, a young black boy.
Some of his classmates, however, nastily tell him that boys and girls must each play with different things. A few others, who express gender creativity themselves, remain silent. Travis summons his courage and explains to the bullies, over several pages, why they are wrong. “It’s not weird or strange to express the true you,” he concludes. The message is good, but it’s a bit pedantic, and many of the rhymes feel forced.
At the end there are short bios of several real people who “struggled against the opinions of others,” including 19th-century baseball player Elizabeth Stride, dancer Fernando Bujones, designer Coco Chanel and writer Langston Hughes. More contemporary choices might resonate better with likely readers (and Chanel’s connections with Nazis make her a dubious choice). Still, many may appreciate Travis’ self-confidence in the face of bullying (not to mention his dazzling style).
“Sam!,” by Dani Gabriel (Penny Candy Books), with illustrations by Robert Liu-Trujillo, is the tale of a 9-year-old transgender boy “filled with dreams and spirit and laughter.” After he hears another boy in his class say, “Boys are born a certain way and girls are born a certain way,” however, he is sad and scared. He confides in his older sister Maggie that he’s not a girl like people think, but a boy. “Was I born wrong?” he asks.
Maggie assures him otherwise. She supports him at school and encourages him to tell their parents. They immediately accept him, but also acknowledge they all have a lot to learn together. More than anything, though, their pride in him shines through. Some kids tease him, but with Maggie’s support, he continues to play, succeed in school and dream.
Sam and his family could be read as Latino and they live in a racially diverse neighborhood. Robert Liu-Trujillo’s soft watercolor illustrations bring out the characters’ emotions in this warm story of sibling support and family love.
“In My Footprints,” by Bao Phi and illustrated by Basia Tran (Capstone), Thuy, a Vietnamese-American girl, finds solace in nature and in her imagination after being teased by classmates about her two moms and her ethnic origins. She imitates a cardinal and envisions flying away like a bird; she growls like a bear.
Momma Arti and Momma Ngoc join her in pretending, “because we’re stronger together.” Momma Ngoc suggests a phoenix, which we learn in an afterward has both Eastern and Western origins, just like Momma Ngoc. Momma Arti suggests the “part lion, part bird” Sarabha from her Hindu heritage. Thuy then makes up her own creature — one that is “both a boy and a girl” and whose skin changes “from black to light brown to lighter and back to black — not to hide, but because it always wants to be different shades of pretty.” One could buy the book for that empowering line alone.
Phi, a poet and author whose awards include a Caldecott Honor and an Ezra Jack Keats Honor, has crafted a lyrical tale about the power of imagination and finding strength in family and cultural heritage. It’s also notable as one of few LGBTQ-inclusive picture books to focus on Asian characters. Consider this a must-have for any LGBTQ kids’ collection.
For more LGBTQ back-to-school resources, see my annual list at mombian.com.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.