Beyond Sissy: the evolution of gender identity and sexual orientation in picture books
Because it's PRIDE month, I wanted to take a look at gender identity and the depiction of sexual orientation in picture books. Charlotte Zolotow's 1972 classic, William's Doll (HarperCollins), was seen as cutting-edge and feminist, saying that boys should have dolls so they can practice being daddies. The word sissy appears six times and creep is used three times, just to clarify how deviant William's desires were. The book was adapted into musical form by the incredible Mary Rodgers and included in the 1972 book Free to Be...You and Me. Free to Be...You and Me was an essential tome for children of my generation and the record album of the same name was in heavy rotation in the homes of my school chums. It was wildly liberating to think that a boy could have a doll. Sissy was a terrible and loaded (and coded) word that boys were called; they would go to great lengths to prove that they were not one.
Oliver Button is a Sissy, by Tomie dePaola (1979, Harcourt) is so sissy-centric that the word appears in the title. Oliver is bullied (even by his own father, sadly) because he is not interested in sports. Graffiti on the walls of his school labels him a sissy. Oliver finds his way into the world of dance and taps his way to respect; although he does not win the talent competition, he returns to school to find that the graffiti has been changed to read "Oliver Button is a Star!"
But what if William and Oliver really were sissies? American culture was bursting with sissies in the 1970s; Paul Lynde in the center square, Charles Nelson Reilly camping it up with Brett Somers on Match Game, Wayland Flowers and Madame, and the unbelievably popular Village People. Gay men were everywhere in pop culture, yet the subject was absolutely off-limits, especially for children.
I'm seeing contemporary picture books addressing gender fluidity in direct ways and I see families seeking out these books. Drag Queen story times have become well-attended crowd-pleasing events at urban libraries across the U.S. and Canada.
Books like Michael Hall's Red: a crayon's story (2015, Greenwillow) never mentions gender at all. It skillfully uses a blue crayon in a red wrapper to represent a trans child whose outward appearance leads to a set of expectations from others, but whose insides are nothing like the wrapper. This accessible analogy makes this a very strong book.
Jacob's New Dress, by Sarah and Ian Hoffman (Albert Whitman & Company, 2014) focuses on the "pink boy" phenomenon, which is described in the book's backmatter. A pink boy is gender nonconforming, but not labeled trans or gay. I found it to be a bit clunky, but it definitely could be used for bibliotherapy and to increase acceptance for pink boys.
10,000 Dresses, by Marcus Ewert (2008, Seven Stories Press) was perhaps the very first picture book that featured a trans character, Bailey. Bailey dreams about dresses and says "But...I don't feel like a boy." Bailey's family is not at all supportive, with her brother going as far as to threaten to kick Bailey. Bailey runs away and meets Laurel and they collaborate on some amazing dresses. While some of the other books I looked at depict supportive families, 10,000 Dresses has a narrative that is more painful than reassuring. Children do face hurtful comments and rejection when they come out as trans, but the message that a kid needs to run away in order to find acceptance and love is pretty heavy for an elementary school aged audience.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. email@example.com
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