This blog post is part of Build Your Stack,® a new initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. It was written by NCTE member Courtney Farrell.
Since I am a fierce accomplice of my proud elementary-aged transgender son, friends and teacher colleagues often ask me how we explored notions of gender diversity when he began his gender journey and assertion of authentic self at a young age.
As an educator for nearly two decades, I told my friends and colleagues that we turned to books to facilitate conversations in our home.
Picture and chapter books provided a space where my son caught glimpses of himself reflected; books supported his younger brother in growing awareness of his older brother’s gender journey; and books grew my mind broader about gender diversity in young children.
We’ve now supported my son’s friends, our close community, and my teacher colleagues over the past few school years in creating more gender inclusive spaces in their homes, classrooms, and schools, and we continually turn to inclusive texts as one pathway for growing more visibly equitable, socially just, and gender-inclusive spaces.
Here is a short list of essential books from my son’s gender journey. These are the books that have grown young elementary-aged children’s compassionate hearts and minds deeper and broader, and books that reflect my son and his transgender and gender nonconforming friends in a respectful, honest way, often written by authors who identify as members of the queer community themselves.
These recommendations were selected by my son as places to begin to build your stack with the children in your life.
Sparkle Boy by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Maria Mola
This poignant story, by acclaimed author of the groundbreaking book Heather Has Two Mommies, takes readers on the journey of Casey, a youngster who loves anything shimmery, glittery, and sparkly, and his older sister, Jessie, as she learns to express unconditional love for her family. This beautifully illustrated book has a powerful message of affirming those in our lives, while exploring notions of gender diversity and challenging socialized gender norms. It teaches us the importance of authentically loving one another.
Elementary-aged children whom we read this story to feel the characters’ emotions, especially when children in the book declare that Casey must be a girl because of the way he dresses and when his sister takes action as an ally to her little brother. An immense thank you to author Newman for her unwavering commitment, over decades, to sharing inclusive stories that touch the hearts and minds of young readers.
Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story of Gender and Friendship by Jessica Walton, illustrated by Dougal MacPherson
Author Jessica Walton wrote this brilliant, gentle story as a way to talk to her young son about her own parent’s gender journey and transition. It is a heart-warming, powerful book, accessible to our youngest readers, that explores the notions of what it truly means to affirm those closest to us when they reveal important realizations to us.
Friendship endures in this tale of honesty, transparency, and compassion between a boy and his teddy bear, a story through which my transgender son learned, after telling his closest friends of his own personal gender journey, that friendship can indeed endure. Every classroom, school, and home library should have this book on hand to nurture the compassion that already exists in our children’s hearts.
I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
This captivating story shares the gender journey of Jazz Jennings, an inspirational transgender activist and advocate for transgender rights. This story beautifully follows Jazz and her two best friends as she learns to self-advocate, as her family learns the best ways to support her, and as she navigates through childhood milestones. The message of this story, one of finding inner strength to proudly be who you are, will build compassionate and honest conversations with children in classrooms and homes alike.
This was my son’s first picture book that captured the gender journey of a real transgender child, opening a window of possibilities for him to see his trans peer’s experiences navigating childhood. This is an essential book, written by a young transgender author herself, that belongs in the hands of children and teachers.
George by Alex Gino
This Stonewall-Award-winning book, written by genderqueer author Alex Gino, captured our hearts from the first page. This groundbreaking middle-grades novel chronicles the journey of Melissa, a young transgender fourth-grade girl,as she finds solidarity with family and peers, seeks to understand those around her, and finds the courage to visibly be herself in the world.
My son and I both hope readers of all ages enjoy this poignant book about bravery, compassion, and finding the courage to be who you are.
The Pants Project by Cat Clarke
This layered young adult novel centers sixth grader Liv, a young transgender boy who is navigating adolescence, middle school, friendships, and his own gender journey. This well-written, heart-wrenching story was one of the only we found about the experiences of young transgender boys. My son and I nearly jumped for joy when we discovered the book. My son hung onto the author’s every word, often declaring, “Just like me, mom!”
The story chronicles Liv’s gender journey in revealing his truth to his two moms, his little brother, and his closest friend at school. Liv even becomes an activist at school, learning to stand up for his rights against oppressive dress codes, defend himself against bullies, and ultimately find his voice to self-advocate. If you’re looking for an incredible story with fierce, raw emotion, this is it. Liv’s journey will forever change you; it did for us.
Our hope, as you build your stack to be ever more gender inclusive, is that you consider some of these wonderfully affirming, compassionate books, many of which will enable you to engage in more conversations in your classrooms and homes about the diversity of life. For more titles, consider visiting these archived resources.
Courtney Farrell is the founding director and a literacy consultant with the Journey Project, an inclusion- and educational justice-focused organization supporting transgender and gender nonconforming children, youth, and their families and educators. Inspired by the communities she has served for nearly two decades and by her own transgender child’s transition in 2016, she has been researching gender inclusive, anti-oppressive, equitable pathways toward educational justice in elementary and middle schools across this nation. Visit thejourneyproject.us/journey/ or follow @EduCourts.