This week, a story was printed in The New York Times about a memo that says the Trump administration in the United States is considering defining gender as a narrow biological condition that is based upon the body parts someone is born with. This is important, because there is a long-standing decision called Title IX which for years has been understood to protect people against discrimination based either on their body parts or the way they present as masculine, feminine, or something else. Title IX is known for protecting girls and women from gender-based discrimination, especially in school and in public. In the last few years, it has been decided that Title IX also means that transgender people (that is, people who live as a gender that is different from the one they were thought to have at birth) have rights to housing, employment, and public bathroom access. This statement in the memo implies that the Trump administration is considering taking away civil rights for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. This decision also may mean that people in the government want to make people live in specific ways if they are born with specific body parts. That is scary for everyone–not just transgender people, but also boys and girls who wear clothes or act in ways that aren’t strictly in line with what other people see as normal for boys or girls.
Here are two picture books about children who defy traditional gender expectations and are received with love by the people around them. Both books are notable in that they reference magic, though one is a fantasy book and the other is set in the real world.
From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish In The Sea.
Thom, Kai Chang (auth), Kai Yun Ching (illust), and Wai-Yant Li (illust) (2017). From the Stars In The Sky To The Fish In The Sea. Vancouver, CA: Arsenal Pulp Press.
When Miu Lan is born in a little blue house at the top of the hill, the moon and the sun are in the sky at the same time. Likewise, the new baby is a lot of things at once. Little Miu Lan looks like a cat, a rabbit, a tree, a star, and many other things as well. As Miu Lan grows, it becomes apparent that they can change into any imaginable shape.They fly with birds (while sporting a deer’s antlers), transform into a dog to play with puppies, and explore the oceans in aquatic form. Through all of this, their mother assures them that whatever shape they take on, she loves Miu Lan and finds them perfect.
Transformations that might be treated as scary problems in other picture books are addressed in this one as a matter of joyful, funny, exciting difference and possibility; children that bully Miu Lan admit that they are jealous of the central character’s tiger stripes and peacock tail. While the story and its resolution aren’t that dramatic or intense, this book talks about difference and diversity in a way that doesn’t make difference into a problem or a burden–which is right. The illustrations, with plenty of rich watercolor and under-sea movement, at times remind me of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, but the message is different–the story has nothing but reverence and respect toward the remarkable star.
Julián Is A Mermaid
Love, Jessica (2018). Julián Is a Mermaid. New York, NY: Candlewick Press.
Julián is travelling with his abuela one day on the F train when he notices a group of beautiful mermaids taking up the middle of the car, their shiny tails gleaming and their gorgeous outfits sparkling.
He can’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the ride home, and as soon as he can, he takes things from around his grandmother’s house to try and create his own vivid, perfect outfit. His abuela sees what he needs, and takes him back out and down to Coney Island, where they join other mermaids in the Mermaid Parade.
This book is great for very young readers, but its beautiful illustrations and introduction to the Mermaid Parade, celebrations of beauty and connection, and happy example of a family’s acceptance and love are great to read when you’re older, too. Jessica Love, who is both writer and illustrator, captures the light and color of an afternoon near the water in Coney Island, and paints vivid imagery of dresses, shoes, costumes, and glitter that can inspire us all to be festive, magical and inspired in the way we dress and present to the world. Best yet, it helps everyone imagine a future for ourselves and our families where we aren’t afraid to talk about what we want or what we think is beautiful.
Something very distinctive in this book is the large number of visual references to the Caribbean-American Black community in Brooklyn. One discussion that might be useful to have, especially if you read this book with both adults and children or in a classroom setting, is how Jessica Love, who is white and not Caribbean, researched or thought about depicting the main character and his grandmother or the other Caribbean/Afro-Latinx/Black characters who participate in the book’s lushly painted parade of mermaids. While Jessica Love does engage with her characters as people, and the book has received a lot of praise, what might be potential problems for white authors trying to write books about black families? What might people get wrong or make mistakes about? What should white authors do to try and make sure they get things right?