Social Justice Through Children’s Literature Part 2: Gender Identity, Stereotypes, and Discrimination

Last week I wrote about ability and strength, up next is gender. This one’s personal, because, well, I am in the minority group of this category. And to give you a snapshot of myself in a nutshell, I have two profound memories/experiences growing up that really shape this part of my identity.

That’s me circa fifth grade? Spent most of my childhood and adolescence in Ts and gym shorts, and sweats are still my preferred outfits today.

First, I was a total athlete growing up — I ate, slept, and breathed sports. I worked my a** off to ‘get good’ at any sport I set my mind to, and worked my way through soccer, basketball, and eventually field hockey. Played club all the way through college, and playing sports is when I felt I was my best self. But I experienced a lot of gender crisis and coming to age moments because of this. I remember one day, high school, I think? Where I called my mom admitting I was feeling depressed and bawling my eyes out because I felt like I couldn’t live up to the girly expectations and pressure I was feeling at school. Felt like I looked like crap, was insecure, and generally just hormonal and crazy. I have the best mom ever, so she promptly took me shopping to find outfits that I thought would match what I needed to look like. She did everything for me, and I love her for it. I spent most of my high school days preferring to be in sweats and t-shirts…longing for game days because I could wear my sports gear and feel comfortable and dreading other days because I’d sweat through outfits that I thought would make me look the way I was supposed to look..feminine and composed. Obviously I’ve grown up now and realize my experience mirrors many experiences adolescents go through, and I know that it wasn’t nearly as bad as others’ experiences might have been, so for that I’m grateful. But middle and high school is hard, y’all. Because that’s when we really start to face our own identity head on, and how that identity fits in (or doesn’t fit in) with pop culture and our society.

Second, I hated — and I mean HATED — math and science as a kid. I hated it because I wasn’t good at it, and I never felt like anyone really reached out to me to help me understand it. Like really understand it. I’d stay after school with (mostly male) math teachers for extra tutoring and they’d just keep drilling me on formulas and giving me practice problems to apply the formula. And then I’d take these tests with novel problems and have no idea what to do. “Hmm I guess I’ll just use this formula and hope it’s the right one,” would always run through my mind. And then I’d fail tests, badly. I always got As and Bs because of participation and homework (go figure), but I never ever really understood the math. Still have bad number sense to this day because of it. One day I even cursed out my physics teacher in front of everyone and stormed out crying because I. JUST. DIDN’T. GET. IT. and no one was answering my cries for help. I felt so alone and inadequate. And only now do I realize that I fell directly into that trap of women in math and science. I was subconsciously driven away from the discipline by my environment and the people in it, most likely because I was a girl. No, people weren’t explicitly saying “She’s a girl, don’t bother,” but I can almost guarantee that when they saw me struggle, they didn’t help me because they wanted me to understand it, they helped me to simply get me through the class. And that, right there, my friends, is implicit bias around gender.

*If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading and listening as I relived some pretty formative experiences with you.*

So, my list of children’s books that help me explore gender identity, stereotypes, and discrimination is two-fold. On one hand, I’ve included titles that address gender stereotypes and identity. On the other hand, I’ve included titles that address implicit bias, and discrimination against women, and how we might encourage our fellow male counterparts, whether they are the adults or children in our lives, to be an ally. I also included one title on transgender. This is probably controversial to some, and many would advise to ‘stay away’ from this topic until middle or high school, when kids’ brains are more developed to understand this concept. But let me tell you, this advice is once again formed from implicit bias and discomfort. If we looked at kids’ true, lived experiences, we’d realize we need to start addressing it now. In my 10 years in teaching so far, I have witnessed a kindergartener, second grader, and fourth grader (and their families) experience gender questioning and confusion. In two of these instances, these beautiful souls realized, and publicly declared, that they are transgender. And these are the ones who have felt comfortable and brave enough to go through this journey. We know many do not until much later in adulthood, and some never at all.

5 Children’s Picture Books to Support Gender Identity, Stereotypes, and Discrimination

One of A Kind, Like Me / Único como yo by Laurin Mayeno: A bilingual English and Spanish story about a boy named Danny who wants to be a princess for his school parade. The story features his mom, an ally to Danny, as she supports him in finding the materials needed to make his costume. At the end, there’s a wonderful exchange between Danny and his classmates about Danny’s choice to be a princess and how the other students process it. Best for grades 1-3.

ABC For Me: What Can He/She Be? by Sugar Snap Studio and Jessie Ford: Both ABC What Can He Be and ABC What Can She Be is a series of board books that teaches boys and girls they can grow up to be or have any profession they choose. It is subtle – it does not directly address the issue of gender, but the professions included in each text are ones that are often associated with the other gender if thinking in the terms of a binary gender system. Best for babies – grade 1.

A Is for Awesome!: 23 Iconic Women Who Changed the World by Eva Chen: Another ABC board book, but this one showcases women from history who have overcome obstacles and challenges to achieve great accomplishments and make great contributions to our world and our society. Not only does this book support women in shattering the glass ceiling, it also features women of many different cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds – kind of a double whammy! Best for babies – grade K.

My First Book of Feminism for Boys by Julie Merberg: Another board book (gee, I have a lot for babies on this topic!), this one targets young boys especially, in helping them to understand what they can do to be an ally to women, without being too pushy or direct. The language is simple, and so are the pictures, and while it is designed for babies and toddlers, I’ll still revisit it with my boys as they get older and understand this more. Best for babies – toddlers, but useful through elementary school as well.

I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel: This picture book tells the story of Jazz Jennings, based on her real life experiences of being transgender, and recognizing her discomfort with her assigned gender at birth at a very young age. The story is told in a simple, clear way and has received great reviews. Jazz Jennings continues to be a spokesperson for transkids everywhere. Best for preK – grade 4.

Remember, each title is linked directly to my Amazon List for Social Justice Children’s Literature, including other titles in this topic that didn’t make my top 5 but still deserved a shout out. I hope you enjoy!

One thought on “Social Justice Through Children’s Literature Part 2: Gender Identity, Stereotypes, and Discrimination

  1. Boy Katie you hit both my girl’s experiences right on. Bre struggled more than Mae but Mae had the most anxiety over her performance. Bre just did what she had to to get by and did. Mae was the one going for help wanting to get it and actually had a similar experience with one of her science teachers, who unfortunately was a young woman, and ended up apologizing and was called out in class for it. Fast forward Mae continues to do amazing in college but no math or science. Bre is going back to school to become a nurse and crushing all her math and science courses. She said to me “mom, I really am good in math and science”. Thank goodness girls persevere.

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