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!

Social Justice through Children’s Literature Part 1: Ability and Strength

This is the first post of a mini-series focused on using children’s literature to discuss social issues and move towards social justice.

Preface: Throughout this piece, I use the word ‘disability’ when referring to individuals with conditions that are labeled as a disability in mainstream society. I suggest (and am trying myself) beginning to shift one’s understanding of an individual with a disability to an individual who is differently-abled. I am also committed to using people-first language, or language that puts the person first and foremost, not the condition. I try my best to stick with “individuals with disabilities” rather than “disabled individuals”.

I’m in the midst of working on a project at work involving a social-justice themed, after-school, virtual, book club (yeah that’s a mouthful). It’s year three of this club, and it has evolved so much since we started three years ago. But it feels like this year is different, given everything going on in our world right now. We’re trying to be brave and tackle social issues head on, and as a result I’m learning so much about my own identity, privilege, implicit bias, and ways I can become an ally to disadvantaged and minority groups. To put it bluntly, I’m an educated, straight, white, comfortably-living, female with a heck of a lot of privilege (that I will always be working to understand), and that makes me a member of many majority groups (with the exception of female, of course). I want to raise my own children to be able to understand and recognize their own identity, and privilege, and be thoughtful about ways they, too, can be an ally to peers and others who may be experiencing bias, prejudice, discrimination, and/or racism. So how has that landed me here, in another blog post, writing about books?

I’ve said before I often turn to children’s literature to help me teach my students and children about topics that others might deem uncomfortable, controversial, or risky. I have found that when I am discussing heavy (loaded?) and important societal issues that can also be very emotional (and sometimes trigger fear and anger), I can create a safer space for dialogue and discussion by talking in the context of a book or it’s characters. This creates a “once-removed” experience that often then opens the doors for true and honest discussions and sharing of personal experiences within the group.

When we launch Reading Club 3.0 in a few weeks, we will be targeting categories of social issues each week, ranging from ability and strength all the way to race, culture, and religion. We’ve bit off a lot, and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to chew it all, but we sure as heck will try. The other facilitator and I decided to start with ability/disability, simply because this is a category that is accessible (usually) to young children, because it is spoken about much more openly than some of the other categories like race and religion. Also, since some individuals with disabilities kids are exposed to throughout their short lives in school and at home are physical and therefore visible (think wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, etc.), we start with the concrete in order to move into the more abstract (invisible) issues later on. (And we plan appropriately to address individuals with invisible disabilities as well, don’t worry.)

So, let’s talk about the identity category of ability/disability. I have already seen my 4yo and 2yo react to individuals with visible disabilities that we’ve seen or socialized with in our own lives. For example, I have a very dear friend with CP, and we get together usually once a year. The past few years, Luca has exhibited trepidation, nervousness, and overall avoidance during our visits. I also distinctly remember one occasion a while ago at Dunkin Donuts where we were waiting in line for coffee and donuts. A little person was waiting in line in front of us, and Luca was openly scared and asking questions. My point in sharing these examples? YOUNG kids, like babies and toddlers, start to identify and feel most comfortable with people who are LIKE them (research-based, not just opinion…look it up!), so as they start to experience differences in the real world, their implicit biases can already start to show – like Luca’s did in these instances. I use these examples to show how addressing ability/disability (and any other social issue) with third and fourth graders is nothing new to them, I promise. Still, it can be uncomfortable for anyone because our society’s norm is to ignore and pretend like it doesn’t exist so as to not offend…it hasn’t been until recently where people have started to speak up about addressing it openly and head on in order to educate and progress.

I’ve been rambling a bit, so to make a long story short, here it is: I’m going to share 5 picture books I’ll use with my students and with my own kids to address individuals with a disability, both the visible and invisible kind. I’ll link each one to an Amazon List called “Social Justice Children’s Literature” too!

And I’ll create follow-up posts recommending picture books to address gender, family unit, poverty and homelessness, immigration and cultural identity, and religion and race.

Here we go.

Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull: A retell/biography of Wilma Rudolph, a US female Olympian runner, who became the world’s fastest runner after experiencing polio and a resulting disability as a young child. This book addresses a visible disability.

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson: Another book that addresses a visible disability, this book tells the story of a West African boy who was born with “only one good leg” and experienced prejudice, bias, and discrimination as a result. Rather than feeling resigned to his disability, he persevered to learn how to ride a bike with one leg, and set an example of how being disabled is actually being differently-abled, and people with disabilities can still do everything one without a disability can do. You might be familiar with the movie Emmanuel’s Gift, narrated by Oprah Winfrey!

We’re All Wonders: Read Together Edition by R.J. Palacio: A companion to the chapter book (and movie) called Wonder, this books shares what it’s like to be Auggie, a boy who feels like any other kid but is not always seen that way, because of his facial deformity. It shows a child’s desire to belong, and encourages all of us to choose kindness and to understand empathy.

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best: This book takes the reader along with Zulay and her three best friends, who are all in the same first grade class. She is just like her friends, except she is blind. A fun school tradition is fast approaching…Field Day! Zulay decides she wants to run a race, and the story shows her journey to doing just that, much to everyone’s surprise.

My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete: Told through the perspective of his sister, this book explores what it’s like to have Charlie, a boy with autism, as a brother. Even though he doesn’t look any different, his brain works in a different way. I like this story because it explores an invisible disability.

There are sooo many other good choices for this category, and all categories, so be sure to check the Amazon links on each title for a full list of titles!

If I had one wish for this post, and the series of posts to follow, it would simply be to encourage parents and teachers out there to be selective and purposeful with the books we might be choosing to read to or read with our kids. Children’s literature can go a long way in helping to shape and form the character and values we hope our children develop and grow up to have!