Ingram Blog

Gender Nonconformity in Picture Books

By Wendy Rancier, MLS, Children's Collection Development Librarian, Ingram Library Services

The children’s publishing industry increasingly embraces childhood gender expression that doesn’t conform to traditional conventions. This experience is known as “gender nonconformity” or “gender variance.”

Non-conformity has nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity: think, for example, of the use of the term “tomboy” to describe a girl who likes to climb trees and play sports, activities more aligned with what traditional society expects from boys. Conversely, and regrettably, the term “sissy” often refers to boys who have interest in activities traditionally associated with girls, such as playing with dolls. 

Gender nonconformity’s presence in more children’s literature, especially picture books, is helping parents and young children alike, to find, accept and love who they are, without fear of prejudice: being a girl does not mean identifying with princesses, and it is great for boys to enjoy ballet lessons.

I find the move toward diversity in children’s literature has encouraged a shift in library collections to ensure they are accurate reflections of children in the communities we serve.

During my years as a public librarian, we ran both a Lego and a Pokemon club. Groups were composed, usually, of a majority male audience. That was fine with us: it is hard enough to get boys to participate in programs, especially as they get older. But it was even more exciting to have girls come and change the dynamic. The same was true for crafting programs: mostly girls, but we soon realized we needed to make crafts more inclusive, as boys like to craft as well. Instead of just doing “let’s make fairy houses,” it became “let’s make fairy houses or gnome homes.” Personal expression is vital for everyone, and it is important to encourage and nurture it. 

There are several new titles that truly embrace gender nonconformity in subtle ways. When Grandpa Gives You a Toolbox by Jamie L. B. Deenihan features a young boy who wants a dollhouse for his birthday. His grandfather, instead, gives him a toolbox, and he is, of course, disappointed. The story progresses with him bonding with his grandfather when he decides to build a birdhouse and other projects, and, finally, his grandfather helps him construct a dollhouse with his new tools. This is a sweet story about a grandfather and grandson discovering that preferences don’t necessarily define us, but enhance us. The dolls aren’t an issue in this story, and don’t have any impact on the love the grandfather feels for his grandson. This is an important message for children, especially those who may be nonconforming.

Glad, Glad Bear!  by Kimberly Gee is a wonderful gender nonconforming book for the youngest picture book crowd. Bear is excited to attend ballet class for the first time. He is happy to put on his leggings, slippers and, yes, even the tutu. This story is primarily a great social and emotional learning tale about not being scared to try something new: the fact that this little boy bear wears a tutu isn’t an issue for him or for his new ballet friends. The illustrations in the ballet class show some bears some wearing leggings and others donning leggings and tutus, but, when the music starts, they all have fun. This is gentle story with a sweet message that captures childhood joy. 

As we all try to improve diversity in our collections, we shouldn’t forget about gender nonconformity and the importance these books will play in childhood development.