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On Julie Luecke’s “Reading Along the Gender Continuum” (from 2012)

“The reality, however, is that many children are gender variant (with interests and behaviors persistently outside of typical cultural gender norms) and at different points in their lives might be living or exploring at various places along the gender identity continuum.”

10,000 DressesIf there had been a Horn Book blog focused on books and families in 2012, Julie Luecke’s Horn Book essay, “Reading Along the Gender Continuum,” would have been a natural fit. Well, better late than never. We have that blog now, so, Julie Luecke, welcome (back) to the family!

This essay is as relevant today as it was six years ago — I’d argue even more so, given the White House’s latest bigoted attacks on transgender citizens. This administration’s threats to “erase” transgender people’s identities are pointless. Trans, gender-creative, and non-binary people will exist and persist no matter what, just as they always have. The attacks are not without consequence, however: calls to the Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) have quadrupled in recent days.

Julie begins her discussion of gender, books, and our collective default to the binary by reflecting on the evolution of her young son’s reading preferences over time — from the Rainbow Magic series to Big Nate to The Doll People. Although she tries to approach parenting free from preconceived notions about gender, she's learned to recognize her own biases when it comes to suggesting books to her son. She argues against our knee-jerk boy and girl categories for books. Then she takes the argument one step further: “...even more layers of assumptions are inherent in this discussion, identifying children as gender normative, boy or girl.”

So, as gatekeepers, we adults have a responsibility to avoid the trap of automatically gendering books and of making assumptions about the child reader, as well.

Next, Julie aims her lens at books themselves:

“...our response to books portraying transgender characters reveals that we are once again falling into old patterns of categorization. Sure, we’ve added another perspective on gender, but we still want to separate people into clear-cut groupings: either you’re transgender, or you’re not. We believe we can embrace transgender children and a male/female dichotomy simply by reassigning these children to the appropriate gender role — swapping Captain Underpants for Babymouse.”

Mind = blown. But it all makes perfect sense if you allow yourself to think about it. And lives are at stake here, so I hope you do think about it if you haven't before.

* * * * *

It wasn't just the latest news cycle (which has actually cycled around a few tragic times since) that brought me to Julie's essay.

Last week I attended a panel discussion at a local church on “Understanding the Transgender Experience.” The panelists — an LGBTQ advocate, a parent of a trans child, a pastor, and an elected official — offered themselves and their experiences up to the small but attentive audience.*

After the moving testimonies and sincere, respectful questions, the elected official (a friend of mine) invited me to join a conversation she was having with an audience member. Sarah introduced herself as the director of children’s and family ministries at the church. She was looking for suggestions of books to help young people (and not-so-young people) broaden their understanding of gender. She said something along the lines of, “I’ve found that when there's a conversation going on out in the world, books are a great way to help kids make sense of it.” YES!

My friend and I brainstormed some, talking up Michael Hall’s Red: A Crayon’s Story and Marcus Ewert's 10,000 Dresses, both of which have been in heavy rotation in our families at various times. I took down Sarah’s email address and left promising her booklists and other gems.

A quick search of the Horn Book's website for such gems brought me to Julie's essay. Not only does the post conclude with a great list of "Books with Gender-Diverse Appeal," her essay from start to finish provides a map for navigating a new understanding of gender identity and expression. Thank you, audience member Sarah, for leading me back to this critical perspective.

And more importantly, thank you for providing an opportunity for your parish's kids and their grownups to explore these issues. That is how change happens.

See also our more recent lists of recommended books on transgender lives from 2015 and 2016 and a page of related Horn Book links and other resources.

* * * * *

*This event was held in support of YES on 3 in Massachusetts. Ballot question 3 is the first statewide referendum on a transgender anti-discrimination law; a YES vote keeps in place the existing 2016 law protecting trans and gender-nonconforming people from discrimination in public spaces, including stores, restaurants, parks, doctors' offices, and libraries. If you live in Massachusetts, when you VOTE on Tuesday, November 6, please vote YES on question 3. A "yes" vote will send a strong message to other groups around the country hoping to repeal or block similar state laws.
Kitty Flynn
Kitty Flynn is consulting editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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