Being Gender Inclusive with Children

November is Transgender Awareness Month, so I thought I'd share some awareness in the field of children's literature and librarianship. As a cisgender person, I know not to speak over transgender people about their own experiences. Please, listen to trans voices and amplify them. However, as someone who works with and socializes with and is related to and loves people across the gender spectrum (is it a spectrum, though?), I love seeing gender diversity represented in my day-to-day life and want to share with you some of the ways I contribute to that. I am linking to some (only SOME!) of the children's books at OPL that celebrate gender in a multitude of expressions.

Check out the links below and/or ask your local librarian for more.

In 2016 or so, when I looked around the available picturebooks about gender identity I found mostly stories of little boys (or kids that the other characters and often the text identified as "boys") in dresses. Sometimes the child was secure in his male identification and liked wearing twirly or fancy clothes; sometimes she was just as firm about her female identity and wanted to make sure others knew it. The gist of each story: the protagonist likes clothing and activities that society says are for the "opposite" gender and that's a problem to be overcome with love and tolerance. When it came to including everyone and their individual gender expression, these books were a start, but they weren't perfect.

However, children's publishing has grown in a few short years to include wider viewpoints about gender. While some people identify with a binary gender (male OR female), many others are somewhere in-between, or identify as both, or neither. Someone's gender can change and feel different over the course of their life, or even from day to day. Gender can be complicated, but even if we don't fully understand someone's personal identity, we can be respectful and inclusive by default. For example, before you know a person's pronouns, why not start from "they"?

They is a way
To let everyone be:
No one left out
everyone free!
Maya & Mathew


These are things I do as a librarian and as a parent to create a welcoming environment for children:

  • Use gender-neutral terms about kids at storytime: friends, everybody, class, kindergarteners
  • Use neutral or inclusive terms about adult caregivers/adults who accompany children to the library (or don't): your grownup(s) at home, your parent (if I'm really sure), your family, not just "mom and dad" (including names of possible caregivers like Baba or Tia in songs and small talk). This isn't just about gender; it also welcomes neighbors with uncommon family structures, school/daycare/camp groups, and other kids with adults who are meaningful to each other -- even if not all of the members of the group are in front of me.
  • Use neutral terms about book characters when gender isn't specified: kid, grandchild, person in a red hat, skateboarder. This can be good for building vocabulary!
  • State in appropriate ways that gender is not defined by a person's body, clothing, or activities. Gender is how you feel inside. "All the colors are for everyone! What colors do you like?" "At the library there aren't any rules about what boys can read. It's more about what you like to read about. Do you want me to find you some books with artists/gymnasts/firefighters?"
  • Vary gender and pronouns assigned to stuffed animals and other anthropomorphized figures. Just recently, my mother caught herself and said, "Or I guess your jack-o-lantern could be she." to my toddler (whose special bunny, Mama Hop-Hop, is called "he").
  • Don't assume pronouns and offer my own pronouns (OPL makes this possible with employee nametags and email signatures). Use the pronouns and names people tell me are theirs.
  • Look for books written by trans authors. (I evaluate these and purchase them for the library; you can bring them home, donate to your kids' school, or give them as gifts.)
  • Read lots of books with lots of different people represented! Whether they are windows or mirrors, stories and illustrations with diverse characters are good for everyone!
A gender-inclusive viewpoint does have room for "boy in a dress" stories, but it expands beyond that to include that boy's friends, family, classmates, and neighbors. I encourage you to consciously widen your welcome -- perhaps by engaging in one of the practices above. Being gender inclusive by default doesn't hurt anyone, and it may be very meaningful for a child or family that is under-recognized or under-represented. Through small positive changes you can make a big difference in our children's world.