Cepeda column: Picture book offers clearer portrait of gender identity
CHICAGO — What I like best about the new children’s picture book “It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity” is that there’s no sad child who magically overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to have a happy ending.
As a teacher for grades K-4, I read a lot of picture books with important messages about respect, understanding the people around us and just being nice to others. Usually when a book wants to teach kids about interpersonal distinctions, it doubles down on differences before illustrating how similar all humans are.
In contrast, “It Feels Good to Be Yourself” is light. Matter-of-fact. Positive. And as ultra-diverse as the city of Los Angeles, where author Theresa Thorn lives with her husband and three children, one of whom is a transgender girl. Thorn is also co-host of the “One Bad Mother” podcast and co-author of the parenting book “You’re Doing a Great Job! 100 Ways You’re Winning at Parenting.”
“It Feels Good to be Yourself,” which is beautifully drawn by Atlanta-based illustrator and comic artist Noah Grigni, introduces us to Ruthie, an adorable brown-skinned, brown-eyed transgender girl. “That means when she was born, everyone thought she was a boy. Until she grew a little older — old enough to tell everyone that she’s actually a girl,” Thorn writes.
From there we meet Ruthie’s friends, who are cisgender (“everyone thought he was a boy, and as he grew older, it turned out everyone was right — he is a boy”), nonbinary (which “can describe a kid who doesn’t feel exactly like a boy or a girl”) or have other ways to say who they are.
We learn that “whether you feel like a boy, a girl, both, or neither, or if you describe yourself another way, that is your gender identity. Your gender identity might match what people thought you were when you were born. Or, it might not.”
Now, is this really the sort of thing that young children need to be exposed to?
I work in a public-school district that has multiple students in early grades who are transitioning, or already have, to affirm their true gender identity.
Plus kids see and hear about various gender expressions (“which clothes you wear, how you style your hair, how you walk and talk”) in popular music, on TV shows and even in the books their teachers read to them in school.
“I think there are a pretty good number of children’s books that deal with gender identity at this point,” Thorn told me in an interview. “A lot of them were really nice, but what I felt was missing was something that could clearly lay out the concept of gender identity in a better way.”
Thorn walked the fine line of creating a book that was too informational and, therefore, short on a narrative arc that entices children to stay engaged through to the end, and one in which the terminology threatened to derail the flow of the story.
And once that was perfectly maneuvered, Thorn had to ensure that she was not inadvertently including judgmental language.
“I didn’t want to say ‘most people are like this, but one kid is like that,’” Thorn said. “With our own kid, when she transitioned, we never said ‘You’re different.’ We said, ‘There are lots of people like you.’”
With other books her family owns, Thorn says she’s had to circumvent story lines about being ostracized or bullied. “I just skip over them. I don’t need her thinking about this, there’s plenty of time for her to confront that. I didn’t want her to start out thinking she’s the outsider.”
This will be less likely among children in the same age group as Thorn’s daughter.
I’ve taught in low-income schools that are majority African American and Hispanic, as well as affluent schools that are majority white. In each, the young students just accepted that different people have different feelings about their bodies — and any number of ways they like to dress or express themselves in those bodies.
It’s older people — teachers, administrators, grandparents and other family members — who might be similarly understanding if they just comprehended the vocabulary around gender identity.
Buy a copy of “It Feels Good to Be Yourself” for family members, friends or other adults who, at heart, just need a simple way to learn about a newly visible portion of our population.
My favorite passage will clarify any confusion: “No matter what your gender identity is, you are OK exactly the way you are. And you are loved.”
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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