THE GENDER DANCE by Lesléa Newman
“What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails
That’s what little boys are made of
What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice
That’s what little girls are made of”
Aren’t you glad you don’t live in the 19th century when the above nursery rhyme was very popular? When strict gender roles were adhered to with little exception and the notion of a non-binary gender spectrum was absolutely unheard of?
One thing that is helping to dismantle this all-or-nothing-with-no-exceptions notion of gender is a group of pioneering children’s books that challenge gender stereotypes and present other ways to be. The following are some of my all-time favorites.
The Story of Ferdinand, was written by Munro Leaf in 1936 on a yellow legal pad in less than an hour on a rainy Sunday afternoon as a vehicle for his friend, the illustrator Robert Lawson. Ferdinand is not interesting in butting heads (literally!) with the other young bulls who enjoy this type of behavior. All he wants to do is sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers. His mother is fine with this. But when Ferdinand accidentally sits on a bee and is stung, his snorting and contorting attract the attention of some men looking for a fierce animal to take part in a bull fight. Ferdinand is brought to the arena, but what does he do? He sits down and smells the flowers in all the “lovely ladies’ hair.” Ferdinand will not fight. So he is taken home where he resumes sitting under the cork tree and smelling the flowers.
I adore Ferdinand who is not afraid to be tender and gentle. As did Mahatma Gandhi who called it his favorite children’s book.
Another book I particularly admire is William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by William Pene Du Bois and published in 1972. William wants a doll. His father brings him a basketball instead. William plays with the basketball and becomes quite skilled at B-ball, but he still wants a doll. Next his father brings him a train set. He enjoys playing with the train set, but he still wants a doll. Finally William’s grandmother comes to visit and goes to the store and buys him a doll. And “William loved it right away.”
I love William’s Doll. The very first sentence defies gender stereotypes. “William wanted a doll.” He doesn’t want a G.I. Joe. He doesn’t want an action figure. He wants a baby doll. And his desire does not flag despite his father’s attempts to steer him towards more “boy-like” activities. William knows what he wants and luckily he has a loving grandmother who thinks this is “Wonderful” and goes right out and buys him the doll of his dreams. We should all be so lucky to have such an understanding grandmother.
Another book I am quite fond of is Princess Smartypants, written and illustrated by Babette Cole and published in 1986. I can totally relate to Princess Smartypants who “enjoyed being a Ms.” and does not want to get married (to a prince). Instead she wants to “live in her castle with her pets and do exactly as she pleased.” The various princes who come to woo her are put to the test and all of them fail. Until Prince Swashbuckle shows up. After he accomplishes all the tasks set out for him, it seems he may win the hand of Princess Smartypants in marriage. But happily she gives him a “magic kiss” which turns him into a “gigantic warty toad.” And that’s the end of that. Babette Cole has stated that Princess Smartypants is definitely autobiographical and she wrote the book because she wanted to “rebel against traditional fairytales.” And it seems to me she wanted to rebel against traditional gender roles as well.
And speaking of getting married, the remarkable picture book, King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland published in 2000, assures children that a Prince can fall in love with a Prince and live happily ever after. A series of princesses are paraded before the “young crown prince” but none of them “stir his heart” until he meets the brother of one. The wedding of the prince and his groom is attended by all the princesses who tried to win the prince’s heart, with no hard feelings. Hooray for not holding a grudge!
In some ways, Worm Loves Worm written by J.J. Austrian and illustrated by Mike Curato, is even more transgressive than King & King. When various creatures ask the two worms in love who is the bride, each worm says, “I am.” And when they ask who is the groom, each worm replies, “I am” as well. One worm wears a bridal veil and bowtie. One worm wears a top hat and wedding gown. The book lets readers know that we do not have to be boxed in by the binary model of gender identity. We can be whoever we want to be.
And that was the idea behind my latest children’s book, Sparkle Boy. I was inspired to write the book after attending family week in Provincetown, MA. One afternoon I saw a little boy in a tutu laughing and twirling and having the time of his life. One of his parents said to me, “I wish he could dress like that every day of the year.” I thought of a friend I had recently visited in San Francisco. One morning I emerged from the guest room and was greeted by a vision of loveliness: my friend, a large burley man, was perched on a kitchen stool chatting on the phone. He wore a floor-length yellow negligee and matching peignoir. When he saw me he gave a little wave and a big smile. I smiled and waved back, honored that he felt safe enough with me to be completely himself. I also felt very protective of him. There was a reason he dressed like this only in the privacy of his home.
What could I do to make the world more welcoming to the little boy in the tutu and the grown man in the peignoir? What I always do, of course. Write a book that will help children (of all ages) understand the beauty of diversity. Casey, the star of my book is discovering who he is: a little boy who loves sparkly things. He is too young to know that our society has deemed these things “girly.” All he knows is what he is attracted to. All he knows is what brings him joy.
Casey’s big sister Jessie is older and “wiser” in that she has already been schooled in the ways of the world. Shimmery skirts, glittery nail polish, and sparkly bracelets are for girls and girls alone. What is wrong with her little brother? Why can’t he be like everyone else? What Jessie doesn’t understand (at first) is that the world would be a very dull place if we were all alike. And that any limitations put on boys or girls or those who don’t identify along binary terms hurts us all.
Which leads me to a question worth pondering: if you had nothing to rebel against and nothing to conform to, who would you be? Or to put it another way (and to quote a birthday card I was recently given): Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages including the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies; the teen novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; the middle-grade novel, Hachiko Waits; and the picture books, The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, The Best Cat in the World, A Sweet Passover, and Sparkle Boy. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. From 2008 – 2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, Lovely, will be published in January 2018 by Headmistress Press.