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10 Gender-Bending Children's Books You'll Love

By Daniel Villarreal

This last week, Lesléa Newman — the woman who also wrote "the first lesbian-themed children's book ever published," Heather Has Two Mommies — gave a talk at the National Conference on LGBT Equality about gender-bending children's books.

During her talk, she read eight different children's books filled with delightful pictures and important messages about the value of being yourself. So we decided to share these books along with some accompanying videos of the books being read aloud so you can enjoy them for yourself.

And if you like them, share them with the young person in your life — because taking pride in yourself is a life skill everyone should learn, no matter your age.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (1936)

While some have derided this pre-Spanish Civil War book as an endorsement of pacifism, the story of a bull who prefers flowers to fighting still manages to charm with its illustrations and message (even if an actual bull would most likely get gored to death if it ever refused to fight in a bull ring in real life).

And did we mention that it was also turned into an Academy Award winning Disney cartoon?

The Story of X by Lois Gould (1972)

Originally published in Ms. Magazine, Gould's tale shows just how bent out of shape most adults get when one couple decides to raise their child as a genderless "X."

While the repeated reference to "X" as an "it" begins to grate, it still makes a delightful satire, especially when the parents freak out and demand that X see a doctor after X's behavior inspires a football player to wheel a dollhouse onto the field.

William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotow (1972)

When young William asks his dad for a ball, his dad gets him a basketball and a train set instead (thanks a lot, dad). But luckily William kicks ass at sports and constructing train depots (very manly), and eventually dad caves and buys him a doll — because after all, one day he will have a kid of his own and a doll will teach him how to care for it. Bleccch!

While the book is definitely a heteronormative product of its time, young William's desire to have a doll will resonate with anyone who has ever longed to play with "opposite-gendered" toys like, for instance, an Easy Bake Oven.

The book also got turned into a musical track on the groundbreaking 1972 children's album Free to Be You and Me.

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole (1997)

If you crossed Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew with the Grimm brothers fairy tale The Frog Prince and then added a wickedly wonderful twist ending, you'd basically have Princess Smartypants, which should be mandatory reading for any smart young person who doesn't need a prince to "save" them.

You'll love watching Princess Smartypants outwit her ridiculously named male suitors — like Prince Swimbladder — one after another, in pursuit of a single life happily ever after.

But when Prince Swashbuckle appears and handily completes each and every one of the princess' tasks, will she finally be forced to wed? Don't count on it.

Pugdog by Andrea U'Ren (2001)

When the owner of an adorable puppy realizes that his "good boy" is actually a girl, he subjects the rough-and-tumble pup to a miserable regimen of grooming and acting "like a lady."

But when Pugdog runs away for a liberating afternoon of hole digging and squirrel chasing in the park, she ends up teaching her owner a thing or two about silly gender stereotypes and what makes her so special.

King and King by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland (2002)

This picture book — which originated in the Netherlands — became the bane of marriage equality advocates when a schoolgirl in a "Yes on 8" ad came home clutching the book and told her mom that she was going to marry a princess.

But it's still a lovely book where even the prince's rejected female suitors still snag an invite to his fabulous gay wedding. And it concludes with a semi-censored picture of the two kings kissing at the end — hooray for gay monarchs!

A Fire Engine for Ruthie by Lesléa Newman (2004)

Written as a direct response to Charlotte Zolotow's book William's Doll, Newman's book features Ruthie, a young girl who would rather play with trains and automobiles than dress up and have a tea party with grandma.

Luckily, grandma eventually lets her hair down and accepts that playtime is for everyone, no matter your gender.

Rough Tough Charley by Verla Kay (2007)

If you've never heard the real-life story of One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst, you're in for a wild west treat. Charley was one of the best horse-driving stagehands in his time, but it wasn't until he died that everyone learned his huge secret... and no, it wasn't that Charley was gay (stewpid).

Kay's quick rhyming verse and greater lessons about old-fashioned inequality will stay with you long after the end of Charley's ride.

10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert (2008)

Perhaps the most surprising of the lot, 10,000 Dresses follows Bailey, a young girl who wants to wear the wondrous dresses she sees in her dreams — including a dress made of crystals, a dress made of flowers and a dress made of mirrors.

The only problem — her family can't understand why a boy would possibly want a dress. Her brother even threatens to kick her when she asks him about it.

Ewert's book has a great ending that is both encouraging, respectful of Baily's gender identification, and yet realistic about the challenges of growing up trans in a world that doesn't understand you.

My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis (2010)

Cheryl Kilodavis's son enjoys wearing dresses and pink spangly clothes, not because he's gay, but because pink spangly dresses are awesome! So when he announced to her that he is a "princess boy," she created this book.

It lacks a conventional story, but it shows that it's okay to express yourself, and how a supportive family can help protect a kid from gender-phobic criticism and bullying.

If anything, the books in this article all show that societial hang ups about gender and self-expression are more problematic than those who want to live as they choose.

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