A new picture book by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, “Jacob’s New Dress” (Albert Whitman, 2014), is a welcome addition to the small but growing number of books for and about gender-nonconforming and transgender children.
The authors, a wife and husband who have a gender-nonconforming child themselves, tell the story of a young boy who first wants to wear a dress and be a princess during dress-up time in school. He later wants to wear a dress to school as his regular outfit. Despite the teasing of one classmate, he finds support in his parents, teacher and a friend. Energetic illustrations by Chris Case enliven the warmly told tale.
The book invites comparisons to Marcus Ewert’s “10,000 Dresses” (2009) and Cheryl Kilodavis’ “My Princess Boy” (2010), which also show children who are viewed as boys but want to wear dresses. Each book takes a somewhat different approach, however.
In “10,000 Dresses,” a child named Bailey dreams of having beautiful, magical dresses. “Boys don’t wear dresses,” Bailey’s mother, father and brother respond. Ultimately, Bailey finds comfort in a new friend who shares the same fashion love. Despite the happy outcome, the negativity of the family bothers me, even if it unfortunately reflects some real families. Parents reading the book with their children should be prepared to discuss why Bailey’s family might have responded as they did. (Ewert told me in an interview in 2009 that he envisions Bailey’s parents eventually coming around — so that’s one angle for conversation.) In “Jacob’s New Dress,” however, Jacob’s parents (and teacher) are much more supportive of his desire to wear dresses, perhaps reflecting a growing awareness and acceptance of gender nonconforming children even in the few short years since “10,000 Dresses.” The one classmate who teases Jacob seems realistic, alas — but so do the many more who support him.
Another difference between the books is that Bailey is clearly transgender, stating, “I don’t feel like a boy.” Jacob expresses no such sentiment. Jacob’s mom even tells him, “There are all sorts of ways to be a boy” — a reassuring statement if he indeed identifies as one, but leaving no space for the possibility that he doesn’t. That’s less a criticism than a heads-up, so that families can seek out either or both books as feels right for them.
“My Princess Boy” is more similar to “Jacob’s New Dress” in that the child in question is a gender-nonconforming boy, not a transgender girl. “My Princess Boy,” however, is more of an extended poem by a parent about her/his child, a series of scenes from the child’s life with little plot (and oddly faceless drawings). “Jacob’s New Dress” and “10,000 Dresses,” in contrast, are told from the child’s perspective and have a more traditional story arc, with suspense building over whether Jacob and Bailey will indeed find ways to dress as they wish. As a gentle poem of love about a gender-nonconforming child, “My Princess Boy” has merit, but may not engage children in the way the other books do.
Two other related recent picture books are the colorful, fantastical tales by S. Bear Bergman. “Backwards Day” (2012) tells of the planet Tenalp, where a child named Andrea waits eagerly every year for the day when girls turn into boys and vice-versa. One year, however, Andrea doesn’t change — until the next day, when she, now he, doesn’t change back. His parents take him to consult with the Backwardologists, who help the family understand what’s happening. “The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy” (2012) follows the eponymous character who grants wishes to all the 9-year-olds in North America. When Tulip encounters a child named David who wishes to live as Daniela, a request he’s never had before, he asks the Wish Fairy Captain for advice.
Both stories are told with humor and whimsy as well as understanding and compassion. Tulip seems to me a little wordy for the picture-book age range, while at the same time, 9-year-olds are mostly beyond picture books, but that may depend on the particular child reading it.
A simpler and slightly older picture book about gender nonconformity is Andrea U’ren’s “Pugdog” (2001), about a dog whose owner thinks he is male — only to find out from the vet that Pugdog is biologically female. The owner then tries to “feminize” Pugdog with a grooming makeover and ribbons in lieu of a spiked collar — but Pugdog reverts to romping and mud-rolling and the owner realizes his mistake. The book is now unfortunately out of print, but is available in limited quantity through online booksellers. Some local libraries may also have it.
Even older is Munro Leaf’s 1936 classic “The Story of Ferdinand,” which tells of a peace-loving, flower-sniffing bull. The gender message is much more subtle — it is a story about non-violence as much as gender — but it proves that children’s books showing gender nonconformity have a longer history than we might think.
We still need more such books, showing gender-nonconforming and transgender children across the spectrum as they encounter the challenges and delights of today’s world and explore the many ways of expressing gender that go beyond just wearing a dress (or not). Even cisgender kids who mostly conform to one gender will likely benefit from knowing that the bounds of gender are not as restrictive as might appear. “Jacob’s New Dress” seems the most positive, engaging and straightforward of the recent lot — but each book, like each child, adds its own perspective to the whole.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (www.mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.