Books should reflect a diversity of children’s experiences. The picture books on this list challenge gender stereotypes. These titles celebrate the fact that not every child fits into society’s preconceived notion of what it means to be a boy or a girl. I don’t want my kids to grow up feeling limited by their gender. Kids need to know that if they prefer diggers to ballet slippers or knitting to baseball, it doesn’t matter if they are boys or girls. Children need to take pride in what they do and learn to accept that the diversity of their peers’ experiences and identities.
It goes without saying that picture books are terrific teaching tools. I hope these books with help you in your quest to teach your children to appreciate the variety of people that they will meet in their daily lives. I’ve separated the book list into books that are primarily about boys doing “girl” activities and the reverse. Of course that in no way means the books are “for boys” or “for girls”. It’s just for convenience. All of these books can been enjoyed equally by all kids — and their parents! (Note: all book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Books (mostly) about Boys
Max is not only a great book to read if your child thinks ballet is only for girls, but also because it shows kids the benefits of thinking outside the box. Every weekend Max and his sister go to baseball and ballet, respectively. One Saturday, when Max arrives to his sister’s class a bit early he finds himself accepting the teacher’s invitation to join in. Max loves it and from then on, he attends class with his sister as a way to warm up for his baseball games, where, thanks to a few barre stretches, he hits home runs!
Ballerino Nate. After seeing a ballet, Nate begs his mom to sign him up for ballet class. Nate’s his brother teases him and Nate starts to doubt himself a bit. Nate’s mother remains supportive of his interest and encourages him along and Nate sticks with it, especially after meeting a professional male ballet dancer, a “ballerino”. There is a darling illustration spread showing all the positions of ballet lined up against similarly numbered positions in other sports.
Side note: Both of these ballet books reminded me of a film about identical triplet brothers in Cuba who are aspiring ballet dancers: To Dance Like a Man.
Oliver Button Is a Sissy. I was rather surprised to find this 1979 dePaola book. Oliver Button likes to do things like play with paper dolls, dress up, draw and read. The other boys tease him and write “Oliver Button is a Sissy” on the school walls but his parents sign him up for dancing lessons, where he thrives and works hard on a routine for the talent contest. Oliver doesn’t win the contest, but when he returns to school he finds the boys have crossed out “sissy” and written “star”. At first I was put off by the way Oliver’s father also rejected Oliver’s differences, but his father not only let him start dance class, he ended up being proud of Oliver. I thought about how a lot of parents, unfortunately, still have trouble accepting their children when they don’t conform to an ideal picture. I also liked the fact that Oliver’s difference was not what got him down, it was the results of the talent contest. Let’s face it, we all are a little bummed when we don’t win, but the new found support of his friends was just the right ending.
Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story. This story reminded me how my brother and I both made little cross-stitch ornaments and worked on the weaving loom when we were kids. Sewing and knitting are not just for girls! Based on an actual 1918 “Knit-In” in Central Park, this book is also a fun role reversal on the Rosie Riviter phenomenon. When Mikey’s dad heads off to fight in The Great War, Mikey wants to do something to help on the homefront. His teacher suggests that he and his friends participate in the “Knit-In”. Initially, Mikey and his boy pals reject it as something only girls would do. The clever girls, however, turn it into a challenge that the boys can’t resist. This book is a great read aloud on many levels. There’s the historical aspect, the encouragement for kids to help others and try something new, and that looking beyond conventions can bring great rewards. An author’s note gives additional information.
Pinky And Rex And The Bully is a leveled easy reader about two best friends. Pinky is a 7 year old boy and is nickname reflects his love of the color pink. When a 3rd grader begins to tease him, Pinky learns to be confident about who he is and stands up for himself. Fortunately he also has the support of his best girl pal, Rex. This is part of a great series for new readers.
Jacob’s New Dress. When we were young, my brother insisted on wearing dresses and my mom let him. My jaw dropped when she told me years later that one of her friends told her she was abusing him by letting him do so. Really? What does it matter if a toddler boy wants to wear a dress? It turns out all it was only a bit of big sister worship (let me tell you those days are looooong gone) but I’m still surprised when I hear caregivers say “you can’t be the [insert "girl" character], you’re a boy.” Pretend play is for stretching the imagination. [steps off soap box] When Jacob wears a makeshift dress to school, the other boys tease him. The teacher explains that Jacob can wear whatever he is comfortable him, even reminding the kids that girls used to not be able to wear pants. Later, Jacob’s mom helps him make a real dress to wear. I love it when Jacob’s mother validates that there are “all sorts of ways to be a boy.” This is a book about learning self-acceptance and being proud of who you are.
William’s Doll.William wants a doll to take care of but no one seems sympathetic! His friends tease him and even his father continues to buy him stereotypical boy’s toys in the hopes of squashing William’s request. The only adult who understands William is his grandmother who buys William a doll so William can “practice being a good father.” This classic book never gets old.
Books (mostly) about Girls
For more books that feature strong girls that buck the trend of sedate, pink, sparkly tea-party goers, check out my lists: Books about Rowdy Girls, picture books about famous women in history, and chapter and picture books about amazing African-American women.
Phoebe and Digger. It’s pretty clear to anyone whose ever visited a sandbox that boys and girls love diggers equally. Nevertheless, I’m guessing (I’ve never done an official poll) that most depictions of kids playing with diggers are of boys, and not girls. That makes Phoebe a refreshing change. At its center, this is a story about learning to live with a new sibling. Phoebe has a new digger, and her mom has a new baby. Phoebe must learn to share her mom, just as she need to navigate the sandbox with other kids who may want to share (or take) her new digger.
The Princess Knight. Princess Violet loves learning how to be a knight and practices extra hard so she can keep up with her brothers. Her father even encourages her in her pursuits, which is why she is so surprised when he announces a jousting contest in which the winner will get Violet’s hand in marriage. Violet is understandably outraged and enters the contest herself, disguised as Sir No-Name. This a fun story about a girl taking matters into her own hands and ensuring she is the only one deciding the course of her life.
Madam President. Although the idea of a woman president hardly seems the faraway dream it once did, the idea of a “bossy girl” is still far too often a negative one. In this humorous story, a young girl imagines being president. She takes charge, makes executive orders, negotiates deals and — gasp! — says “no” (i.e. uses the veto power).
Ruby’s Wish. In old China, Ruby lives with her enormous family. Boys are considered lucky and girls are expected to embroider and get married. Ruby is dissatisfied with her family’s emphasis on traditional gender roles. Ruby doesn’t want to get married, she wants to go to university like her brothers. Ruby tells her grandfather her wish, but doesn’t expect things to change for her. Just before she thinks she will have to get married, however, she finds her wish has been granted. This is a great book to start a conversation, not only about how society’s expectations for girls has changed (or not changed) over time, but also about the importance of speaking up for what you want.
You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer is also on my list of picture books about women in history and is a fun read about something girls take for granted: wearing pants! In the mid-19th century, Amelia is fed up with the ridiculous and cumbersome clothes that women are expected to wear. So, she decides to forge ahead with a new style. As you can imagine, not everyone is impressed. If you have kids who have independent ideas about what they wear, they will love Amelia’s story.
A Fire Engine for Ruthie. Ruthie goes to visit her grandmother, who has prepared for tea parties, dolls and dress-up. What Ruthie wants to do, however, is play with trains and fire engines and other things that go. When Nana finally asks Ruthie what she wants to do, Ruthie responds that she wants to play with the boy next door. The two become fast friends, bonding over train tracks and tractor-trailers. Ruthie’s Nana takes notice of what her granddaughter likes to play and joins in the fun herself. I like how Nana is quick to follow her granddaughter’s lead once she realizes that maybe all the “girly” things she had planned for the two of them weren’t really Ruthie’s “cup of tea” (so to speak).
Not All Princesses Dress in Pink is one of my favorites on the list. It’s also on my list of books about rowdy girls. The rhyming text and colorful illustrations depict a variety of girls engaged in all sorts of activities, from farming to ball-playing, from fighting evil sorcerers to skipping in the mud. The one thing they all have in common is that they don’t wear pink, but they do wear a sparkly crown. It’s a great message: that there is nothing incongruous about girls engaging in rough-and-tumble activities while still loving a bit of sparkle. I also appreciated the diverse ethnicities portrayed in the book.
Do you have any other books you would add to the list?