Trans-Affirming Picture Books 2019

Currently Reading: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir.

Several months ago, I wrote a post that was a roundup of picture books from 2018 that were – if not explicitly trans-celebratory – trans-affirming. I decided to do the same thing to close out this year, with some of my favourites from 2019.

Here’s the thing: I have the best complaint this year. I tried to do the same thing with this list as I did with my 2018 list, and go broad – including lots of books that were not QT explicit, but that could still be considered affirming (see: my favourite picture book of all time, Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima). And there were too many. I had to narrow this list a lot. And this post is long.

The books I chose are an assortment from board books to child-friendly graphic novels. Some have trans characters, while others have themes of celebrating difference or gender non-conformity, and some are books that are naturally gender-neutral. Either way, they are all fantastic reads that any young person (QT or not) would be happy to have in their collection.

My Shape is Sam, by Amanda Jackson, and illustrated by Lydia Nichols, tells the story of a character named Sam in a binary world. While circles and squares have distinct roles in this world, Sam longs to be a circle, although he is a square. This book is an affirming exploration of identity and non-conformity, through a simple, geometric story.

I was charmed by A Little Bit Different, by Claire Alexander. It’s a simple and whimsical story about not fitting in, and eventually finding your place and being celebrated. Likely not coincidentally, the colours in this book are rainbow-themed, which makes it a nice under-the-radar Pride book.

You Are New by Lucy Knisley is the perfect gift for new parents of infants, or very young children. This book is written entirely in the second person, and the illustrations are diverse, making it a great gender-neutral choice that’s hard to fault.

What Riley Wore, by Elana K. Arnold, and illustrated by Linda Davick, has an explicitly gender-creative main character in Riley, whose story explores self-expression through clothing. This book is a great companion book to Harriet Gets Carried Away, by Jessie Sima, and a perfect choice for any kid who loves to be creative through fashion.

Mary Wears What She Wants, by Keith Negley, is based on the true story of Mary Edwards Walker, a 19th century doctor who defied the gender stereotypes of her time, and faced incarceration because of the risks that she took. A historical trailblazer, this book is great for showing kids what can be accomplished when we don’t allow social expectations to define us.

A perfect contemporary companion to Mary Wears What She Wants, Patricia Toht and and Lorian Tu-Dean’s Dress Like a Girl is the story of a group of girls at a sleepover party who explore resisting gender stereotypes through what it means to bend the rules of dressing like a girl. Although this book is highly gendered, it’s a great book to encourage gender creativity.

2019 was a good year for rainbow-themed books – and finally some that aren’t written exclusively by white men! The first that I’ll write about is The Rainbow Flag: Bright, Bold, and Beautiful, by Michelle Fisher and illustrated by Kat Kuang. This book tells the story of the creation of the first Pride flag in 1978.

I am super excited about Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, by author Heather Gale, who currently lives in my Canadian local of Toronto, and illustrator Mika Song. Gale grew up in New Zealand, and Song was raised in Manila, Philippines and Honolulu, Hawai’i. This book tells the story of Ho’onani Kamai, a gender non-conforming hula dancer, who dreams of leading the all-male hula group at her school. Ho’onani is an explicitly non-binary main character, and the book is an exploration of empowerment through traditional culture.

This is the year for LGBTQ2S+ board books, in my opinion. In 2019, we got rad books for the youngest readers, like My Two Moms and Me and My Two Dads and Me by Michael Joosten and illustrated by Izack Zenou… and countless others. I actually started a list, but there are genuinely too many to be exhaustive here. There are a few that I found to be specifically trans-affirming in a way that’s accessible, however, and I’ve included them here. The first is Pride Colors, by Canadian author Robin Stevenson, is a board book for young readers introducing the colours of the Pride flag, and affirming the freedom of children to always be who they want to be.

Cover of I Promise.

I Promise is written by the incredible Catherine Hernandez, whose previous picture book, M is for Mustache: A Pride ABC Book is one of my favourites. Hernandez is of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and Indian heritage, and she is married into the Navajo Nation. She is one of the locals who I have occasion to see on stage pretty regularly, and I am a huge admirer. She recently performed burlesque at my shop’s Toronto launch of Cherie Dimaline’s new novel, Empire of Wild. The illustrator of I Promise is trans artist Syrus Marcus Ware, who is also a core team member of Black Lives Matter Toronto.

I had the honour to be present for the launch of I Promise at the Toronto indie where I work, Another Story bookshop. The event was rush-moved to our store from the Toronto Public Library, since Hernandez and Ware were among the authors supporting the trans community in Toronto as they spoke out against the transphobic hate speech event that was held there and supported by the City Librarian, Vickery Bowles (I wrote about this in a previous post). The launch featured Fluffy and Fay, local drag queen story time celebrities.

Hernandez’ reading of I Promise was engaging and charming, and had all of the kids in the room joining in and listening rapt. This is a book that I would recommend to any child, since its primary subject matter is non-nuclear families, which is particularly affirming to LGBTQ2S+ folks who are part of or have built families that are rarely reflected in children’s literature. It’s also illustrated by a trans artist, who is great role model for trans kids who aspire to careers in the arts one day.

When Aidan Became a Brother is an #OwnVoices picture book by trans masculine author and librarian Kyle Lukoff, and illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, that tells the story of a young trans boy who is becoming a sibling for the first time. It’s a beautifully illustrated diverse book, and while it is nuanced, there’s no overt villain. It’s a refreshing take on a trans narrative, penned by an insider author.

There is nothing specifically trans-affirming in Incredible You by Rhys Brisenden and Nathan Reed, except that the book is centred on self-affirmation and positivity. I decided to include it here because it’s a fun book that could resonate with any child, and it’s a vibrant feast for the eyes. For someone looking for a bit more of a general inclusive read, this would be an uplifting, safe pick.

I Am Not a Fox by Karina Wolf and illustrated by Chuck Groenink is one of my favourite trans and/or non-binary affirming books of the year. It tells the story, through charming and adorable illustrations, of Luca, who looks like a fox, but acts like a dog. To no one’s surprise, this book has been compared to Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima – my all-time favourite picture book – because both books remind readers that you don’t need to choose to be just one thing in order to find your place in the world. Also? This book is cute AF, has a charming feminine protagonist, and is great for animal lovers big or small.

Another one of my favourites this year, and the second #OwnVoices picture book on this list, is It Feels Good to Be Yourself, illustrated by non-binary artist Noah Grigni, and written by parenting writer and podcaster Theresa Thorn. The art in this book is breathtaking, and there is fantastic diverse representation throughout. The book is part story, part educational, and explains many concepts of gender in accessible, age-appropriate ways, without leaning heavily on binary stereotypes in either the text or artwork. This is a fantastic primer for any kid or parent to learn how to talk about gender, how to explore gender, and how to have affirming and creative conversations about gender. If I had to pick one picture book this year to put in every classroom and every home, it would be this one.

Sarah Hoffman, Ian Hoffman, and Chris Case are back in 2019 with Jacob’s Room to Choose, the follow up to their 2014 title, Jacob’s New Dress. In this new title, Jacob and a new friend, Sophie, tackle the dreaded issues of gendered school washrooms, prejudice, and self-expression.

Sam!, written by Dani Gabriel and illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo, feels like a bit of a throwback to me, but it’s always nice to see that there are more explicit trans stories on the shelves as time goes on. This book is similar to I Am Jazz, in that it tells the coming out story of a trans youth, and it is based on a true story. In Sam!, the MC is trans masculine.

Local author Ishta Mercurio, who wrote the recent picture book Small World, turned me on to Ogilvy as a trans-affirming story. This story, from Deborah Underwood and illustrated by T. L. McBeth, is about a bunny named Ogilvy who moves to a new town, where activities are gender-prescribed. As the pub copy reveals, Ogilvy shows readers that the clothes don’t make the bunny, and embraces all the fun things there are to do. This story is useful for deconstructing gendered expectations, as well as affirming for non-binary kids.

Rainbow: A First Book of Pride, by Michelle Genhart and illustrated by Anne Passchier, and GayBCs, by M. L. Webb, are two more board books that came out this year. Rainbow focuses specifically on LGBTQ2S+ families, and would be most appropriate during the Pride season or for a child who is part of a family who identifies as such, and the GayBCs are an accessible exploration of the LGBTQ2S+ lexicon through the alphabet – including words such as “non-binary”!

Our Rainbow, from Little Bee Books in partnership with GLAAD, is perhaps my favourite 2019 board book, because not only is it a book that’s age-accessible, it’s also the first book that I’ve seen that features the updated Pride flag that includes Black and Brown stripes. If I had to pick one board book for new QT parents or a young child, this would be it. The story is a simple, colourful exploration of the flag, each colour has a different artist who worked on the illustrations, and the book has an interesting geometric design (the board itself is in the shape of the waving flag).

For slightly older readers, Not Yet a Yeti by Lou Treleaven and illustrated by Tony Neal is funny, trendy, and symbolically affirming of the trans experience, particularly for young people undergoing or wanting to learn about medical transition. In this rainbow-themed book with flashy illustrations, a family of yetis has a child who doesn’t wish to grow up to be a yeti, but rather chooses to grow up to be a unicorn. Affirmed by his family, the young yeti becomes a unicorn, and finds a fulfilling role in the social ecosystem! It’s a lighthearted, uplifting story, and it will make young readers laugh.

A final board book put out in 2019, An ABC of Equality introduces young readers to social justice concepts, including LGBTQ2S+ inclusion, in an age-appropriate way. Written by Chana Ginelle Ewing and illustrated by Paulina Morgan, this one doesn’t pull any punches, and is perfect for early activists – plus it has on the page representation of diversity in physical ability.

And last, but absolutely not least, Except When They Don’t by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Joshua Heinsz is colourful, and rhyming, and super engaging! This is another book in partnership with GLAAD, and it focuses explicitly on deconstructing gendered stereotypes about toys and play. This would be a great fit with other books in this list, like Ogilvy, or favourites from last lear, like Jamie is Jamie, by Afsaneh Moradian, and illustrated by Maria Bogade.

Cover of Let Me Out.

I would be remiss to not mention Let Me Out! A pop-out about coming out., by Omid Razavi. This Kickstarted pop-up book is super rad. The art is absolutely incredible, and the book has on the page representation of many different parts of the LGBTQ2S+ community. Although it may seem most applicable to a queer “coming out”, this book should really be in the hands of all young people.

For some reason, it’s incredibly difficult to find videos and images of this book in its finished state. The book’s website has an FAQ and a few computer-generated images of the cutouts inside the book, but it doesn’t do the finished product justice. This is a great tool to open conversations about sharing information about identity. The only aspect of this book that doesn’t resonate with me personally is that one of the main characters appears representative of drag culture, and that’s not something that I find helpful to me. That said, it does mean that much of the book is colourful, spirited, and glitter-filled!

Cover of Phoenix Goes to School.

There was one book that was published in 2018 that I missed in my wrap-up list from last year, and that I came across when compiling this list. I would be remiss not to write about Phoenix Goes to School, by Michelle and Phoenix Finch, and illustrated by Sharon Davey. Written with input from Phoenix, this story is about a gender non-conforming youth going to school and having conversations about gender for the first time. It is intended to support trans readers aged 3 and up who are navigating worries about being bullied.

I know that graphic novels and picture books are not the same thing. However, for readers who are taking the first steps from picture books to reading more complex texts (usually chapter books), graphic novels can be a great stepping stone. They can also be great for older readers who love illustrated work. These two graphic novels are two of my favourite books this year, and they are 100% child-appropriate. They would make great read aloud choices, or books for a group of readers at different levels to share.

Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen tells the story of Willow, a character who is not explicitly gendered, as they learn to navigate complex emotions, while at the same time developing a relationship with Pilu, a tree spirit who is lost in the woods near where Willow lives. The illustrations in this book are unique and detailed, both cute and incredibly evocative. This story feels heavily steeped in nature, and I found it intensely relatable as an adult reader. Everyone should read it. It’s charming AF.

I was so excited for the release of Katie O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Festival, sequel to The Tea Dragon Society, and it did not disappoint. If I’m being completely honest, I actually like this second volume better than the original story. There is skillful on the page representation of disability, Deaf culture, and gender and racial diversity. The prowess, humility, and gentleness, with which O’Neill delivers on representation in these whimsical and transportive stories, sets a high standard for other authors and artists.

Logo for the Launch Crew of MK England's upcoming book, Spell Hacker.

If you enjoyed reading these recommendations, and would like some of your own, head on over to my contact page, and send me a message! I love giving recs and readers’ advisory, and have lots of experience from my work as a bookseller.

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Can’t Lit Fall Previews

Currently Reading: Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

Not to throw shade (except kind of really to throw a little shade…), but there is one Canadian book that has been getting some serious buzz this fall. And guess what? I don’t think it’s the most exciting CanLit that’s being released this season! Not even close. Let me tell you about what I DO think is the most exciting CanLit being released this season…

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

The cover of Empire of Wild: A Novel, by Cherie Dimaline. The cover also notes that the author is the same as the #1 Bestseller The Marrow Thieves. The image is a mostly desaturated image of a green armchair sitting in the middle of a forest clearing.

I work at Another Story, an indie bookshop in Toronto’s west end. The year that I began working there was the year that Cherie Dimaline’s YA Indigenous speculative fiction novel The Marrow Thieves took the world by storm. When I chewed through it in one sitting, the cover was fresh and bare. Now, the cover is littered with medallions representing the awards that this title has won since its released, so much so that they nearly obscure the art. By the time the winter holiday shopping season rolled around, we were literally having cartons of this title delivered by hand from our distributors at the last minute to keep up with customer demand.

I was working at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton in 2018 when I learned that Dimaline had secured contracts for four more books after the success of the Marrow Thieves, and on September 17th, the first of those will be available to the public. Empire of Wild is, like Dimaline’s last book, an Indigenous speculative fiction title, this time written for a mature audience. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ARC of this book.

I wasn’t disappointed. Much like when I read the Marrow Thieves, it took me a few chapters to really get into the pacing. As a settler reader, I sometimes find myself challenged by this aspect of Indigenous storytelling, but the more Indigenous lit I spend time with, the more that I am growing accustomed. Taking the time to get into the rhythm of brilliant books is always well worth it.

In Empire of Wild, Dimaline skillfully weaves her Métis heritage into a politicized, suspenseful narrative that centres around a woman’s search for a missing partner, the damage that Big Oil does in Indigenous communities, and the rougarou – a Métis mythical creature that calls to mind an anthropomorphic, demonic wolf.

CWs for this book include murder, other violence, possible abduction/abandonment by a family member, extreme right religious content, and substance use. It is an adult title, and it doesn’t pretend to be for a YA audience. I would definitely recommend this book. Is there any more enjoyable way to learn about social justice issues than through delicious, #OwnVoices storytelling?

If you are a settler and pick up Dimaline’s work, and then want to learn more about Indigenous issues, there are some great resources and books that can be read as follow up – including Billy-Ray Belcourt’s fall release, NDN Coping Mechanisms, which I recommend later in this post.

Other resources I would recommend are the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the content produced by Idle No More. Some non-fiction titles that would be fantastic follow up include 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, Heart Berries, by Therese Marie Mailhot, and A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott. Last but not least, if you can’t get enough Indigenous speculative fiction, I can’t recommend Jonny Appleseed enough, by Two-Spirit author Joshua Whitehead.

I Hope We Choose Love, by Kai Cheng Thom

The cover of I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. A red flower with a yellow and red centre on a black background, with white lettering.

Kai Cheng Thom is one of the only authors whose work I savour. From her insightful articles and essays to her picture books, Thom’s writing is some of my favourite. She has an advice column in Xtra, and her recent essay on the legacy of trauma within queer communities has been resonating with lots of folks online. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is one of my all-time favourite, gender-affirming picture books to read with children and adults alike, and Thom’s artwork is sumptuous and vibrant.

I’ve read, re-read, and been repeatedly brought to tears by her poetry collection a place called NO HOMELAND, but I’ve actually held off on reading her fictionalized memoir, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, which got some buzz recently since it was Emma Thompson’s Shared Shelf pick in March of 2019. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, because Thom didn’t have any other books, and I didn’t want to have read everything she’d published! I was so excited when I heard that Thom had a new project in the works, and now the wait is almost over, since her new collection of non-fiction essays, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, will hit shelves on September 24th.

Heartwrenchingly, I find myself hesitant about this new collection. It is beautiful, and brilliantly written. It is thought provoking, and that Thom brings a perceptive, and well-informed analytical lens to the issues that marginalized people face surviving the current political climate together. I would never hesitate to recommend any of Thom’s work (this collection included) to another reader, but I wondered even reading the title if perhaps our paradigms had diverged too far in recent times for me to find Thom’s newest work meaningful for me personally in the same way that I had her previous publications. Am I too cynical? Am I too white? Am I too hopeless? Am I too immature? Am I too angry?

I saw red flags that led me to believe this book was not for me. In the first chapter, Thom referenced works that make me deeply uncomfortable, for example, Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which is a deeply problematic work that can be used to gaslight victims of harassment. Thom also criticized “call out culture” or “cancel culture”, when I am of the opinion that if cancel culture’s existence isn’t a myth entirely, people often use this rhetoric when what they really mean is “consequences.” Yet, when Thom outlined her political views, I found nothing objectionable, and so I decided to proceed with caution.

Whatever it is about me and my social location, or about this political moment, I struggled with this collection. The format alternates between essays and poetry, and while much of the poetry reached me in a way that felt reminiscent of NO HOMELAND, the essays did not. They’re accessible and well-articulated, and I was often right there with Thom, until about three quarters of the way through. At some point in each of the essays, I found myself taking pause.

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about how instead of describing the written work of a marginalized person as “important” or “urgent”, we should be approaching these works as requiring “urgent listening.” I hold Kai Cheng Thom in great esteem, and while the conclusions drawn in this book are difficult for me to agree with, it is a book that I think warrants urgent listening, and probably for me, revisiting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of books like Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, and it may just become my alternate recommendation when folks come into my shop for Conflict is Not Abuse. In the meantime, me and my rage are looking forward to savouring Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars in the not-too-distant future.

NDN Coping Mechanisms, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

The cover of NSN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. The cover notes that the author is the winnter of the Griffin Poetry Prize. The image is a person with long, dark hair, wearing a black shirt, set against a backdrop of dry, tall grass or wheat, and a pale, clear blue sky. The person has their hands folded as if in prayer in front of them, and the hands are bound together with white fabric. They are holding a piece of wood that looks like a dried, dead tree, with a hole positioned over one of the person's eyes. The wood obscures the rest of the face.

I was honoured to be able to attend the Toronto launch of this book as one of the staff of Another Story, who are the book vendors for the literary events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As Belcourt himself noted during his talk, the event was very well-attended, and I spent the majority of my time behind the bookselling table admiring the spectacular beadwork and other Indigenous jewellery that so many of the people in the diverse crowd seemed to be wearing.

In my doctoral studies, I cite Belcourt’s work on animality in decolonial thought constantly these days. He is one of few Indigenous scholars based in colonial Canada who has written academic work in this area, and since I study working animals using an anti-racist and decolonial lens, his work has been invaluable to me. Because I had yet to read Belcourt’s Griffin-award-winning poetry collection This Wound is a World, I was intrigued by this new work consisting of both scholarly theorizing, as well as poetry.

The event, like the book (title pronounced N-D-N Coping Mechanisms), was varied in both tone and intellectual register. The book is a gripping commentary on the paradoxical horror and beauty of Indigenous queer life in colonial Canada. Belcourt noted that the book had already made the CBC Books Bestseller List for its first week out – but had, strangely, been placed in the fiction category.

Belcourt was joined at the AGO by fellow Indigenous author and scholar, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who asked questions ranging from how Belcourt conceptualized success and envisioned his responsibility to future Indigenous queer authors, to probing for details about the men that Belcourt writes about in his new book. Belcourt himself joked about being born in the 90’s and thus having too short an attention span to write a novel, and also mused about who the anthropological object of his creative work was. I simultaneously enjoyed the evening, and felt (appropriately) like a complete outsider. At times, the conversation was theoretically challenging for me to keep up with – and I say that as a fifth year PhD student. I was both awed, and at times, a little lost. Both Belcourt’s and Simpson’s readings of excerpts from the book made me shiver.

There were a few moments in the evening that were particularly poignant for me. When asked why he writes, Belcourt responded, “I don’t know how else I would deal with all this shit.” As someone who has been eyeball-deep in affective scholarly work for the better part of my adult life, this was deeply relatable to me. In some ways, NDN Coping Mechanisms appeals to me as a work precisely because of this. I am interested and often validated when I have the opportunity to read about the experiences of other marginalized people who have found creative ways to cope with the state of the world, or who cope through content production.

I was also charmed and impressed when Simpson inquired whether Belcourt suffered from imposter syndrome, and he replied, “Maybe it’s just my generation’s thing of being like, I know I’m amazing!” The audience laughed, and Belcourt paused before continuing, “I know what I bring to the table.” As a bookseller and a member of the literary community, if I could have one wish for all Indigenous people, it would be that they all feel this kind of confidence in their work. Indigenous literature is certainly having a cultural moment right now, one that I hope will have a lasting effect on the literary scene in our colonial nation state, and I hope that Indigenous creators can all be aware of just how much they bring to the table.

Lastly, and to make reference back to some of my complicated feelings about Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love, Simpson mentioned during the launch that some of Belcourt’s lines of poetry would stay with her forever, and I think that the one that she mentioned is a good place to end this recommendation of Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, which is available for purchase now. He wrote, “Revenge is more decolonial than justice,” something which feels equitable and firey and powerful to me. Simpson therefore asked herself, and Belcourt, and I think that it is a good question for everyone in the Canadian literary community to consider: what does revenge look like in CanLit?

Other Fall Books That Just Can’t Lit

…and if two books won’t be enough to stock up your TBR this fall, there are lots of other Canadian releases you should know about, for readers of all ages. These are some of the ones that I would recommend:

  • One Drum, by Richard Wagamese, October 19th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • On Fire, by Naomi Klein, September 17th
    Political non-fiction.
  • From Where I Stand, by Jody Wilson-Raybould, September 20th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • Breaking the Ocean, by Annahid Dashtgard, available now
    Memoir, Iranian-Canadian author.
  • Pickles vs the Zombies, by Angela Misri, September 21st
    Middle grade dystopian.
  • Angry Queer Somali Boy, by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, available now
    LGBTQ2S+ memoir, POC author.
  • Hustling Verse, various authors, available now
    Poetry, authors are sex workers.
  • African Canadian Leadership, various authors, available now.
    Political non-fiction, POC authors.
  • I Promise, by Catherine Hernandez and Syrus Marcus Ware, available now
    Picture book, LGBTQ2S+, POC authors.
  • Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun, by Paul Seesequasis, October 22nd
    Photography, Indigenous artist.
  • We Three, by Markus Harwood-Jones, available now
    YA with polyamory and LGBTQ2S+ representation.
  • In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott, available now
    Memoir, Indigenous woman author.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.