by Shelley Charlesworth
What’s the harm in trans picture books for children? Many might argue they impart important values of acceptance and understanding to a young audience; values that fit into the popular narrative in children’s literature that they should ‘be kind’ and at the same time ‘be yourself.’
There’s been a huge increase in such books recently in response to one of the most successful political campaigns of our time; to persuade the public that the interests of trans people are inextricably linked to those of lesbians, gays and bisexuals. The publishing industry has been happy to endorse and amplify this unthinking connection across all genres, YA, middle grade, fiction and non-fiction and the picture book market.
But compare the way gay and lesbian stories are written for children with those about trans characters and the faulty logic of equating sexual orientation with gender identity is exposed.
Books for children about being gay or lesbian always feature recognisable adults, although sometimes in the form of kings, princesses or animals, as the main characters in the story. The gay parent storyline is popular with titles like My Daddies, Two Dads, Heather Has Two Mummies, The Girl With Two Dads. Usually written from the point of view of the child they are mostly plotless, didactic vehicles for acceptance and understanding of gay relationships. It’s notable there are no picture books for children about small children who themselves are gay or lesbian. Away from the wilder shores of academia where ‘queering children’s literature’ graduates might wish it so, pre-pubertal children don’t express or understand sexual orientation.
But trans picture books are entirely different; they are primers in how to be ‘trans.’ And children, either as the narrator or main character, are the means by which the child reader is taught what ‘trans’ is.
There are no trans adults in these story books for children (with the notable exceptions of two books by trans activist writer Sarah Savage, She’s My Dad and He’s My Mom. Both are told by the child of a transgender parent whose unrealistic acceptance their parent’s sex change is unconvincing).
All the fictional children in sixty picture books (50 are fiction, 10 non-fiction) surveyed for this piece are pre-pubertal, who speak to their pre-pubertal readers. It’s understandable that trans picture books would steer clear of the realities of transition post puberty. To do so would mean engaging with the messy world of puberty blockers, breast binders, double mastectomies, invasive surgeries, and the downsides of cross sex hormones, weight gain, acne, continuing gender dysphoria. It’s as if the authors know this wouldn’t play well with their infant audience who are still at the developmental stage of believing impossible things.
Trans for toddlers?
Trans picture books are a completely new phenomenon. This can’t be overemphasised. Fifteen years ago, there were hardly any books for children which told them they could change sex. They began to appear on publishers’ lists around the same time as there was an unprecedented increase in children being referred to the Tavistock and heart-warming stories of ‘trans kids’ appeared in the media. Only six of the fifty fiction books surveyed were published before 2014 which was the year I Am Jazz came out. The best known and most successful of these is Marcus Ewert’s 2008 picture book, 10,000 Dresses. Many children have now been introduced to the book’s central idea that sex is a matter of belief, expressed by what you wear. It was the first of many to use the mirror theme; the child looks in the mirror and sees not their biological sex but their desired sex reflected back.
2014, the year that I Am Jazz was published, marked the start of the big surge in trans picture books. I Am Jazz encapsulates many of the themes of all the subsequent books. It was co-written by a ‘trans’ child, Jazz Jennings, whose life and transition story, from boy to girl, were played out in a reality TV series. Jazz’s simplistic message which is repeated in subsequent picture books is: “I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way!”
‘Based on a true story’
12 of the fiction books in the survey are written by ‘trans’ children or their parents. These come with an ‘authenticity’ stamp; you can become the opposite sex, and the proof is the existence of this real child. It’s OK To Sparkle is the story of Avery Jackson who was socially transitioned at an early age and has been widely featured in print and visual media. The website for Maddox Lyons, the 12yr-old author of I Am Not A Girl states: “Maddox Lyons is a twelve-year-old transgender boy who lives in California with his parents, sister, two dogs, and two pet rats.” Those who doubt can be shown the documentary evidence, see: Maddox, with her short red hair and freckles really is a boy, Avery with his long pink hair really is a girl.
Parents who socially transition their children at an early age is another subgenre. Like the story told by the former head of Mermaids, Susie Green, these true-life accounts are revealing. Calvin, another true story, was transitioned by her parents at the age of 4. According to the blurb: “Calvin has always been a boy, even if the world sees him as a girl. He knows who he is in his heart and in his mind but he hasn’t yet told his family. Finally, he can wait no longer: “I’m not a girl,” he tells his family. “I’m a boy–a boy in my heart and in my brain.” Here the parent authors invent the inner life of their 4-year-old daughter to justify their decision to lie to her, who like all 4-year-olds is developmentally unable to understand that her biological sex will never change.
The real ‘real life’ stories of some of these young people can be heart-breaking. Gavin Grimm, a teenage girl who wanted to be a boy, fought a protracted legal battle in the US to use the boys’ toilets in school, resulting in a legal win that has been lauded by activists. Gavin is the subject of the 2022 book If You Are A Kid Like Gavin in which Gavin is portrayed as a civil rights hero. But in December 2021 Gavin posted on Facebook “a few months ago I suffered several seizures and ended up in a coma for four days. I’m getting better but still experiencing health problems and haven’t been able to work for some time now.” The publishers and co-author Kyle Lukoff presumably felt confident in going ahead with the book despite Gavin’s medical and financial cry for help. This book is marketed as suitable for 4-8year-olds.
Many authors have strong opinions and write about them. But the problem with these children’s picture books is that the strong opinion is in fact a highly contested belief system, based on ideas about innate gender identity. Some of the authors in the survey are closely linked to LGBT+ activism.
Sarah Savage (Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl, He’s My Mom, She’s My Dad) runs the charity Trans Pride Brighton, Laura Kate Dale (Nisha’s Monster) is a co-founder of Trans Activism UK, Kyle Lukoff (Call Me Max, When Aiden Became A Brother) is active on social media opposing attempts to stop harmful hormone and surgery treatments for children in the US. Jay Hulme (Here Be Monsters) has helped raise money for the discredited charity Mermaids. Juno Dawson (You Need To Chill) is also a Mermaids supporter.
Savage, Dale, Hulme and Dawson have all spoken in favour of banning conversion therapy for gender identity, a campaign led by LGBT+ groups that would see open ended exploratory therapy for children cast as ‘conversion therapy.’
The close relationship between fiction and activism is illustrated most clearly in a new crop of books with non-binary characters and themes. Stonewall is currently campaigning to make non-binary a legal concept, by removing sex markers from official identity documents. The children’s picture book market has fallen into line and published My Shadow is Purple, Are You a Boy Or Are You a Girl? The Prince and The Frog, Neither, Bye Bye Binary, Payden’s Pronoun Party, Peanut Goes For Gold, Fantastic Frankie, Timid, A House For Everyone, From The Stars In The Sky To The Fish In The Sea. Of these titles, 5 were published in 2022 and are recommended for the under 5s.
Fantastic Frankie, the tale of a fox who is “fabulous in a rainbow coloured cape” is a good example. The teaching notes that accompany the book say: “Frankie isn’t referred to as a boy or a girl, just Frankie. Do you think it matters what you wear if you’re a girl or a boy?” The message for its target audience of 3-6yr-olds is that non-conformity with gendered clothing is on a par with not caring whether Frankie is male or female. Against all safeguarding principles, it demands that children see biological sex as either something to be kept secret or as something of no importance.
It is concerning that, in the survey, 40 of the 50 fiction and half of the non-fiction trans picture books are marketed for the under 5s. Because an undisputed fact about child development is that children do not reach the stage of ‘sex constancy’ until the ages of 6-7. This means that until that age children think that a person’s sex is changed when their external, visual clues are changed or swopped. So a man who puts on a long haired wig and a dress becomes a woman.
Among the books which promote the idea that changing appearance through opposite sex clothes and hair length changes natal sex are A Fox Called Herbert, My Shadow Is Pink, Phoenix Goes To School, Jamie, Introducing Teddy, 10,000 Dresses, Jack (not Jackie), Calvin, Sam Is My Sister, When Kathy Is Keith, Be Who You Are.
Vincent The Vixen according to Amazon is about “…a fox who is assigned male at birth, but who knows they are actually a girl.” How does Vincent know? Because when he plays dress up he always chooses girls’ clothes. In Calvin, the real 4-year-old girl transitioned by her parents, we’re told they take “Calvin shopping for the swim trunks he’s always wanted and back-to-school clothes and a new haircut that helps him look and feel like the boy he’s always known himself to be.”
Telling young children that hairstyles and clothes will change their sex and that other children will then believe it to be true is a cruel deception, playing as it does on a child’s developmentally limited understanding of biology. It’s a cynical trick to use on children who are at an age when fantasy play is at its most intense.
It can take children up to the age of 8 to learn to be proficient in language but trans and non-binary books blunder right through this developmental process, upending all that is known about language acquisition. Titles such as She’s My Dad and He’s My Mom, books marketed as being suitable for 3-7year-olds, are disorienting, which is presumably the object. The first and most sex specific words a child learns, Mum and Dad, are shorn of their meaning. In a book for the under 5s, You Need To Chill!, the toddler sized protagonist shuts down all questions by shouting ‘Hun you need to chill…My brother is now my sister!’ In About Chris,another pre-school picture book, toddlers are told Chris is “a girl from the waist down and a boy from the waist up.”
Non-binary language is designed to confuse children. This enthusiastic review for Payden’s Pronoun Party, a new book for 5-8year-olds, is typical: “Much like trying on different outfits to find the best fit, Payden experiments with a range of pronouns before choosing the gender-neutral e/em/eir. To celebrate eir exciting selection, Payden’s supportive parents throw em a pronoun party.”
When meaning is destroyed like this, children are more vulnerable to harm as they are robbed of the words that keep them safe. The question that should be asked of authors and publishers who actively undermine shared words and definitions like Mum, Dad, he, she, is “Whose interests does this collapse of meaning serve?”
In children’s picture books the foundational belief of gender identity theory is so simplified that its reliance on sex stereotypes is plain to see. Boys whose interests are seen as feminine or girls whose interests are more typically masculine become shorthand for being ‘trans.’
Stonewall recommend perhaps the most blatantly homophobic account of a male to female child transition, When Kayla Was Kyle. It’s the story of a little boy who is relentlessly bullied at school for not liking sport and being ‘different.’ When another boy discovers Kyle plays with Barbie dolls the bullying intensifies, he is called a girl and laughed at for liking dolls. His parents continue for some years to encourage him be like other boys. At his lowest and most friendless he tells his parents “I’m a mistake…I can’t live like this anymore… everyone hates me…I want to live in heaven.” Kyle’s parents then realise that Kyle can’t live as a boy but has to become Kayla. Suicide ideation is central to activist organisations like Mermaids, despite there being no evidence that children with gender distress are at a greater risk than children with other mental health conditions. At no point does the author or any of the characters suggest that Kyle could be happy as a boy who likes dolls, or could grow up to be gay.
For girls who believe they are boys, the haircut features prominently, as it does in online discussions of girl to boy transition. In Jamie, a retelling of the Cinderella story, Jamie cuts her hair short and puts on a suit. Maddox in I Am Not A Girl smiles when she sees her boy’s haircut in the barber’s mirror. The drama in Jack (not Jackie) centres on the haircut, in When Kathy Is Keith the mirror reflects back Kathy’s desired image of herself as Keith, with short hair.
Dresses are the main markers for a social transition from boy to girl, hair growth taking longer and lacking the impact of a haircut. The cover of Be Who You Are shows a boy looking in a mirror and seeing himself in a dress with long hair, in My Rainbow, Trinity wants long hair like his dolls, Sam in Sam Is My Sister wants long hair and to wear a dress. Jazz in I Am Jazz is upset when his parents don’t let him wear a dress outside of the house.
None of these books would make sense to their young readers unless they utilised the crudest metaphors for what makes a child male or female. They reinforce sex stereotypes, telling children that the only explanation for why some boys have feminine personalities and some girls have masculine ones is that they are ‘trans.’
Fact becomes fiction
In the world of trans publishing for children, fiction is written as fact, and factual content is, in reality, fiction. These non-fiction LGBT+ explainers are aimed, like the story books, at the primary school market. Because the language is counterfactual – she’s my dad – and arcane – cisgender, agender, gender neutral – readers and teachers are in need of these instruction manuals. The ABC of Gender Identity strays close to parody with its words for H and K. “Horogender- Someone whose identity changes over time. Kynigender— Someone who is unable to pinpoint their gender due to stress of the questioning process.” This book is for 5yr-olds.
Some of the non-fiction titles normalise surgical transition for young women. All Bodies Are Cool and Some Bodies for ages 2-8 and 5-8 respectively, each feature illustrations of double mastectomies, the latter with the text “Some people choose to have their bodies changed.”
The language too can be more explicit. Every Body Is A Rainbow published in 2022 for ages 4-8 says “Some rainbow bodies have a long spongy piece of skin called a penis…kids who have these body parts can also have a gender identity that is girl, boy, both, neither…”
In the 2022 book ABC Pride, co-authored by Elly Barnes, CEO of the LGBT charity Educate & Celebrate, the meanings of the LG and B parts of the acronym have been disappeared. According to this ABC book for 3-5year-olds L is for love, B is for belonging, G is for gender. T is of course for transgender.
Stonewall recommends 5-7year-olds read Who Are You? by Brook Pessin-Whedbee. Small children who have only just learned to read will be taught the contested language of adult political activism: cisgender, gender neutral, neutrois, agender. They’ll read “Is it a boy or a girl? Babies can’t talk so grown-ups make a guess by looking at their bodies. This is the sex assigned to you at birth.”
What Does LGBT+ Mean? by Olly Pike and Mel Lane came out in 2021. Chapter headings include Identity, Assigned sex and gender, Gender as a spectrum & pronouns, Transgender, Non-binary, Intersex, Romantic love, Sexual orientation, LGBT+ Flag Guide. The book ends with the Mermaids helpline number, advising children to call if they have any further questions that they can’t ask a parent or teacher.
Trans in the classroom
LGBT+ groups which offer school training schemes are the biggest users of trans picture books. These schemes get schools to sign up to policies to socially transition the ‘transgender child.’ Common to these policies is a belief that sex is on a spectrum whereas gender is innate, that the ‘transgender’ child’s right supersede all other rights, and that not to accede to them risks suicide. Parents who’ve already transitioned their child must be accommodated. They all distort equality law. Teachers are told they must validate new names and pronouns, behind parents’ backs if necessary.
This is why the picture books are important; they reinforce the same ideas for pupils. They are the colourful and upbeat versions of the policies. Activist teacher networks like the LGBTQ+ Primary Hub also play a role in linking school policies with trans picture books.
Stonewall has its Schools Champions Scheme which rewards primary schools for RSE lessons which include gender identities and for asking pupils to share their experiences of biphobic and transphobic bullying. I Am Jazz, Phoenix Goes To School, 10,000 Dresses and other titles provide the view from the rosy uplands of transitioning. The Department for Education still recommends Stonewall as an RSE resource provider for LGBT topics.
Are You a Boy Or Are You a Girl? for ages 3+, by author and trans activist Sarah Savage, is in Stonewall’s LGBT-Inclusive primary curriculum for Early Years (0-5) and Key Stage 1 with the instruction: “Remember to teach children that ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ can be singular as well as plural. You could use it as an opportunity to learn that a lot of non-binary people prefer not to be referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’.”
The book’s main character, Tiny, is referred to as ‘they’ by the school teacher. Only the class bully demands to know if Tiny is male or female. Tiny is a powerful character because of his/her ability to withhold entirely legitimate information from others. Tiny asks “What does it mean to be a boy or a girl? I like eating cakes, playing football, dressing up and watching the stars” as if liking both football and dressing up mean it is not possible to be a girl or a boy.
Equaliteach, funded by the Government Equalities Office, produced an 80 page LGBT policy resource for primary schools which includes a list of approved books for teaching children including 10,000 Dresses and But I Am Not A Boy.
No Outsiders, the diversity and inclusion franchise run by Birmingham teacher Andrew Moffat, is a self-contained set of lessons and assemblies for primary schools. The stated aim is to teach the Equality Act, framed as being kind and accepting. However, the teaching of the protected characteristic, gender reassignment, is used to promote the idea of social transition. The teaching notes for Introducing Teddy make it clear that unquestioning acceptance of a transgender identity is the only option: “a teddy bear who comes out as trans halfway through the story. All of Teddy’s friends accept her as Tilly, no one questions, and this is the focus of the story.”
The LGBT+ school charity Educate & Celebrate suggests that each time you read a book from their Pride Book Collection you tweet about it with the hashtag #queermylibrary. For children aged 5+ they recommend When Aiden Became A Brother which they categorise as being about a trans masculine character. Toddler sized Aiden is introduced as a ‘transgender kid.’ As per the trans script Aiden’s parents and the doctors were hopelessly wrong because “When Aiden was born everyone thought he was a girl.” Aiden’s early life was full of sex stereotypes, a pretty name, girls’ clothes, a pink bedroom. Young readers are told Aiden didn’t feel like any kind of girl but “another kind of boy.” When Mum is pregnant, Aiden is concerned about the new baby being misgendered. But Mum has learned her lesson and tells Aiden “When you were born we didn’t know you were going to be our son. We made some mistakes but you helped us fix them.” The character of the tiny trans masculine Aiden, still years off a double mastectomy and testosterone, is part ‘wise child’ and part Maoist Red Guard.
The Rainbow Flag Award is a national scheme, run locally by different LGBT+ groups; the picture book Alien Nation underlines its commitment to gender identity theory. It’s the story of two planets, planet boy, whose rules are: be masculine, like blue and wear trousers and planet girl: be feminine, like pink and wear dresses. Those who are happy with their pink or blue planet can stay where they are. They are called ‘cis’. If they aren’t happy they can cross over a bridge, illustrated in the colours of the trans flag, to the other planet and they are called ‘trans.’
Hundreds of locally based LGBT+ support groups also offer training to schools and use trans picture books. Just two regional groups illustrate the problem.
The Lottery funded Norfolk LGBT+ Project has 43 schools signed up to its Educating with Pride scheme; on the list of recommended books for primaries are I Am Jazz, She’s My Dad.
In Dorset, Diversity Mel claims to have worked with 50 schools and 6000 pupils in the county. As well as recommending many of the books already referenced, Diversity Mel also promotes the books of Olly Pike. In Jamie, Pike’s reworking of the Cinderella story, Jamie puts on a suit, cuts her hair, looks at herself in the mirror and says “I’m the boy I always have been.”
The role of the publishing industry
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, an imprint of Hachette Books, are behind some of the militantly activist books such Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl? and He’s My Mom. But other mainstream publishers are moving into the market: Harper Collins published the 2022 book You Need To Chill by Juno Dawson and Macmillan the 2020 ‘true’ story I Am Not A Girl.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of children’s picture books have no trans or non-binary content. And, unlike the trans books, there are many which challenge sex stereotypes. But it’s unlikely that a book, with a counter transitioning storyline of a short haired girl rejecting suggestions she is trans, and the idea that she could be ‘born in the wrong body,’ would ever get published today.
The self-censorship within publishing is now so all-encompassing that those with doubts about trans narratives tend to stay silent. We’ve heard from authors, agents, illustrators and marketing people that they do not speak out publicly for fear of a backlash or of losing their livelihoods. An illustrator who has to remain anonymous told us they turned down a lucrative job because they didn’t want to work on a pro transition children’s book. But they couldn’t say why for fear of repercussions, pleading instead too many other commitments.
Another children’s writer with concerns told us: “I wouldn’t comment on sex, gender, religion, violence or politics online, that equals big trouble – and I have a pseudonym for a reason.”
Rachel Rooney, an award-winning writer of children’s poetry, experienced an organised backlash from a small group in the publishing industry after the publication of her joyful book My Body is Me (illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg) and expressing gender critical views on social media. She has now stopped writing for children. Another high-profile writer is Gillian Philip whose contract as part of the writing team for the Erin Hunter series was ended abruptly after adding #IStandWithJKRowling to her twitter account. Like Rachel she was the target of campaign of vilification and dropped by her publishers, HarperCollins and her agent.
It’s not really surprising that HarperCollins would drop Gillian Philip. A recent blog post on the company’s website repeats all the LGBTQ+ activist mantras, using the language of queer theory. It argues it’s a myth that LGBTQ+ books are inappropriate for small children: “The truth is that children are often talking about attraction, sexual orientation, and gender identity early.” The blog ends with a list of recommended HarperCollins books, starting with If You’re A Kid Like Gavin and Bye Bye, Binary.
Penguin Random House has its own LGBTQ+ Network for staff, Bloomsbury has its Pride (LGBTQ+) staff group which has representatives at all levels of the company, Hachette has a Pride Network and there is an influential inter-company group called Pride in Publishing. Networks like these, whatever their initial good intentions such as defending gay rights, are cheering on the regressive ideas of innate gender identity, of bodily dissociation and the great untruth that sex can be changed as easily as a haircut. Critical voices who point out the harms to children of these ideas are silenced.
Publishers show no sign of understanding that the ground is shifting as more evidence emerges of the harms of medical transition for young people. In October 2022, Macmillan’s Children’s Books announced a new signing, Theo Parish.
“This follows a competitive six-way auction, which indicates just how powerful this story is going to be. Homebody is a touching story inspired by Parish’s own experiences growing up trans and is set to be published in April 2024.”
Just six months earlier, Theo Parish told Twitter followers that she’d just had her first appointment at a gender clinic. The tweet was accompanied by a cheery drawing of her future bearded self, bare-chested and sporting mastectomy scars.
Since 2014, there’s been a rapid increase in the number of teenagers, overwhelmingly girls, expressing distress about their bodies, believing that they ‘really’ are the opposite sex and being referred to gender clinics. Some may have read trans picture books when they were younger. Many more will have come into contact with transgender ideas via social media which is awash with the slogans and memes intended to replace biological sex with nebulous gender identity. The increase coincided with two influential BBC programmes, I Am Leo in November 2014 and Louis Theroux’s Transgender Kids some months later. It’s hardly surprising that a recent report from Policy Exchange based on polling by YouGov found that 73% of school leavers were familiar with the idea that there are ‘many genders.’
Away from screens and in the real world, children and teenagers, like their fictional counterparts, are used to ‘teach’ their peers about being ‘trans.’ The Proud Trust runs groups for ‘trans’ adolescents, ages 13-19. Gendered Intelligence offers these too, including a monthly ‘transfem’ group for 8-25year-olds. School LGBT clubs often focus on trans to the exclusion of gay and lesbian pupils.
Activist groups like Stonewall and Mermaids still wield disproportionate influence. There are LGBT groups in every UK city and town offering to ‘train’ schools in gender ideology. They’ve been able to do this by silencing all other points of view. Anything except total acceptance of the existence of the ‘transgender child’ is condemned as transphobic.
But despite their best efforts the era of No Debate is ending. This is due to many factors; parents raising concerns about what their children are taught, the growth of women’s rights groups, brave whistleblowing clinicians, the blossoming of online discussion, and the publication of important books by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore, Helen Joyce, Kathleen Stock and Abigail Shrier among others.
The case brought by Keira Bell against the Tavistock brought the lack of evidence for the safety of puberty blockers to worldwide attention. The Cass Review followed, rightly re-situating gender distress within standard mental health services for children and leading to the closure of the GIDS clinic at the Tavistock. Gender healthcare for children is now subject to proper scrutiny in the UK which is giving a lead to the rest of the world.
The Department for Education is still suffering from the effects of its previous incarnation as a Stonewall Champion and has yet to offer any clear policy framework for dealing with trans identifying children. Whatever it comes up with there are now organised and knowledgeable groups of parents who will oppose any attempt to put gender ideology into school policies.
But the publishing industry doesn’t seem to have caught up. Industry bodies like the Book Trust, The Reading Agency, The Booksellers Association, and house journals such as The Bookseller and Publishers Weekly welcome everything under the LGBT rainbow banner, never stopping to ask themselves if a gay memoir for adults is really in the same category as a book for toddlers encouraging them to think they can choose their sex. Big chains like Waterstones showed marked reluctance to stock the best sellers written by Helen Joyce and Kathleen Stock.
Ensuring that there are good books for children is a job for everyone; writers, agents, publishers, parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and reviewers. It’s not that hard. Just don’t tell children, who are developmentally too young to understand, that they have an innate gender identity or that their interests mean they might be the opposite sex. Don’t tell them they can change their sex. Don’t normalise double mastectomies by sneaking such images into a book for 5year-olds. And let them know it’s absolutely fine to ask the question ‘are you a boy or are you a girl?’