When I read The Sneetches as a kid, I decided that it was about anti-Semitism. I knew that Jews were a minority, given that I was always the only one in my entire class and my classmates often didn’t even know what Jews were. Since I didn’t have any other books about Jews (with the excellent exceptions of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins and The Mouse in the Matzah Factory), it makes sense that I would do the work necessary to connect the dots between the star-less Sneetches, kept out of the best beaches and hot dog parties, with my rudimentary grasp of Jewish history.
There are more Jewish picture books now than there were when I was a kid, and Dr. Seuss probably wasn’t referring to us specifically; it might have been an allegory for the civil rights movement, or a generic vision of anti-discrimination, or a belated attempt to soften his racist legacy. Who knows. But picture books that use animals as metaphors for human identities have not gone away.
Like all categories of people, children deserve honesty, they deserve language, and they deserve to know who they are. The Sneetches weren’t Jewish, because Jews are real and Sneetches aren’t. Cultures and communities have unique contours and textures and histories and realities, and learning about invented creatures and anthropomorphized animals is not an acceptable substitute. When books are meant to be about race but don’t talk about race, or disability but don’t identify lived disabilities, or generic “difference” while eliding real differences, it is denying language, and the honesty that flows from truthful description, from young people who are building their sense of self with the blocks we give them. It isn’t fair that I was so starved for Jewishness that I had to cobble together my understanding from unrelated texts, and asking other marginalized children to do the work of parsing clumsy metaphor to see themselves is a similar injustice.
Launched in 2014, the We Need Diverse Books movement helped contribute to a growing number of children’s books that focus directly on marginalized identities. My own career has benefitted enormously from this new openness in publishing, which, to be clear, still has a long way to go. My first novel, Too Bright to See, is about a trans kid being haunted by the ghost of his drag queen uncle, and it won a Newbery Honor. The picture book that put me on the map, When Aidan Became a Brother, is about a young trans boy helping his family welcome a new baby, and it got me my first of two Stonewalls (so far). I have other books, for various ages, that explore trans history, culture, and community. But there is one kind of story I’ve avoided writing, an enduring trend that I believe is a step backward.
A picture book about a butterfly-identified bat is dedicated “to all the trans and gender nonconforming children out there.” One, with a fox who wants to be a rabbit, is described as a parallel to trans identities. There are takes on The Ugly Duckling, including a cat who thinks he’s a duck and a world where everyone is either a rabbit or a duck. Red: A Crayon’s Story (about the spectrum of visible light rather than the animal kingdom), is an allegory for the author’s dyslexia but often comes up as a resource for gender identity. The formulaic nature of said stories aside, I believe that using animals as an introduction to human gender props up transphobic notions that we should instead be resisting.
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, are boys insects and girls mammals? If girls are sugar and spice, does that equate them to herbivores, to the boy-snips-and-snails of omnivores? Understanding, of course, that trans girls are girls and trans boys are boys, could we still equate all boys with predators (or prey) and all girls with prey (or predators)?
Obviously not. Gender, to quote writer Michelle O’Brien, “is the word we give to our basic orientations to ourselves as embodied, sexual beings.” Differences between animals are evolutionary results enabling creatures with feathers, claws, and/or night vision to survive through millennia. But, according to some picture books, one is an easy substitute to understand the other.
One of my trans friends recently mused, “It was a mistake to teach people that gender is in your head.” I knew exactly where he was coming from. Gender is in your head, of course—it’s the way you think about yourself, and it is also the shared, and continually re-created, ideas about gender in the time and place you were born into. But it is also not only in your head. Gender is how you move through the world, how you see yourself through other people seeing you, what you want and don’t want for your body, the lessons you learn about the genders you have and the genders you don’t, and what other people expect from you or demand of you or decide about you. It is not exclusively the thought processes that go on within your own discrete skull.
It’s a common anti-trans taunt to identify as an attack helicopter, or to argue that little kids might identify as dinosaurs but grow out of it. While there’s little strategic value to being on the defensive against opponents who change the rules to suit their will to power, I think that using books that rely on metaphors to teach about identity contributes to that transphobic ideology. These stories lend credence to the idea that gender is a static, immutable, biological reality, and that trans people’s identities are flimsy self-constructions to be humored if not believed.
If the difference between boys and girls was as stark as the difference between a hyena and a chameleon, I might also agree that one cannot simply think one’s way into being the other. But gender is not a division created by evolution to ensure the survival of the species. Gender is a fully human invention, rules that we made up and continually remake. Transgender people are not imagining our way into a different species; we are simply tweaking some of the rules made up by our fellows.
My primary objection, however, comes down to language. Trans children deserve to know that trans people exist. Instead of having to parse themselves solely through tortured metaphors—“I’m like a green marker, but they put a purple cap on it,” “Did you know that some girl lions can grow manes? That’s like me”—they should also be given the descriptors that line up with how other trans people talk about themselves and, more importantly, the communities and cultures that we build and maintain by ourselves, for ourselves and each other.
But, and for the same reasons, animals-as-gender is not the only metaphor that I am coming out against. I am equally skeptical of those picture books that use nonhuman characters as a way to describe human categories of privilege and oppression. (One haunting exception is The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan.)
I understand the temptation to revert to fanciful scenarios with cute or funny critters as a way to soften a lesson for young audiences. But it is wrong to force some kids to pierce veils of misdirection to get an approximate reckoning of their lives, while kids who mostly exist within a constellation of privileges can simply crack a book and see their realities reflected.
I’m not at odds with all books about anthropomorphized or made-up creatures. I love Lilly and her purple plastic purse, and Big Mean Mike and his rabbit friends. But adults lie to children all the time. About the Tooth Fairy, whether there are any cookies left, that shots don’t hurt, that everything is going to be okay. Sometimes it is easier to lie to kids than to constantly guide them through a reality that might not be to their liking. But they deserve, at the very least, the truth about who they are, and who they could be.
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