My family doesn’t “do” gender norms. If my daughter wants to be a dinosaur or a pirate for Halloween, she may. If she wants to play with pickup trucks instead of dolls, she has my blessing. If she wants to collect rocks outside instead of flowers, that’s absolutely fine by me. But as I await the birth of my second child, a baby boy, I’ve realized it’s much harder to encourage boys to live confidently outside of restrictive gender norms. Luckily, there are lots of good books for boys that teach healthy, flexible ideas about gender and masculinity. Here are my four favorite books for, and about, gender-nonconforming boys.
1. The Story of Ferdinand
This classic story by Munro Leaf is a favorite in my family. Although the black-and-white line illustrations are drab compared to some newer books, the story itself is charming and beautiful. Ferdinand is a young bull who, unlike other bulls, doesn’t enjoy fighting. Instead, he likes to take time to sit under his favorite tree and smell the flowers. This is a great book about pacifism for kids of any gender, but it’s particularly helpful for little boys who aren’t as rough-and-tumble as their peers.
2. Tough Boris
Mem Fox’s “Tough Boris” is a cute, sweet book that challenges ideas about masculinity, particularly as they relate to common children’s games and fantasies. The eponymous character is a tough, gritty pirate who goes on adventures illustrated in vivid watercolor. But, despite being as manly and tough as they come, Boris breaks down and cries when his parrot dies. The text in this story is engaging and fun, and it’s overall message-“even tough pirates cry”-is an important one for boys to hear.
3. William’s Doll
This surprisingly touching, poignant book by Charlotte Zolotrow carries a strong message against bullying and an equally strong message encouraging self-esteem for boys who don’t fit gender stereotypes. The main character, William, wants a doll even though his family and neighbors bully him, calling him a “creepy” and a “sissy” for wanting a girl’s toy. Finally, his grandmother encourages him in his pursuit of a doll, so that he can learn to be a father one day. The story is written with compassion and sensitivity and will be enjoyed by almost any boy who likes stereotypically feminine toys.
4. Oliver Button is a Sissy
The culture of masculinity in the modern West places a lot of emphasis on participation in physical activities like sports and rough play, making it difficult for artistic and intellectual boys to fit in. In Tomie dePaola’s “Oliver Button is a Sissy,” young Oliver is teased incessantly because of his interest in tap-dancing, art, and literature. Nevertheless, he is confident in himself and in his abilities and doesn’t let the taunting of his peers get him down. This book is wonderful for any child who doesn’t quite fit the mold.
Boys are unnecessarily restricted by gender roles, often to an even greater degree than girls, but exposure to healthy, flexible ideas of masculinity can benefit children across the spectrum of gender and expression. By adding a few picture books to your son’s collection, you can help instill him with the confidence and self-esteem he needs to live fearlessly outside constructed ideas of gender and masculinity.