By Rochelle Raveendran
A storytime with the Ryerson Library highlighted picture books starring transgender and non-binary characters on Nov. 10 to mark Trans Awareness Month.
Librarians Reece Steinberg and Jane Schmidt hosted the event over Zoom, accompanied by a carrot plush toy and a few stuffed owls. The story time was opened with a sing-a-long as they read three picture books to an audience that included children and adults.
“There’s a very famous analogy that children’s books need to be windows and mirrors, not doors,” said Schmidt. “Children need to be able to see themselves [in the books they read].”
The two read The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy by S. Bear Bergman, Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton and The Great Space Adventure by Ryka Aoki. In The Adventures of Tulip, a birthday wish granting fairy comes across an unfamiliar wish from a child named David who wishes to live as Daniela.
In Introducing Teddy, a boy’s teddy-bear best friend tells him she always knew she was a “girl teddy” and wishes her name was Tilly, not Thomas.
Reading the books, “children, whatever their gender is and whoever they are, can see there are a variety of different people that exist in the world,” said Steinberg.
Bergman is the co-founder of Flamingo Rampant, a publishing company focused on producing LGBTQ2IA+ positive and racially diverse children’s books.
When he sent his first two picture books featuring transgender and non-binary characters to existing publishing companies, Bergman said he was confident given his previously published books and prior connections in the industry.
However, both picture books were rejected. One editor encouraged him to submit books about “normal children” instead.
“Inwardly, I thought I would rather die of exposure freezing in the street before I bring another project to you,” Bergman said. “It felt like such a gut punch. Finally, I realized that was what every editor was thinking.”
After a crowdfunding campaign in 2011, Bergman established Flamingo Rampant with his husband to publish positive representations of LGBTQ2IA+ children and families that didn’t revolve around storylines of ostracization.
Since then, many of the 22 books published by Flamingo Rampant have been sold to schools and libraries across the country.
“There’s no point in an education in which children are only ever exposed to concepts that they’re already comfortable and familiar with,” he said.
Trans Awareness Month is organized every November by Positive Space, a network of Ryerson staff and faculty who aim to promote the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals at the university.
As a member of Positive Space, Steinberg connected with Schmidt to organize the event. Schmidt had previously hosted storytimes for Ryerson’s childcare facility, the Early Learning Centre.
Schmidt said libraries should create welcoming spaces where LGBTQ2IA+ books are accepted and promoted. Providing additional programming like storytimes featuring transgender authors is another way libraries can foster inclusivity, she said.
“The more that libraries are promoting these books and their authors, the more commonplace they become,” said Schmidt.
Wayne Martino, a professor of equity and social justice education at the University of Western Ontario, said books which represent transgender and non-binary people should be endorsed.
These books “create more gender-expansive and inclusive spaces and curriculum where trans, non-binary and gender diverse students can see themselves represented and affirmed,” he said.
Otherwise, schools continue to propagate “institutionalized cisgenderism,” which contributes to the invisibility and erasure of transgender and non-binary people, he said.
For author Christine Baldacchino, children’s books are a powerful tool that foster curiosity, understanding and empathy.
In her picture book Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a young boy is bullied by his classmates for his love of wearing a tangerine-coloured dress from his classroom dress up centre.
Baldacchino said in an email she was inspired by an incident that occurred when she was a teacher. A child in her class “fell in love” with a dress from the dress up centre, but it was removed by Baldacchino’s employer after his mother saw him wearing it.
She said for some time afterwards, the child would ask her every day what had happened to the dress, even promising he would never wear it again if she returned it.
“I couldn’t give the boy that dress back–I didn’t have that control,” she said. “But I could give Morris his dress. That story could end the way I wanted it to end.”
Baldacchino said reception for the book has been overwhelmingly positive. She’s received photos of children wearing their own favourite dresses, with one mother even making a tangerine dress for her son’s doll, at his request, to match his own.
Though her book is written for bullied children, Baldacchino said she is thankful not every book about transgender and non-binary children follows the same narrative.
“Trans and gender non-conforming kids deserve to see themselves in books experiencing that same full spectrum of emotions and experiences that any other child can,” she said.