Thursday, June 8, 2023

The bias no one talks about when bringing nonbinary representation to children's books

I Can Be...Me, "unbiased" reviews, and what keeps me strong in the face of discrimination 

by Maya Gonzalez 

I illustrated the recently released, I Can Be...Me written by Lesléa Newman, the author who wrote Heather Has Two Mommies in 1989. Lesléa’s written over 70 other books including Sparkle Boy, The Fairest in the Land and more with LGBTQ themes. I Can Be...Me is written in couplets and provides a back and forth volley of options for playing, feelings and clothing. It shows kids that they can do anything and everything they want, including break down gender norms.

Break down gender norms? When I read the manuscript, I thought what a beautiful opportunity to show kids’ natural fluidity. A small community of kids flew into my imagination and onto the page—romping in all their expansive, nonbinary glory through the text. Each one embodied inclusion and showed that a person doesn’t have to be this OR that. To be your full self, you can freely be and do and feel this AND that.  

Initial Sketch from the children's book, I Can Be...Me

Being so clear and free in the illustrations felt amazing. As a genderqueer femme working nearly exclusively with queer children’s book authors over the years, I’ve coded queerness into all of the books I’ve illustrated. But in those books the focus was on Latinx kid lit, so our queerness as the creators was not talked about. It was never denied, but it was never brought up in relation to our books.

I’ve taken moves to change that. This book is one of them. I have to say it feels good to be OUT in traditional publishing. No coding. Just queering. I’m grateful for the work Lesléa has done for so long here. There aren’t many of us OUT in the industry and fewer of us who are BIPOC and OUT. Saying yes to this book felt like a significant part of my children’s book journey.

Sample art from I Can Be Me - copyright Maya Gonzalez

But as the characters developed and I spent my days painting them onto the spreads, I could hear the questions that readers might ask.

“Is that a boy or a girl?”

“What are they really?”

As the parent of a nonbinary kid and partnered with a person of trans experience, I am more than familiar with the constant questioning. I cannot count the times my kid has been asked what they are. The projections and pressure laid on kids (and adults) about who they should be and how they should act and how that should be clear are embedded in these questions. This is a part of our culture’s gender policing. Gender conformance is at the core of nearly all bullying and this is how it begins when kids are very young.

Naturally, a bit of the parent-bear rose up in me. These weren’t just characters I had made up for a book. The kids in I Can Be...Me are based on people I know or see in my community. I felt protective. I asked if I could include an illustrator’s note. In it I asked readers to not make assumptions, the kids “are who they are, and they are everything they want to be…The practice is to try to keep your mind and your heart open and see kids as people.”

Sample art from I Can Be Me - copyright Maya Gonzalez

Needless to say, I learned the lesson perhaps all parents learn. We can support our kids, but we cannot shield our kids, even our literary ones, from the world and its limitations. In one of the first reviews from an organization that specifically states that it is “unbiased,” the reviewer somehow wrangled a way to bring in the questions. Through classic cherry picking, re-framing the subject and redirection through inserting a question where there was none, the reviewer’s discomfort with the unknown and gender nonconformity clearly comes into view. It was all summed up in just one line. “With no characters gendered in the text, the conversation about ‘who any of these kids are’ is left as a more open-ended question.”

Implicit bias is amazing to witness. It’s so powerful. I’m asking my readers to not make assumptions and to just let the kids be. The kids in the book are stating clearly that they know who they are and what they’re doing. They’re good. There are no questions.

Yes, but who are these kids really? I can’t tell who is a boy and who is a girl? How can I make sense out of this?

These are “the open-ended questions” lurking inside their review. They are not only showing their own discomfort, they are demonstrating the kind of constant pressure our kids experience in our society to conform, comply and categorize themselves all the time. They can’t just BE. Just BEing is seen as unacceptable, even dangerous to some people.

What if I treat you like a boy, but you’re female? What if I treat you like a girl, but you’re male?

This is so much more than one review. This is a window into the world at large. This is the playground and the classroom. On the extreme end conservatives don’t want their kids to know that LGBTQ+ people even exist, let alone feel free to just BE. I imagine like me, they think they can shield their kids from the world in some way.

But people like me and my family do exist and none of us can shield our kids from the world. We can show our kids that the world is our learning ground. We can go OUT and BE who we are and find our way, together. It can be confusing. There appears to be two hugely opposing sides, conservatives and liberals. Ironically, I think most folks are somewhere in the middle with good hearts and layers of old messaging and outdated education.

Things are changing fast. How do we make sense out of it all, and more importantly, how do we talk to our kids about it? Can we find our ground to see through the hype and the bias? How do we stay strong in our LGBTQI+ family? And our work?

For me one of the biggest questions I grapple with is how do we create bridges that will help us reconnect with each other and come together? I want lasting change.

I’ll confess, there’s a part of me that sometimes gets so overwhelmed with it all that I just want to go hide in a cave with my family and my paints. The stories and the issues and the sides seem too convoluted, conflicted and inflamed. If it weren’t for the Gender Wheel I may have walked away years ago. It’s the only thing that keeps me coming back and finding my way. I could not have guessed in 2010, when I first published the Gender Wheel that it would become my compass through these tumultuous times and give me the ability to see through everything, including a book review embedded with implicit bias.

The Gender Wheel can hold me because it’s based in nature. The Wheel is both a physical educational tool, and an approach that shows the reality of nature’s immense diversity and our place in it. It helps us understand and value nonbinary, gender nonconforming, trans people and everybody else through a holistic perspective. It expands our understanding to see that no one can be left out. The Gender Wheel moves us away from politics and moves us toward nature. It provides a place in the center where we can find our commonality and slowly, but surely all come together again.

This month my partner and I will be releasing our first Gender Wheel newsletter and one of the first things I’m going to share is how to use the Gender Wheel Educational Tool to look at all the amazing characters that are in I Can Be...Me. There is a place for everybody on the Gender Wheel because everyone is necessary and everyone belongs.

Learn more at and join our mailing list.

It’s a powerful time to be OUT in the children’s book industry.
We’re here. We’re queer. We make books! Happy Pride month, dahlings!!!!


Maya Gonzalez is an award-winning children’s book artist, author, activist and progressive educator. Maya's work addresses systemic inequity in relation to race/ethnicity, sexism and cissexism using children’s books as radical agents of change and healing, both personally and culturally. Maya co-founded Reflection Press, a POC, queer and trans owned independent publishing house that uses holistic, nature-based, and anti-oppression frameworks in their books and materials for kids and grown-ups. Maya is also the creator of the Gender Wheel, a tool to express the dynamic, infinite and inclusive reality of gender, and provides lectures and workshops to educators, parents and caregivers. 

Instagram: @mzmayagonzalez and @genderwheel

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