My Princess Boy Part II: Books With Non-Traditional Gender Roles

Since writing my first post about My Princess Boy, I got to thinking about boys who wear pink, and other non-traditional gender roles.  Was there a place for them in children’s books before this news story?  Turns out, there was, and librarians and readers have been making lists for ages!  Here’s my own list, with some personal favorites for boys and girls:

(Note: I also went to the bookstore and read My Princess Boy. My two cents? I’m not a fan of an illustration style with faceless figures, though I understand the attempt to be “universal” and androgynous, and I know others that liked it. Ultimately, though, I respect the point of the story, and that’s satisfying enough for me!)

Little Women – by Louisa May Alcott / There’s no contest: Louisa May Alcott, in the guise of her autobiographical protagonist, Jo March, is the original tomboy.  She’s independent, stubborn, and refuses to accept the feminine societal norms that eat up the rest of her sisters’ time and energy.  Women for generations have idolized the way she bravely cuts off her hair (her one beauty!), but fans were a little less content with her refusal to marry Laurie… or anyone at all.  In fact, Alcott later wrote,

“Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her”.

Listen to a great story about Jo March on NPR, here.

Hattie Big Sky – by Kirby Lawson / There are many wonderful contemporary novels featuring spunky historical heroines, but my favorite is “the one about the girl homesteader”, aka. Hattie Big Sky. Hattie is a 16-year-old orphan who winds up with a piece of land in rural Montana, and has to successfully farm it in less than a year to stay.  I love Hattie’s unique voice and the community that she creates for herself within a harsh setting… she can’t help but have guts to stick through her situation!

The Paper Bag Princess – by Robert N. Munsch / Since 1980, this princess has been kicking some serious dragon-butt, proving that girly-girls everywhere can get down and dirty, bring on some clever defense, and rescue the prince all on their own . . . even if he turns out to be not-so-Charming.

Oliver Button Is A Sissy – by Tomie dePaola / This story has a lot of heart, and with a main character who’d rather paint pictures and read than play sports, it’s pretty easy to spot that this is an autobiographical dePaola story.  This may have been the first time that male gender stereotypes were addressed in a picture book, and I’m happy to see that Oliver Button still resonates today.

Ferdinand – by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson / I didn’t think of this book immediately, because Ferdinand reminds me more of my shy 175-lb. Pyranese dog, Jaxon, than any kid I know, sissy or otherwise.  But when it was on all the related lists about books defying gender stereotypes, it gave me pause to think. Maybe this little bull could give comfort to a shy boy who’d rather pick flowers than wrestle himself.

Billy Elliot / Okay, okay . . . this isn’t technically a book (though it is now adapted from the screenplay!).  But this movie touched the hearts of so many, because a man doesn’t have to be gay to want to express himself creatively.  I loved the film, and can’t wait to see the Broadway musical this weekend!

Pinky And Rex series – by James Howe, illustrated by Melissa Sweet / Pinky and Rex defy traditional gender roles in a cool, easygoing way — by just being themselves.  Pinky likes pink and animals, Rex likes dinosaurs, but they’re best friends and brave enough to stick up for each other anyway. As a first-grader who was more comfortable playing with boys and animals in the mud than with Barbies, this was one of my favorite early-readers growing up!  And FYI? My favorite color at that age was blue.


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