Last week, I wrote about incorporating the book My Princess Boy, by Cheryl Kilodavis, into my children’s library to help foster dialogue about gender identity. My son loves Frozen, Sofia the First and castles, so I was hopeful he would enjoy the princess theme.
In the book, a mother introduces her son, whom she calls “my princess boy”, as a young boy who likes wearing dresses, tiaras and other things designated for girls. The story is simple, touching and sends home the message that the gender a person is assigned at birth should not dictate what they wear or how they self-express. The book also emphasizes acceptance and love for those who might be different from us.
The first time we read the book, my nearly four-year-old son and I were recapping after we finished the story. I said, “What a nice story! So there is no such thing as clothing for girls or clothing for boys. If a boy wants to wear a dress, like the princess boy, it’s okay.”
My son agreed and said somewhat sadly, “But Mommy, I don’t have a dress.”
“Yes you do,” I replied. “You have the Anna costume from the movie Frozen.”
His eyes lit up and he shouted, “Oh yea! I’m going to go and put it on!”
This past Halloween, my son expressed a desire to be Elsa from the movie Frozen, but once in the store, he selected the Anna costume. Ultimately, he decided to go as Iron Man, but we kept the dress for our costume box. He raced to the play room where we keep the costumes and ran back with the dress in his hand.
He had me help him put on the dress and I said, “That looks really pretty!”
He smiled and patted down the skirt and said, “Yea, it is pretty.”
In My Princess Boy, the father twirls his son while he’s wearing a dress so I asked my son, “Do you want me to twirl you like the Princess Boy?”
“Yes!” He exclaimed, excitedly.
I gave him a twirl and then he said, “Okay, I’m ready to take off the dress now. Where is the Iron Man costume?” And he was off, yet again, to seek out the costume box.
This whole interaction happened in front of my 18 month old daughter, who asked to put on the dress after my son was finished. When he was done with the Iron Man costume, she asked to wear that costume next. Both of my children experienced the freedom to decide how they wanted to play dress up, without gender norms influencing their choices.
Reading My Princess Boy created the space for this entire line of play to happen and I was reminded what wonderful tools books can be for parents and children alike. Talking about gender identity, or race or sexuality can, of course, happen without a book, but it was so much easier to use My Princess Boy as the platform to start the conversation. Also, the fact that my son felt inspired to put on a dress after reading the book hammered home how powerful messages are for children. I didn’t say to him, “go put on a dress”, all I said was it’s okay for boys to wear dresses. Space was cultivated for him to explore and self-express in a way he usually doesn’t.
That night, I shared with my husband the beautiful encounter cultivated by reading My Princess Boy. Playing devils advocate he pondered, “could we be encouraging or influencing our son to wear dresses by reading this book?” I think this is a reaction many parents might have, but I reminded him that our son is getting plenty of strong messages about how boys “should” dress and boys “should” play every day from books, television, school and our own language. The fact that My Princess Boy provides a window into a different way a boy might self-express is important because life is variant and we are actively trying to raise our children to be socially conscious. We also want to let our children know that they will be loved unconditionally and at one and four, we as parents have no idea who they will grow up to become.
Children’s books that feature diverse characters and diverse story lines matter. They offer opportunities to talk to our children about tough subject matters as well provide alternative messages to the mainstream. Here is a recent list of “20 must-read children’s books with a message” I found with titles you may not have heard before. There are many I need to go check out at my local, feminist book store, Charis Books & More. Happy reading!