“Saving Children’s Lives”: Gender Representation in Children’s Books

Five authors open up about the importance of gender representation and how they describe LGBTQ+ characters in their children’s books.

5x5 Author's Corner Diversity LGBTQ Voices LGBTQIA+ Reads Young Readers

As we come to the end of Pride Month, I was drawn to reflect on the movement’s impact on future generations. The way gender is represented to children can significantly influence their understanding of themselves and others. To better appreciate how the normalization of diverse gender representation has impacted the world, I interviewed five fantastic authors of children’s literature. In this 5×5, we’ll be exploring the importance of gender representation in children’s books.



Meet the Authors


Adria Karlsson

Karlsson is the author of My Sister, Daisy, a moving picture book about acceptance and love. Daisy’s older brother is thrilled when he gets a new sibling. They are best buddies who do everything together. But in kindergarten, things change. His sibling tells him she is a girl and wants to be called Daisy. Daisy’s brother must adjust to the change — including what it means for him and their relationship. A powerful, moving picture book based on a true story, My Sister, Daisy handles a sensitive subject with warmth and love.




Kyle Lukoff

Lukoff is the author of Too Bright to See, a middle-grade novel exploring growing up, ghosts, and gender identity. It’s the summer before middle school and eleven-year-old Bug’s best friend Moira has decided they need to prepare. For Moira, this means figuring out the right clothes to wear and learning how to put on makeup. But none of this appeals to Bug, who doesn’t want to spend more time trying to understand how to be a girl. Besides, there’s something more important to worry about: A ghost is haunting Bug’s old house…and maybe Bug in particular. But as Bug begins to untangle the mysteries of this ghost, an altogether different truth comes to light.




Lesléa Newman

Newman is the author of Daddy, Pappa, and Me and Mommy, Mama, and Me. Mommy, Mama, and Me is a board book that uses simple rhyming text to describe a typical day in the life of a very young child whose parents are two loving moms. Daddy, Papa, and Me is a board book that uses simple rhyming text to describe a typical day in the life of a very young child whose parents are two loving dads. This pair of board books received the American Library Association Stonewall Honor in 2010.




Jonathan Shmidt Chapman

Jonathan Chapman is the co-author of Before You Were You. Before You Were You is the story of how one young child was created, with lots of love and the help of a whole community. Brought to life with rhyming verse and vivid illustrations, the picture book illuminates the journey of gestational surrogacy and egg donation to children in an age-appropriate, joyful, and engaging way. Through the eyes of the child asking his two dads how he came to be, readers will learn about this unique way that families are created.


Sophie Beer

Beer is the author and illustrator of several amazing children’s books. She says, “I aspire to create inclusive, diverse children’s books with generous helpings of cheer, colour, and fun. Some of my titles include Love Makes a Family, Kindness Makes Us Strong, and my newest book How to Say Hello, which is about consent and bodily autonomy!”







1) What was your experience with children’s literature when you were growing up? Were you able to identify with the characters of your favorite books?


Adria Karlsson: I loved reading picture books and middle-grade novels when I was in elementary school. I seem to most vividly remember the ones I read in 4th and 5th grade, and my favorites definitely featured girls that bucked expectations and often lived outside the confines of femininity. Ronia in Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lingren, Menolly in Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, and Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, and Alanna in Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce. I was lucky that books were written for me by people who had similar life experiences, but many of the most popular books “for girls” were not attractive to me at all and there were no books that reflected the LGBTQIA+ experiences of children like there are now.

Kyle Lukoff: I was always a reader, and chose books over potential friends more often than my mother would have liked. I never identified with any character as a whole, but my own anger was reflected in Gilly Hopkins, Anastasia Krupnik’s awkwardness hit too close to home, I felt seen by the desperate clutching of Gary in Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes, read All-Of-A-Kind Family dozens of times as the only Jewish representation I knew of, and based my babysitting Kid Kit after The Babysitter’s Club.

Lesléa Newman: When I was growing up, I read Dick and Jane books as well as books written by Dr. Seuss. I did not identify with the characters in these books. My favorite book was The Golden Treasury of Caroline and Her Friends, which was about a little girl whose friends were all animals: Bruno the Bear, Leo the Lion, Puff the Cat, Rusty the Dog. I am a big animal lover and I wanted to be just like Caroline when I grew up.

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: My parents instilled a love of reading together from a very young age, and I was introduced to all of the “classics.” As I got older and came out, I realized that children’s literature often provides a very singular normative view of love, relationships, and family. Now as a parent, I see how often children’s books depict a mom and a dad as the only expression of family structure. I feel strongly about contributing to an expanded canon of children’s stories so that all young people feel seen and represented.

Sophie Beer: As a cis, able-bodied, white girl, I saw myself represented everywhere in books when I was young. Books were, and are, the defining love of my life for the way you can slip into another’s shoes. Yet, I never questioned why my own perspective was always the default story, or what inclusive representation truly means.

I had always academically understood representation, which I believe is imperative for all art-makers because you’re the gatekeepers of representing reality and reality is (obviously!) diverse. But I’ve always been able to find dolls with my skin colour. I’ve always seen people with bodies like mine represented in art and media. Then, a few years ago, I sustained permanent partial deafness in traumatic circumstances. I desperately wanted to read books from the similar perspective of another hard-of-hearing person but had trouble finding any. But when I did, it was the most brilliant feeling. I glowed for days afterward. It finally, truly dawned on me what seeing someone like yourself in a book, on television, or in a movie might mean. Representation isn’t just about inclusivity, it is necessary and life-affirming. It is more than a buzzword. It is, simply, magic.




2) Why do you believe that questioning gender norms is an important subject for children’s literature?


Adria Karlsson: Kids in our country live in a society that is obsessed with the concept of gender. Toys, clothes, bed linens, and even food are marketed to kids with an expectation that they will conform to stereotypical “girl” or “boy” gender expression. That narrative is false. There are so many ways for kids to be. And I think it’s common for kids all over the gender galaxy to experience discomfort with the idea of fitting into one idealized concept of “girl” or “boy.” There are more kids than ever who feel safe revealing their genders, but we make it so hard for most of them. By normalizing gender identities and expressions outside of the tight confines of what has previously been depicted in children’s literature, we let them know they’re not alone and that it’s normal. The expectation should be that it is safe for them to figure out who they are for themselves.

Kyle Lukoff: I believe that books for children should explore the questions that they come across in their lives, and gender is a tremendous riddle that they are expected to solve, and then to correctly align with; failure is often punished without ever having the rules clearly explained. In general, I find questions more interesting than answers, and books are an excellent way to introduce a world’s worth of questions between two covers.

Lesléa Newman: Any book that gives children the message, “It’s okay to be yourself,” is important. We need to show children that there are many ways to be in the world, including living outside the gender binary. I knew from a very young age that I did not want to live the same life as the adults I saw all around me, not only in books but on TV, in movies, and in my own neighborhood. I knew I did not want to marry a man or be a mom. I knew I was different. I didn’t know that any other kind of life was possible. So I resigned myself to a life of depression and misery. I truly thought that was what my future held. I hope the books I write spare children that experience of only seeing gloom and doom ahead.

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: It is important for all children to see themselves represented in books and other forms of storytelling. Children’s Literature should provide kids with both a window and a mirror — to understand the experiences of others, and to see themselves reflected authentically. For many children, binary gender norms and heteronormativity don’t reflect their own experiences or the makeup of their families. My son is being taught that families come in all shapes and sizes, and I want that reflected in the literature we read. It is important that everyone has access to a wider, more inclusive, more diverse range of experiences.

Sophie Beer: Rigid gender silos are constrictive and harmful for adults, let alone children! There’s a beauty in embracing the parts of yourself which society may have deemed “too masculine” or “too feminine”: boys should be given space to explore the gentle, caring parts of their nature, as should girls be given permission to be loud, confident, and take up space. The sooner we see all types of gender expression as beautiful and give our children the opportunity to embrace what makes them individuals, the kinder the world will be.




3) How do you faithfully address controversial and nuanced subjects like gender representation in a short children’s book?


Adria Karlsson: Honestly. Gender representation is only controversial because of learned rules and expectations. If those rules and expectations are questioned, kids are left with the truth: no one can tell you who you are — that’s up to you. And whether you have to hide that to stay safe or can be out and proud, it doesn’t change the underlying truth that only each individual knows who they are inside their own head.

Kyle Lukoff: By understanding that I am not attempting to distill millennia of complex ideologies but rather trying to tell a particular story, and that nuance is better pulled from the specific than the overarching.

Lesléa Newman: By choosing your words carefully, especially pronouns. By creating authentic characters. By telling untold stories. By shining the light on all the beautiful ways there are to be in this world. By writing the truth. By being fearless and remembering that these books are saving children’s lives.

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: Children deserve stories that respect their intelligence, challenge their point of view, and expand their imaginations. It is important to approach these topics with honesty, authenticity, and sincerity. While we appreciate the value of books that use animal characters as metaphors, we often feel they don’t offer a whole picture to understand human experience. Our book depicts two human male parents, offers scientifically accurate “ingredients” for what makes an embryo, and offers a different perspective on how children can be created so that the experiences of all families can be normalized through the medium of storytelling.

Sophie Beer: Given the succinct nature of children’s books, making serious subjects fun and digestible can be a challenge. I believe that incidental inclusivity is the route to tackling such a broad social issue as gender representation. For example, in Love Makes a Family, the gender make-up of each family is secondary to the act of love, which is explored on each page. This can lead to gentle discussions with kids about the social issue being raised without clobbering them over the head with it!




4) How do you hope your book(s) will impact future generations?


Adria Karlsson: I hope my book helps cisgender kids see that transgender kids aren’t actually “changing” – that in fact, they are revealing who they are and that we should be honored that they feel safe enough to do so. I hope, too, that my book will help families and teachers who interact with transgender children to have a model of supportive language and behavior to draw on during the moment a kid opens up to them or when another child comes to them with questions. Maybe that will help a transgender child somewhere encounter acceptance when they would have encountered pushback. And I hope that the book shows kids that love shouldn’t be contingent on staying the same. There are many ways to evolve and so many things to learn about ourselves; this isn’t just about gender. Love should not be dependent on conformity and stagnation.

Kyle Lukoff: “Oh, I remember that book! I loved it as a kid.”

Lesléa Newman: I hope that my books make the world a safer place for future generations by showing that there are many, many ways to be in the world and one is not better than any other. I hope my books will inspire future generations to be respectful and kind to everyone they meet.

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: We hope there will be many more books available and read across the country that celebrate and normalize all kinds of identities, families, and paths to making a family! We also hope that eventually it will no longer be considered “controversial” to present stories that depict a wider range of experiences of gender, sexual orientation, and other identities in children’s literature.

Sophie Beer: Perhaps that every kid (and perhaps a few adults!) might close one of my books possessing a mite more of kindness and acceptance than they had when they opened it.




5) What kind of positive feedback have you received from your book(s)?


Adria Karlsson: I’ve had amazing feedback from readers of the advanced reader copy! People who are transgender said they felt the acceptance or wished they’d had parents like Daisy’s. People who are siblings to transgender people said they saw their own initial concerns mirrored in the questions that the narrator had about Daisy’s revelation. And parents, librarians, teachers, and other community members have read it and seen the value in its message of acceptance. And, crucially important to me, my children, whose experiences are reflected in part in this book, have embraced it wholeheartedly.

Kyle Lukoff: I’ve heard from countless parents of trans kids thanking me for providing their children with the language they need to describe how they feel and what they need.

Lesléa Newman: I receive so many notes from grateful parents who have received either Mommy, Mama, and Me or Daddy, Papa, and Me when their child was born. I received a note from a child who read Heather Has Two Mommies and said, “Thank you for writing Heather Has Two Mommies I know that you wrote it just for me.” I received a beautiful hand-made glittery note from a child who wrote, “I love Sparkle Boy! What I love most about it is everything!” I love hearing from readers, especially kids.

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: We originally wrote our book as a way to explain our son/grandson’s story to him. But in sharing it, we realized that there is a huge need for other families to see themselves reflected through our story and share it with their wider communities. We are thrilled to be able to share this story with a wider audience.

Sophie Beer: One of the best things about being a children’s book maker is that people send you photos of their kids reading your books and it is my absolute favourite thing in the world. I routinely wake up to such messages on Instagram and it never fails to make my day. Hearing from a parent that they were able to discuss environmental issues or equal marriage with their kids because of my books is such a beautiful thing and I’m so privileged to facilitate such conversations.


Finding these books

Thank you to all of the lovely authors who participated in this 5×5. Please go check out their books. My Sister, Daisy by Adria Karlsson, Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff, and Daddy, Papa, and Me and Lesléa Newman’s other wonderful books can all be found on Amazon. Sophie Beer has several titles available on Amazon, including Love Makes a Family, Kindness Makes Us Strong. Her newest book, How to Say Hello will be available soon. Jonathan Shmidt Chapman’s book Before You Were You will be published in the coming year.