Gender Themed Latinx Children’s Literature

By Gilberto Peña Lara, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Gender is often presented as a binary where children have only two specific gender trajectories. As social norms, children are expected to conform to male or female ways of being. When children deviate from these social rules they are often met with harsh scolding, ridicule or even threats of harm. School is a place of socialization where children are socialized in many ways including rigid gendered identities. The classroom also offers important opportunities to break with sexist and homophobic attitudes and language. Just as we have a responsibility to stand up to racism or advocate for diversity, we also need to position gender identity as equally important and a basic human right.

There are many great books that can create opportunities for discussions in the classroom to help students question any problematic gendered assumptions they may hold. Some timeless examples of children’s books are the Paper Bag Princess, Piggybook, and Amazing Grace. These books feature girls and women who defy, challenge and question gendered expectations. Other classic books that feature male characters such as And Tango Makes Three and Oliver Button Is a Sissy are great books to help students begin to question the pressure for boys to conform. In addition to being excellent books, these five books are also available in languages such as Spanish.

As Latinx children begin to account for about a quarter of the school age population, it is tantamount to find literature that is culturally relevant and in which students can see themselves reflected. When children of color are exposed to books with characters who look like them and speak like them, they are more likely to be engaged and see themselves validated as part of the larger community. I myself remember seeing a book with Latino characters in high school and being amazed that the characters could speak my home language and that they made cultural references to folk heroes. Let’s hope that students don’t have to wait until adulthood before they are validated by literature like me. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tracks the trends in children’s books by and about people of color. Looking at the CCBC data for the last couple of decades shows that the percentages of Latinx focused books have risen from about 1.5% to about 5.8%. Things are getting better as far as opportunities for Latinx children being represented in the books that are available, but we still have a ways to go. More importantly, books that show the diversity of the Latino experience to include characters who are not gender conforming are becoming more common place.

As I scanned my library of children’s literature that focuses on gender topics, I began to explore how Latinx children are represented in texts with male and female characters defying expectations or being themselves. What follows is a non-exhaustive list of books that feature Latinx protagonists in nonconforming gender activities. The hope is these books offer windows and mirrors for children and pre-service teachers on two scarce topics, ethnicity and gender identification. These books offer opportunities to build empathy in the classroom. Where the protagonists in these children’s books wear their hearts on their sleeves and face adversity, they also encounter acceptance. Using these texts in the elementary classroom or teacher preparation courses opens up spaces for introspection and discussion about the complexity of the characters’ experiences, our complicities in these socializations and our acceptance of gender identification as a basic human and civil right.

Antonio’s Card/ La tarjeta de Antonio, by Rigoberto González
Publisher: Lee & Low Books Inc.
ISBN: 9780892393879
Age Range: 7 – 10 years
Description: This bilingual book features Antonio who lives in a multicultural family. It asks us to interrogate how our typical assignments like making a Mother’s Day card may not always be inclusive. Having two moms at home, Arturo has to navigate teasing and a world with heteronormative assignments and expectations. The book includes both English and Spanish text.

Drum, Chavi, Drum!/Toca, Chavi, toca!, by Mayra Lazara Dole
Publisher: Children’s Book Press
ISBN: 9780892393022
Age Range: 4 – 8 years
Description: This bilingual tale describes the journey of Chavi, a girl of Cuban descent who lives in Miami and wants to play the drums in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho festival. The only issue is that typically boys and men play the drums. The book highlights Chavi’s grit and perseverance to show her talent in spite of gender barriers. The book includes both English and Spanish text.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Margarita Engle
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 9780892393022
Age Range: 4 – 7 years
Description: A biographic book about Milo Castro-Zaldarriaga, a Cuban girl who challenged the social construction that only boys and men could play the drums. Practicing in secret and refusing to accept boundaries the protagonist lives out her passion for music.

Elena’s Serenade, by Campbell Geeslin
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 9780689849084
Age Range: 3 – 7 years
Description: This magical realism book depicts Elena, a young girl from Mexico whose father is a glassblower. After being told that she is too young and that girls cannot be glassblowers Elena sets out on a journey. Elena’s determination to break down barriers leads her to dress as a boy and set out to learn from other master glassblowers. This title is also available in Spanish as Elenita.

José! Born to Dance: The Story of Jose Limon, by Susanna Reich
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
ISBN: 9780689865763
Age Range: 5 – 8 years
Description: This biography follows the trajectory of José Limón whose family left Mexico during civil unrest and settled in the US. Enduring ridicule by his peers because of his speech, José perseveres to excel in his studies. His love by the arts was encouraged and nurtured by his family. After moving to New York, José forms his own dance company and becomes a world-renowned dancer and choreographer.

Julian is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN: 9780763690458
Age Range: Preschool – 3
Description: Coney Island’s Mermaid parade attracts both adults and children to an event that celebrates pageantry, costumes and eclectic personalities. While reading a book about mermaids Julián sees women dressed as mermaids on their way to the parade. Once home, Julián grabs what he can find to fashion a mermaid costume of his own. Abuela helps him complete his costume with a necklace and takes him to the parade.

Lucia the Luchadora, by Cynthia Leonor Garza
Publisher: POW!
ISBN: 9781576878279
Age Level: 3 – 7 years
Description: Lucía loves to play superhero, but at school her peers tell her that girls cannot be superheroes. Abuela lets her in on a well-kept secret: she was once a luchadora who donned a mask to protect her identity. Meeting a real-life masked heroine, Lucía is emboldened to take up the identity of a luchadora herself. In the playground, her identity may be compromised when she has to stand up for injustice in the playground.

Lucia the Luchadora and the Million Masks, by Cynthia Leonor Garza
Publisher: POW!
ISBN: 9781576878941
Age Range: 3 – 7 years
Description: This sequel catches up with Lucía as she learns to share her masked adventures with her sister. Prompted by the need for sister to get her own mask, Abuela takes the girls to el Mercado. Seeing the various masks Lucía dreams of becoming like her hero, Mil Mascaras, the wrestler of a thousand masks. With her sister, Lucía, who always finds trouble, sets out to help those in need at el Mercado.

Max Loves Muñecas!, by Zetta Elliott
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
ISBN: 9781497332027
Age Range: 4 – 8 years
Description: Max is curious about some intricate dolls on a storefront. Worried about being teased, Max works up the courage to check them out. Inside he finds Señor Pepe who shares his story as an immigrant child from Honduras that embraced his love for making beautiful dolls without bending to the will of other people’s gendered expectations. This short novel is also available in Spanish as ¡A Max le gustan las muñecas!.

My Little Car, by Gary Soto
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
ISBN: 9780399232206
Age Range: 4 – 8 years
Description: Teresa has outgrown her tricycle and is surprised when a package from Abuelito arrives with a beautiful lowrider pedal car. When Teresa pedals the car down the sidewalk it provokes awes and stares. When the car suffers from neglect and falls into disrepair, Teresa has a hard time outrunning a scary dog. Realizing that she needs to give the car some True Love and Care, Teresa restores the car to its former glory with Abuelo’s help.

One of a Kind, Like Me/Unico Como Yo, by Laurin Mayeno
Publisher: Blood Orange Press
ISBN: 9780985351410
Age Range: 4 – 8 years
Description: In this bilingual book Danny knows what he wants to be for the school parade: a princess. His entire family is supportive but he needs the right dress, so where to find it? Grandpa suggests the second-hand store. Danny and his parents set out to find the perfect attire for a princess costume. The book includes both English and Spanish text.

Pink Fire Trucks/Los camiones de Bomberos de color rosado, by Gladys Elizabeth Barbieri
Publisher: Castlebridge Books
ISBN: 9781601311450
Age Range: 4 – 8 years
Description: This bilingual book features Gladys, who wants to be a firefighter but is discouraged by Rudy, a classmate. Even though she is told that a girl cannot be a “fireman,” Gladys’s resolve is not shaken. Instead it is validated as the class meets a female firefighter during a fieldtrip. When Rudy falls and gets hurt, Gladys springs into action as a firefighter would to help the very person that tried to discourage her.

Children’s Books Cited
Browne, A. (1990). Piggybook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Richardson, J., Parnell, P., Cole, H., & Harris, N. P. (2015). And Tango Makes Three. New York: Little Simon, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Childrens Publishing Division.

Depaola, T. (2019). Oliver Button Is A Sissy. S.l.: Simon & Schuster Books.

Hoffman, M., & Binch, C. (2016). Amazing Grace. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Munsch, R. N., & Martchenko, M. (2018). The Paper Bag Princess. Toronto: Annick Press.

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