Doing Good: Gender Expression and Children's Books
A funding campaign aims to help publish a kids' story that spreads awareness
Seven-year old B Browning isn’t really sure why one day he feels like wearing overalls and a flannel shirt and the next day he’ll wake up wishing he could dress like his sister Patti-Anne. What he does know is that the way he looks and the things he likes to do sometimes bother and confuse people, even the people who love him. But they feel just right to B.
I was hooked after reading this synopsis of Sharon Mentyka’s book, B in the World, which will be published in December.
The book, written for a K–2 audience, is about a boy, B (short for Blaine Powell Browning), who expresses himself in gender non-conforming ways.
A child who is called “gender non-conforming” behaves in ways that are considered to be outside the norms of his or her gender. For example, B likes wearing pink, wants to be a mermaid in the school play and wears his hair long, all behaviors which may be perceived by people as being atypical for boys.
Mentyka, who is from New York but has lived in Seattle since 1993, graciously shared her manuscript with me so I could get the full flavor of the story.
As B tries to express his true self at school, he finds himself dealing with a very unsupportive teacher and a classroom bully. The story explores how he deals with these challenges with the support of his friends and family.
After reading it, I thought, She really gets it. The story was incredibly realistic on many levels, and the characters’ development was spot on.
There are several messages I got from her book:
- Being “different” is simply OK
- Labels are damaging
- Having a supportive family and friends makes all the difference in the world to children who think they are someone else on the inside or who may be perceived as different in some way.
There’s been a lot in the news lately about gender issues. Parentmap recently covered a range of related topics in the gender issue, and The New York Times Magazine just last week ran an article about women who become men at Wellesley College. It’s great that a taboo topic is being talked about more openly.
Gender topics are loaded with bullying accounts and get my hypersensitive antennae flapping around. As a child I was bullied because of my hearing loss and now, as an adult, I understand it was because of ignorance and even, possibly, challenging life circumstances for the bullies. For example, one kid’s parents were going through an acrimonious divorce, which I am sure caused her to act the way she did. But at the time, I couldn’t yet put myself in her shoes.
Now, having two kids with hearing loss and people in my life who are gender non-conforming, I have become more interested in discovering anti-bullying curricula and resources (like Mentyka’s book) that help children learn empathy, compassion and acceptance of others’ differences.
I asked Mentyka a few questions to find out more:
On your bio you indicate: "B in the World was inspired by my experience as a member of a non-traditional family." Tell me more about that.
I’m a writer, teacher and designer and in 2007, I decided to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at the Whidbey Writers Workshop with a focus on writing for children. At about the same time, my husband of 20-plus years came out as gay. His years in the closet were a direct result of the lack of support at an early age from his family as to his orientation. He basically grew up ashamed of who he truly was, and as an adult that had painful ramifications. The story celebrates children for who they are meant to be, not how others want to label them.
What are you hoping will happen as a result of people reading this book?
My hope is that “B in the World” will open up avenues for children and their parents to have a conversation about why we fear people and things that are different. There’s so much social learning going on in the early elementary years and that’s why I specifically wanted to write a fun, engaging story for that age group of children in K-2nd grade where bullying and the stigma of being different starts to come into play. I’m hoping that this book will be fun and useful for both children and families who may have personal experience with gender non-conforming children or diversity issues but also will be appropriate for all families interested in teaching tolerance and broadening understanding of diversity.
What tips/strategies do you have for parents and families about talking to their children about other kids/people who may be different in some way?
1. Just because something or someone is different, it doesn't have to be scary. Most bullying and discrimination grows out of fear. We fear what we don’t know and the best weapon to combat fear is learning.
2. It may sounds obvious, but be a good role model for your children. Parents can’t expect children to embrace diversity and difference in their friendships if they sense your own fear or disapproval.
3. Teach your children how to be empathic. Learning and understanding the feelings of others is an important way to dispel notions of fear and goes a long way in teaching children how to embrace differences in the world.
4. Help your children to see that much of our physical world, including appearances and gender to some degree, is a construct. Teach them to look beyond physical appearances that may seem odd or different than their own and to try to learn and value the person inside.
What does B in the World offer that other books do not offer?
There are two things that make this book unique. First, there were no early reader or chapter books that I could find for children in K–2nd grade and their parents. Chapter books have a big impact because many parents tend to read them to their children as early as age 4, and then when children learn to read on their own, they’ll pick them up again. This is also an important age group because the start of school is a key point when bullying and being “different" start to come into play.
Second, there are many books that have tomboy characters or at least female characters who straddle the line between being “boyish” and “girlish.” Harriet The Spy, Nancy Drew, Ramona, to name just a few....but there aren’t any male characters in a child-appropriate book who is really engaged in exploring his female side and struggling with how to do that.
Who is your favorite character in the book and why?
Well, besides B, who’s our hero, who has such a pure heart, I’d have to say that my favorite character is Mia. And the reason is that she’s the one who undergoes the most change in the story. Once she sees that there is love and support out there for her, she can move beyond her own fear and begin to grow into the beautiful person she’s meant to be. Too often, I think we give up on people, even children, far too early. We label them as selfish, or a bully, when really they’re just crying out for someone to give them a chance to shine.
How you can help
Mentyka recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the birth of this book. The campaign, which ends Nov. 9, is raising funds to help pay for costs associated with editing and printing and also to increase outreach and publicity. Books will be made available through her website and through Amazon once they are published in December.