In 2020, Puerta Abierta Atitlan, the school that I adore and founded nearly 15 years ago, welcomed a new student into our program. To respect the privacy of our student, I’ll refer to him as *Lucas*. Lucas transferred to our center as a 4th grader. Prior to his arrival, he had bounced between a few different schools in our community where he struggled to fit in. In fact, in his case, being unnoticed and ignored may have been preferable to being recognized and bullied. Schools are small communities, microcosms within a town or neighborhood. Healthy communities celebrate diversity and simultaneously welcome inclusion which is then reflected in school centers. And yet many communities struggle with themes of acceptance, inclusion and diversity which in turn, is manifested in schools.
Lucas likes sparkles, rainbow sneakers, nail polish, and fashion. In fact, he dreams of designing clothes in the future and, when his mind begins to drift in class, he’s known to be making sketches of run-way ensambles. Lucas accessorizes with hair clips, purple socks and unicorn prints. He also loves to play sports, read books and participate in the school robotics club.
La Puerta Abierta was founded on principles of inclusion and our center is committed to providing EVERY child with a meaningful, quality and loving education. And yet in 2020, I felt challenged with preparing our staff with adequate tools and resources for creating a welcoming environment for Lucas. Our school is located in a rural Mayan village with strong religious and cultural influences. Themes of gender, identity, racism and sexism are just beginning to be acknowledged.
In January of 2021 our school pledged to spend a year exploring themes of gender, identity and inclusion with the intention of nurturing a safe space for children like Lucas. I have discovered that children’s books have been invaluable tools with teachers and students alike, for delving into concepts that are still uncharted in rural communities like Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
After talking with many friends, educators, activists and parents, I have compiled a list of my favorite picture books that connect with concepts of gender, identity and inclusion.
- BOW-WOW-MEOW by Blanca Lacasa and illustrated by Gómez is one of my all time favorite books and has captured my heart. Lacasa introduces us to Fabio, a dog who really doesn’t like dog “things.” He doesn’t play fetch or search for bones. He doesn’t bark or hang his tongue out of his mouth when he is tired. Fabio’s family ALWAYS tries to inspire him TO BE a dog, but he simply doesn’t respond. Late one night, Fabio’s family discovers that he sneaks away from the house every evening TO BE a cat! He loves to climb walls, chase mice, play with yarn, and meow in the moonlight. Above all else, Fabio’s family observes that he is happy.
BOW-WOW-MEOW provokes discussion around inclusion, identity and and acceptance. This book is also available in Spanish as NI GUAU NI MIAU.
2. Award-winning Julián is a Mermaid, written and illustrated by Jessica Love, is a gem of a picture book, a story about Julian and his relationship with his abuela.
Jessica Love inspires the reader to explore the importance of being seen, accepted and loved. This book is also available in Spanish as Sirenas.
3. Daniela the Pirate, written by Susanna Isern and illustrated by Gómez, is a favorite at Puerta Abierta Atitlan amongst both teachers and students! We meet Daniela, a brave, courageous, smart, and capable girl who dreams of becoming a pirate on the legendary ship, the Black Croc. However, Capitan Choppylobe doubts that a girl can pass ALL the pirate tests. Could Capitan Choppylobe be inventing new challenges for Daniela, even more than the tests for boys, when he discovers that she is more than accomplished?
And even when Daniela passes the daring pirate trials, will she be accepted by the crew? Daniela the Pirate encourages discussion about gender roles, stereotypes and identity. This book is also available in Spanish as Daniela Pirata.
4. Me llamo Pecas, written and illustrated by Raquel Díaz Reguera, is near and dear to me. Pecas is the youngest sibling of three. She has an older sister and an older brother, and yet, throughout the entire book, we never learn if Pecas is a boy or a girl. In fact, Pecas inspires the reader to question if there truly are “girl” and “boy” activities, clothes, interests, etc. and if so, why? Me llamo Pecas is a powerful story that can be used to generate conversation around and question societal norms, stereotypes, gender and identity. For the moment, this book is only available in Spanish.
While I have discovered a variety of children’s picture books that explore themes of gender, identity and inclusion, the four stories listed above remain my all time favorites! They are approachable, workable in both Spanish and English, gorgeous in both word and illustration, and above all, impactful for both the child and adult reader. At la Puerta Abierta, these four books have opened conversation for our teachers and students, as we continue to learn how to provide safe spaces for all children, including Lucas.
I send a loud shout out to Nube Ocho, a publishing house that specializes in picture books for children and that is committed to values and diversity. Three of the four books on my list were published by Nube Ocho.