Review: A House For Everyone, interview with author, Jo Hirst

There are too few books which speak with authenticity about the experience of transgender or gender diverse children.

The majority of books about gender diverse children (10,000 dresses, My Princess Boy, The Boy in The Dress) focus on gender expression. These stories should be commended for celebrating children who break free of strict gender boundaries, but their message, that some boys, some potentially trans kids, can wear ‘girls clothes’ – always dresses, can be seen as subtly reinforcing the very stereotypes they aim to break – clothes after all, do not have a gender. These books rarely focus on gender identity, ie. who that child is, instead focusing on what they wear, or their play and friendship preferences.

Many of these stories follow a well worn trope of a child who is initially picked on for being different, is upset by this, and then following an event or intervention, is accepted by others. This simple message of celebrating difference might be helpful for children not experiencing these issues to understand the experience of those who are, but has the potential to cause shame and upset in those children who are already experiencing stigma due to their gender non conformity.

While there have been a handful of attempts to tackle gender identity in children in an accessible way, these frequently rely upon the same gender stereotypes of the gender expression books above. It is difficult, even for adults to get to grips with gender identity, how then can this be successfully handled for a child while avoiding pitfalls of stereotyping toy choices or the pink = girl, blue = boy gender binary.

Jo Hirst’s book, A House for Everyone, is a revelation. The picture book tells the story of a group of friends who are gender diverse. Together, they build a tree house and each child is introduced to the reader in turn. It is a simple and short book with delightful art. There is a strong and fast girl who has short hair and never wears dresses, a trans boy, a non binary child, a boy who loves dresses, and a boy with long hair who likes art, flowers and sport.

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Jo, is both a parent of a transgender child, and a feminist critical of gender stereotypes. She is one of the voices leading the call for school uniform reform in Australia, and has spoken out about gender stereotypes.

I spoke to Jo about her book and what her hopes are for trans children:

@DadTrans: Your story includes both a trans boy and a non binary child, what motivated you to include these characters?

Jo:  I wanted a story that would include transgender children and children who’s gender expression might differ from the social ‘norm’. It was important to me to show a clear difference between gender identity and gender expression. And at the same time let all children know that wherever you fit on the gender spectrum, no one is tied down to any stereotypes. Toys, clothes haircuts- these things don’t have a gender, it’s about what makes you feel comfortable.  I chose a trans boy because of my son but also because they are underrepresented in children’s literature and in the media space in general.(Compared to trans girls) I’m not sure why that is as they are certainly out there in large numbers.

It was also very important to include a non binary child. While we are starting to see more young adult books with non binary characters, there are almost no books for young children, apart from “Are you a Boy or a Girl” [By Fox and Owl]. When the Trans Pathways research was done in Australia last year, 46.8% of the young people surveyed identified as non binary. I meet a lot of young non binary people here in Australia. If your child has not met a trans or non binary person yet, it won’t be long! It’s a good idea to get the conversation started

@DadTrans: We’ve found a lack of books which both cater to trans & gender diverse children and also don’t fall back on gender stereotypes. How did you address this issue in A House for Everyone?

Jo: I was very aware of not only not wanting to fall back on gender stereotypes but also to make the story a very positive one. The plan was to just have the story without any explanation of Gender initially. But after testing the first version on groups of parents and teachers, I found that the pronouns alone were not enough to explain who the children were, and what their gender identity was. I added some ‘notes for grown ups’ including terms, as well as a lesson plan, links to resources and further reading.

@DadTrans: A House for Everyone is your second book focusing on gender identity in children. How does your first book, The Gender Fairy, differ? What lessons did you learn along the way?

Jo: The Gender Fairy was about two binary transgender children making a social transition. The main purpose of that book was to let transgender children know they are normal and they are not alone, that there are other children like them. While The Gender Fairy doesn’t have the same focus on gender stereotyping, there is an opportunity to talk about how society stereotypes boys and girls especially at the beginning of the book. At the same time, many young transgender children do gravitate towards stereotypical boy and girl toys and clothes, just the same way cisgender children do. I do love that the gender fairy themselves are non-binary, and my favourite line is the last one when the children ask the fairy whether they are a girl or a boy, and the fairy answers “does it matter?”

@DadTrans: What other books would you recommend for trans or gender diverse children and their parents?

Jo: The Rainbow Owl website has a fantastic list of books and resources which they keep up to date with latest releases. (That’s recommended for parents by the Australian Psychological Society and reviews books for all ages from all over the world)

@DadTrans: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing transgender children and young people?

Jo: I would quote the trans Pathways research which found without family, school and community support 48% of trans youth had attempted suicide. It’s an uphill battle to get support in the face of backlash from transphobic conservatives and media. At a time when (in Australia at least) our doctors and psychologists are telling us to support our kids they are making it really hard. The hardest part is when kids are weaponised is political debates.

@DadTrans: You have spoken before about the lack of gender stereotyping in your own childhood. How much do you think that has influenced your books?

Jo: Parental roles, clothing and toys were not overly gendered in my own early childhood. My mother was a builder when I was growing up in the 1970’s with her own “Handywoman Service” and my dad was an English and History teacher who was an equal hands on parent which was unusual for that generation. My mother has what some people would describe as a masculine gender expression and has always identified as cisgender. I have always been able to see the distinction between gender identity and gender expression. The character ‘Ivy’ in A House for Everyone is very like my mum. She likes to have her hair cut very short, never wears dresses, was the fastest runner at school and was always the leader.

@DadTrans: As the mother of a trans child, what are your hopes for your child and the current generation of trans & gender diverse children?

Jo: I’ll be really happy when one day we don’t need books like this because everyone understands gender diversity.

I would like a world for my child and all children where being trans or gender diverse does not put you in danger. Where being trans and gender diverse does not mean you have less human rights than your cisgender siblings. Where all children have equal access to safe schooling, healthcare and supportive families and good friends. Pretty much what every parent wants for their child.

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Final thoughts:

Review from @Fiercemum: A House for Everyone is exactly the book I’d been looking for, a book that includes and recognises and has space for, children who are transgender as well as those who are gender non-conforming. I’ve read it with a wide variety of children – and I see how much representation of diversity matters.

The book includes a trans boy and a non-binary child, two categories that are under-represented in books aimed at primary school age. One of the biggest responses I’ve had whilst reading the book, was from a gender non-conforming 5 year old cis boy, who was incredibly moved and validated by the book’s depiction and acceptance of gender non-conforming boys, boys with long hair, or who like sparkly dresses. The strong and fast girl Ivy, the group’s leader, is a character who would have spoken to me as a child, as a dress-hating cis ‘tom boy’, and is a character who resonates strongly with my trans daughter, who similarly loves climbing trees and having adventures.

In a world where many books about trans girls depict ultra femininity, in a world where many books about trans kids conflate and blur the differences between trans identity and gender non-conformity, A House for Everyone is a welcome breath of fresh air.

I recommend it for parents and schools to read with trans kids, for gender non-conforming kids, for kids who are diverse or different to their peers, for kids who love adventure, for kids who need to know that this world is diverse, that being different is ok, that there really is a space for everyone.

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Other children’s books on gender we’ve enjoyed:

You may also want to check out the following books we’ve liked (in a rough order of reading age):

Red, A Crayon Story

‘Pink is a Girl Color’ and other silly things people say

Are you a boy or a girl?

Vincent the Vixen

George

Lily and Dunkin

 

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