‘Both-in-One’ Thinking: Reflecting on the Gender Prism in Children’s Books

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 23rd, 2018

Before the days of NPR’s Moth story hour, I confess I used to think of storytelling among adults as an alarming and generally tedious art form, where someone exceptionally ungifted at narrative holds an audience captive while they gleefully stroke their beard. My friend Sue Schmidt, one of the best storytellers I’ve ever heard and the producer of Burlington’s Moth, calls this the “Let me tell you a maritime tale” school of storytelling, or “Now I’ll rummage through my box of puppets.” Happily, The Moth changed all that, and storytelling is everywhere, as it should be. All we are as humans are our stories (our experiences) and our connections to other people, so when someone knows how to shape a story arc and make us laugh and see through their eyes and feel through their heart, something magical happens.

Earlier in October, I visited one of my favorite performance venues for storytelling, Northampton’s Academy of Music, for the year’s final story slam put on by New England Public Radio’s Valley Voices. Two of my friends were telling that night, and there were several performers I’d never heard before. One of them was Teal van Dyck, who talked about their experience as a “gender-abundant” person (my favorite new term!), someone who embodies both male and female qualities. Teal, for example, has flowing, beautiful long hair, a curvy chest, and a beard. As you might imagine, this sparks a lot of questions from curious children. Teal spoke about many encounters in grocery stores, where direct, honest questions from kids are often abruptly and dishearteningly shut down by their embarrassed parents, who don’t know how to handle the situation.

Navigating gender terminology and etiquette has never been more complicated, but it is wonderful that (a) the internet exists so that we can all educate ourselves and that (b) people like Teal are willing to share their experiences, vocabulary, and heart with audiences who are just catching up with the nuances of language and our limited definitions. Teal’s story is not mine to tell, but I hope they won’t mind my sharing my favorite moment of the story. (Note: from here on out, I’m paraphrasing, so please go hear Teal’s story yourselves for the real thing. Update: it turns out that the audio for October’s show didn’t come out, so the link leads to a different version of this story; Teal is the third storyteller.) One night, exhausted after a particularly upsetting encounter at the grocery store, where a parent handled his children’s inquisitiveness with a rough hand, Teal spoke with a friend on the phone. The friend said, “I’m so glad you called, because I wanted to tell you that you’re in our book.” The book, they explained, is filled with magical creatures as well as people who are “both-in-one” people, like Teal. They created the book for their child, who is a “both-in-one” kind of kid. My throat got lumpy from the deep sweetness of that loving and creative family project. So beautiful.

After the storytelling evening, I was delighted by the joyful terms, “gender-abundant” and “both-in-one,” and immediately wanted to have a book like Teal’s friends’ book, to share at the store with customers and to give to the children in my life. But it only exists in their household so far. (Maybe they would be willing to share it with a larger audience?) In the meantime, books like the glorious Julián Is a Mermaid (which I adore and have blogged about before) will help move us closer toward a world where both-in-one thinking is celebrated.

Can you all think of more gender-abundant children’s books?

P.S. For those of you who might think of adult storytelling as a slow train through boredom, here’s a pretty piece CBS Sunday Morning did featuring Sue (and several others) and storytelling in VT:

2 thoughts on “‘Both-in-One’ Thinking: Reflecting on the Gender Prism in Children’s Books

  1. Susie Albert

    Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker features a wonderful grandparent Grandy who is sometimes Vern and other times Vera.

    And, Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death features a very gender fluid character.

  2. Kevin A. Lewis

    To update a quip from Oscar Wilde’s day, “I don’t care what people do as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the Uber drivers.” And going out of your way to introduce elements of identity confusion in pre-pubescent kids is definitely crossing the line. They’ll figure that stuff out as they get older-there’s no shortage of info and opinion on stuff like this. Right now, their job is learning basic facts, having fun without getting killed, and and honing their fight-or-flight skills and learning when to call upon which. It doesn’t hurt them to know that there are different people in the world,but one shouldn’t make it the focus of their world… I met the only transgender kid of my entire childhood in the 60’s before there was any official definition; he was 7 and cried a lot over tiny stuff the rest of us barely noticed. Moved away before I figured out what planet he was from. He still has my favorite U.N.C.L.E. gun, damn his eyes…

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