Maya Gonzalez on Nonbinary Representation, the Language of the Nonverbal & Power of Pronouns

Award-winning kidlit creator Maya Gonzalez (illustrator of I Can Be . . . Me!) wrote a series of essays to celebrate Pride month. The excerpt below originally appeared on The Official SCBWI Blog, and Maya’s guest posts included:

The bias no one talks about when bringing nonbinary representation to children’s books

I Can Be. . . Me!, “unbiased” reviews, and what keeps me strong in the face of discrimination

I illustrated the recently released, I Can Be. . . Me! written by Lesléa Newman, the author who wrote Heather Has Two Mommies in 1989. Lesléa’s written over 70 other books including Sparkle Boy, The Fairest in the Land and more with LGBTQ themes. I Can Be…Me is written in couplets and provides a back and forth volley of options for playing, feelings and clothing. It shows kids that they can do anything and everything they want, including break down gender norms.

Break down gender norms? When I read the manuscript, I thought what a beautiful opportunity to show kids’ natural fluidity. A small community of kids flew into my imagination and onto the page—romping in all their expansive, nonbinary glory through the text. Each one embodied inclusion and showed that a person doesn’t have to be this OR that. To be your full self, you can freely be and do and feel this AND that.  

Being so clear and free in the illustrations felt amazing. As a genderqueer femme working nearly exclusively with queer children’s book authors over the years, I’ve coded queerness into all of the books I’ve illustrated. But in those books the focus was on Latinx kid lit, so our queerness as the creators was not talked about. It was never denied, but it was never brought up in relation to our books.

I’ve taken moves to change that. This book is one of them. I have to say it feels good to be OUT in traditional publishing. No coding. Just queering. I’m grateful for the work Lesléa has done for so long here. There aren’t many of us OUT in the industry and fewer of us who are BIPOC and OUT. Saying yes to this book felt like a significant part of my children’s book journey.

But as the characters developed and I spent my days painting them onto the spreads, I could hear the questions that readers might ask.

“Is that a boy or a girl?”

“What are they really?”

As the parent of a nonbinary kid and partnered with a person of trans experience, I am more than familiar with the constant questioning. I cannot count the times my kid has been asked what they are. The projections and pressure laid on kids (and adults) about who they should be and how they should act and how that should be clear are embedded in these questions. This is a part of our culture’s gender policing. Gender conformance is at the core of nearly all bullying and this is how it begins when kids are very young.

Naturally, a bit of the parent-bear rose up in me. These weren’t just characters I had made up for a book. The kids in I Can Be…Me are based on people I know or see in my community. I felt protective. I asked if I could include an illustrator’s note. In it I asked readers to not make assumptions, the kids “are who they are, and they are everything they want to be…The practice is to try to keep your mind and your heart open and see kids as people.”

Visit The Official SCBWI Blog to read the rest!

Order a copy:
Lee & Low Books
Barnes & Noble

. . . or through your favorite LGBTQIA+-owned bookshop!

Maya Gonzalez is an award-winning children’s book artist, author, activist and progressive educator. Maya’s work addresses systemic inequity in relation to race/ethnicity, sexism and cissexism using children’s books as radical agents of change and healing, both personally and culturally. Maya co-founded Reflection Press, a POC, queer and trans owned independent publishing house that uses holistic, nature-based, and anti-oppression frameworks in their books and materials for kids and grown-ups. Maya is also the creator of the Gender Wheel, a tool to express the dynamic, infinite and inclusive reality of gender, and provides lectures and workshops to educators, parents and caregivers. 

Instagram: @mzmayagonzalez and @genderwheel