Last month, I was stunned to see that the children’s book I wrote made the front page of the News Reporter in Columbus County, North Carolina. Reading on, I learned that the local school district had banned my book “One of a Kind, Like Me/Único como yo,” calling it “age-inappropriate.”
The bilingual book is about a little boy who dresses up as a princess and is based on my child, Danny, who is now an adult. After a college student performed the book for the district’s elementary schools, some parents became “troubled and disgruntled.” They complained on social media and voiced their concerns to school officials. One mom said that her daughter was confused, and asked why Danny “wanted to be a girl when he was a boy.” School officials apologized for “missing the mark” and said that it wouldn’t happen again.
My fight-or-flight response kicked in when I read what one school board member said: “Gender identity politics is in no way appropriate for students at this age level, and we are all cognizant of that fact. We are appalled, and please accept our apology for your children being exposed to something that was age-inappropriate.”
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only mother who was outraged by this statement. Members of Serendipitydodah - Home of the Mama Bears, a private Facebook group of over 27,000 moms of LGBTQ+ children, were also upset.
The group’s founder, Liz Dyer, took immediate action. She posted a powerful response, expressing her sadness and disappointment with the district’s actions and pointing out how they endanger the health and safety of children. Many other moms in the group also responded, letting me know that they had my back. I have to admit I was intimidated by the parents in Columbus County, but the supportive Mama Bears emboldened me to write my own response.
What happened in Columbus County isn’t an isolated incident. Outmoded, binary restrictions on gender permeate our entire society, not just Columbus County. Schools across the nation, even elementary schools, are often hostile environments for LGBTQ+ youth, especially LGBTQ+ youth of color. The message in Columbus County is the same message behind the tidal wave of legislation that’s threatening to ban transgender youth from sports, deny them life-saving health care, and even force public employees to out them to their parents.
That message says one thing clearly: Children like mine are unwelcome. When you ban my book, you’re telling me that a child like mine doesn’t belong in your schools or your communities. This story is about Columbus County ― and about all of us.
My heart ached when I saw parents and school board members using terms like “gender identity politics” and “gay agenda” to disparage the book and the student who performed it. These terms feed into fear of difference and dehumanize the people involved. The story was chosen and performed by a Latinx college student, who loved the fact that it was bilingual (Spanish and English).
Growing up, there were no books to help me understand my mixed-race identity. When I became a mother, my child Danny had no books to affirm who they were. Danny dealt with loneliness, isolation and mistreatment from both children and adults. This book, based on a true story, is my labor of love. My “agenda” is to make the world better for children like mine and their families.
After the book was banned, I teamed up with Robert Liu-Trujillo, the book’s illustrator, to find ways to respond. Robert is also a parent and is deeply concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s books. He works to fill this gap through both illustrating and writing. Robert wrote, “I grew up thinking reading was not fun and not for me because I never saw a book about a child with a life like mine. No books about mixed kids, no books about divorced parents, no books about kids with parents who are queer, etc. And that deeply affected me. It made me want to turn away from reading. No child should feel like that in 2021.”
“All children lose when they get the message that differences are to be feared rather than celebrated.”
Parents who take away books about diversity may believe in their hearts that they’re protecting their children, but they’re causing a world of harm. As a parent, I didn’t celebrate my child from the start. I was scared and sometimes wished they would change. I had to rethink my understanding of gender, and I’m still learning. I might have been a better parent ― and Danny might have had a happier childhood ― if there were books that celebrated children like them.
My book is not alone. When I googled banned books I saw the name of a fellow author, Alex Gino. Alex’s award-winning book “George,” about a transgender girl, has been on the top of the banned books list since it came out. I reached out to Alex, who wrote back, saying, “It’s painful to think that our lives are so scary that children need to be shielded from us. And it ends up both with transgender and gender-nonconforming kids blocked from seeing representation of themselves, and with cisgender kids who miss out on incorporating us into their understanding of the world.”
Books with LGBTQ+ content are the most likely to be banned. When this happens, the biggest injustice is to LGBTQ+ children. Some are scared and confused because they have no idea that there are other kids like them. Many are not accepted by their families, so school may be their only refuge. All children lose when they get the message that differences are to be feared rather than celebrated.
In Robert’s words, “A child doesn’t have to know and/or understand all that is on a book’s cover or within its pages to enjoy it. When a child sees a reflection of themselves, they can feel seen in what sometimes feels like a world of invisibility. And for a child who has never met someone like the main character in “One of a Kind, Like Me,” it’s a safe way for them to get to know them and understand that there are kids like Danny, and not only is that ok, it is awesome.”
Some adults think that a book about a little boy who dresses up as a princess is “age-inappropriate.” I disagree. This is discrimination under the guise of concern.
The book has been used in numerous elementary schools at all grade levels. When I’ve talked with kids about the book, they share many questions and opinions. What I’ve seen is curiosity, not confusion. Children already know a lot about gender and need support dealing with gender stereotypes, gender-based bullying and gender policing. Children who are transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming need books that affirm who they are and help their peers understand them. Bottom line: There’s no inappropriate age for learning about love and acceptance.
Dr. Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock runs the UNCW Storyteller Program that brought the book to the Columbus County schools. The program’s aim is to encourage literacy and provide a window into what college is like. I talked with her about how the students use performance to engage children in stories. The program highlights several books that show different types of diversity. The students did eight performances for elementary schools in Hanover and Columbus Counties. “One of a Kind Like Me/Único como yo” was a favorite in several of the Hanover County schools. Up until the district-wide performance in Columbus County, none of the parents complained that the book was age-inappropriate.
This is not the first or, I’m sure, the last time that arguments about age-appropriateness have been or will be used by adults to deprive young people of critically needed education. Two weeks after the book was banned, the school board eliminated the sex education program for ninth graders, citing concerns that it was “not age-appropriate.” They made this decision without reviewing survey data showing that most students benefited greatly from the program. One health board member, whose daughter took the course, called the decision an “injustice to students.” I fully agree.
The banning of my book has reignited my determination to bring it to as many children as possible. Robert and I are ready to share our story and committed to lifting up organizations like Youth OUTright, Campaign for Southern Equality, Equality North Carolina, Southerners on New Ground, and Transgender Law Center. These organizations are doing critical work to provide safe spaces and push back against bills that attack transgender youth in North Carolina and beyond. They need support from all of us.
Transgender, nonbinary, queer and gender-nonconforming kids exist. They have always been part of our schools, communities and families. They’re here to stay, and trying to make them invisible or legislate away their existence won’t change that fact. Now, more than ever, they need and deserve schools that affirm and celebrate them.
The times we’re in call for more diverse books, not fewer. We’re not only surviving a pandemic; we’re also dealing with an epidemic of hate and violence that threatens many communities. Rather than shielding our children from difference, we adults need to demonstrate and help them learn empathy and love. Diverse and inclusive books can help us do just that.
Note: The author wants to offer thanks to Danny Moreno for encouraging her to tell this story and helping her edit it.
Laurin Mayeno is a children’s book author and equity and justice consultant whose work is inspired by her experiences growing up mixed race and parenting a nonbinary queer child. She wrote “One of a Kind Like Me/Único como yo,” a bilingual (Spanish/English) story about a little boy who wants to dress up as a princess. Laurin is also active in Somos Familia, an intergenerational organization she co-founded that supports families with LGBTQ+ children in the Latinx community.