Shirley Recommends is a Monthly Review of an LGBTQ+ Book for K-12 Youth
Shirley Delta Blow is rated number sixteen on the list of 100 Colorado Creatives. In addition to her marvelous stage presence and amazing costuming, Shirley has roots in teaching, storytelling, and history. She has been a powerful presence in the community with both her support within the LGBTQ+ Community and her Drag Queen Storytime performances. She has read for Drag Queen Storytime at the Lafayette, Boulder, Louisville, Park Hill, and Broomfield Public Libraries. She regularly hosts Drag Queen Bingo and Fundraising Events throughout the Denver Metro Area and has her own regular program called “I Love That Story!”
Shirley hosts a weekly Drag Bingo Brunch at the Denver Milk Market
Click Here for Information and Tickets
It Feels Good to be Yourself by Theresa Thorn with illustrations by Noah Grigni
Poodles, the title seems so obvious but it is interesting to me how long it takes us to get there and believe it… or maybe to live authentically is a better way to put it. Becoming yourself is not a linear process, it is a lifelong journey. It’s even fluid as we express parts of our identity in different ways at different times in different places. It can get complicated.
So thank goodness for Theresa Thorn and Noah Grigni and their impressive book. It Feels Good to be Yourself sets out in simple terms to explain gender identity. The book addresses concepts like non-binary, transgender and cisgender. The kid-friendly text and vibrant pictures hold an important message. Words are power. Power to create a world where you feel safe. Power to seek and find your tribe. Power to claim what belongs to you, what is uniquely your own, your identity. No one can tell you what it is, you must discover for yourself. But in the same way, no one can take it away from you either. If words didn’t have the power to do all this, there would be no arguments over preferred pronouns or what gender is listed on my ID card or in my school records.
Now, this book isn’t just about these words or concepts. The creators introduce us to young people who identify as transgender and non-binary. We can start to put a face and a name with these identities as well. When we do, our understanding grows. One reason I love reading; I get to know people in the pages of a book. Then something incredible happens, I start to see them outside the book as well, in my everyday life. I see them at the store or in the park. I meet them at a show or in a restaurant. I meet them and I start to get to know them. Author Margaret Wheatley writes, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” So the more we know (insert sparkly rainbow star), the more our compassion grows, the more our empathy grows, the more our advocacy grows. We become better people and can create safe spaces for gender non-conforming people. That is becoming increasingly important in our world today.
I recently read this book for my students before a wonderful discussion on the proper use of pronouns. It laid the perfect groundwork for students to ask thoughtful and respectful questions. I’m happy to report most students started to use the correct pronouns for a student in class right away. I am proud to be their teacher.
The book also contains lists of resources for young people and adults to help answer deeper questions, make connections in the community and get additional help and support.
In creating It Feels Good to be Yourself, the collaborators set out to shed a light on trans and non-binary children and because everyone has a gender identity, they end up celebrating all children. This is an important book. Even though it is not one story, I LOVE that story.
My Shadow is Pink by Scott Stuart
Oh my friends, I have discovered another delightful book to share with you all. It’s My Shadow is Pink by Scott Stuart. This book is so much fun to read! The rhyming text and the colorful pictures make this book an absolute joy. I just read it to a group at the Boulder Public Library for Drag Queen Story Hour and everyone loved it. I can’t seem to find enough great things to say about this book!
It’s the story of a young boy who discovers his shadow is pink and likes wearing dresses. Everyone else in the family has a blue shadow, so he doesn’t fit in. His father is strong and caring and reassures him that as he grows up his shadow will change too. As time goes by, the shadow remains unmistakably bright pink, fuschia one might say. Soon our main character must go to school for the first time. He is instructed to “dress up with your shadow in its favourite thing.” The boy pulls out his best dress, bright yellow and twirly. Dad is nervous for his son as they head to school. And as you might expect, things do not go as planned for our hopeful young student. He is the only one in the class with a pink shadow and the only student in a dress. He runs out of the school feeling ashamed of his shadow.
The pressure to fit in and be accepted comes from many sources. It can come from others and it can come from self. How often do we echo the sentiments in the story? “I want people to like me, so how do I change to fit in? What parts of myself do I show or hide so they will like me? Why do I have to be so different?” For young people, this feeling of I’m the only one like me can be scary and isolating. This loneliness can lead to many negative feelings, a poor self-concept and many harmful behaviors. They might start to feel they don’t fit in anywhere and they never will so what’s the point? We need to make sure our youth know we love and support them, no matter what. They also need to hear life is long and the world is a big place. They will find people like themselves some day in their journey. Maybe not in their hometown and maybe not tomorrow but they will find them. It gets better. Along the way they will find amazing people, have incredible experiences, make great friends and people will love them… and love them a lot.
That is exactly what happens in our story. Dad encourages his brave little boy with a hot pink shadow to put on his dress and go back to school. Dad shows his support by throwing on a frock too. They walk down the street hand in hand and heads held high. Dad is proud of his son. This time as the boy walks into the room, he puffs out his chest and says, “I may be different, but different is best.” He quickly finds a small group of friends and they have a great day at school. The journey to live authentically takes a huge step forward on that day.
Of course, poodles, you know what I’m going to say, “I love that story.”
Strictly No Elephants written by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
I have been thinking recently about my amazing circle of friends. How long I’ve known some of them. The interesting or mundane circumstances around our meeting. The fun and difficult times we’ve shared. How I’ve grown by knowing each of them. All the things it takes to be a good friend. Reminiscing also makes me think about the times I’ve been treated poorly by my friends. How I’ve had to set boundaries or leave certain circles for my own well-being. You don’t get to choose your family but you do get to choose your friends. Choose wisely.
Poodles, I wanted to start my recommendation this way because our book highlights friendships. Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and Taeeun Yoo deals with having friends. Having good friends, being disappointed by friends, and making new friends are all tackled in this beautifully illustrated allegory. The spare text tells the story of a boy with a tiny pet elephant. He knows right away he doesn’t fit in with all the pet owners in his building. They have common pets, dogs, cats, fish and birds. One day he heads out for Pet Club Day. All of his friends will be there. When he gets to the door there is a sign which states STRICTLY NO ELEPHANTS. They won’t let him into the meeting. Disappointed, he leaves.
As queer people, we are invited to gatherings or special events. We are there to celebrate and connect with friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. However, there is often an unspoken rule similar to the sign posted on the door in our story. It reads NO QUEERS ALLOWED. Don’t be too flamboyant, it might tell me. Or don’t don’t be too butch or sensitive or political, it might tell someone else. In other words, BE MORE LIKE US. In any case, it’s not fair. The host knew who I was when I was invited. But when I show up I am asked to leave a piece of myself at the door. This happens to queer people all the time.
Thank goodness our story doesn’t end there. Our plucky pachyderm leads the way and our boy makes a new friend with a pet skunk. They were also excluded from the meeting. These two decide to start their own club. On the walk, they meet other pet owners who weren’t allowed in the club either. Some pets include a bat, a giraffe, a hedgehog and my favorite, a tiny narwhal. (Yes, Virginia, they do exist.) They gather for their first meeting and on their sign they write ALL ARE WELCOME.
As queer people, we find ourselves doing this as well, creating safe spaces for ourselves. Places where we can be exactly who we are, free from judgement or shame. Free to be ourselves and inviting others to do the same. In doing so, we provide the welcome we wish we had received at those other events. In the end, our spaces become better, more diverse and more inclusive. We can learn from people who are different from ourselves. We gain the benefit from a variety of perspectives. When this happens, they make our lives, our communites, our world better.
Not bad for a boy who didn’t fit in and his tiny elephant. Of course, my friends, I love that story.
Fred Gets Dressed by Peter Brown
Poodles, I have to start by saying, I just adore Peter Brown. This multi-talented author/illustrator writes picture books and novels for young readers. He tackles topics with humor, sensitivity and compassion. Check out a young boy who discovers and creates A Curious Garden or The Wild Robot about the mysterious appearance of a robot on an island. But enough of Shirley fan-girling, let’s get to today’s recommendation.
Peter Brown just released a wonderful new book. Fred Gets Dressed is a charming story about a boy called Fred who is discovered trying on his mother’s clothes, jewelry and makeup. Told in spare text with delightful pictures using only pink, green, black and white the story is a powerful reminder of a parent’s love.
I think many of us (if not all) have a memory from our childhood when we explored what it might be like to be grown up. We innocently put on our adult’s shoes and tried to walk around, to hilarious effect. We discovered makeup or jewelry and imagined going out on the town: our imaginations running wild. Our desire to connect and be like is one of our greatest assets. As people we have a fundamental need to relate to each other, especially family. Sadly, I think we also have a memory of being shamed for that same desire. We can still hear. “Take that off. You look ridiculous.” even years later. We were shamed for our admiration and creativity, even by those we set out to be like.
But, dear reader, don’t worry. The story doesn’t end that way. The parents “join in on the fun.” There is no shame for this innocent exploration. Fred Gets Dressed is based on one of the author’s favorite memories from childhood.
It is my hope all parents learn the lesson presented in this book to love your children well. After all, isn’t that the job of a parent?
Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima
This delightful tale centers around Kelp, an unusual narwhal. (He is actually a unicorn but shhh, don’t tell him that yet.) He lives contentedly with his friends deep in the ocean. He knows he is different in many ways but his friends don’t mind so Kelp decides he won’t worry about it either. One day, just like in every good story, everything changes. Kelp is swept away by a strong current and finds himself on land for the very first time. There he meets some unicorns who teach him about himself. Changed by his experience he returns home and he must make a choice: do I live as I did before or do I swim into my new identity?
This time of year, I always reflect about the history and meaning of Pride. I think about the young people who are coming out today. Just like Kelp, it can be scary to open up to new ideas about ourselves. It might be easier to forget our “time on the land” when we met people like us for the first time. But then again, now we know there is more out there than we thought before. Our view of ourselves is expanding. Can we really go back to the way life was? Will that be life?
Do I stay the way I was or do I allow myself to become something new? That is the question everyone one of us faces. There is no one right answer and there are many colors in the rainbow. But with the help and support, we can navigate the course together. Maybe a friend sees something in you that you can’t see yourself. Maybe a teacher recognizes a talent and encourages you to pursue it. Maybe a parent, sibling or relative gives you the support you need to live authentically.
And that’s exactly what Kelp experiences. FInd a copy of Not Quite Narwhal for yourself and enjoy this wonderful and colorful story.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
This month I’d like to recommend a book for our teen readers. Casey McQuinston’s quote on the front cover touts this novel as “a firecracker of a book”, and I totally agree. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, starts off with a bang and never slows down. This book is both a page-turning whodunnit, and a sweet, messy coming of age story. Crafted beautifully by the skillful author, this gritty and unflinching story centers on a young trans man named Felix. Who is exploring all of his identities; Black, queer, and trans, while simultaneously navigating the social circles of his art school.
Felix becomes a classic detective in the digital age, when someone posts pictures of him before he transitioned in the school lobby, along with his deadname. With the help of his friends and classmates, he is driven to solve the mystery. He uses questionable techniques in order to get information. It’s a gray area that all detectives must negotiate. This vicious attack also sends him emotionally reeling. Felix starts to re-examine his identities, his feelings, and his place in his community. Sometimes our own identity is in a gray area as well.
Identity is always complex. Discovering our true selves is a life-long process. Words have power. Meanings can change and have shades of nuance. It is the Catch-22 of being self-aware. We want to claim an identity and start finding our place in the world. But getting there takes time. Before we fly, we fall, make mistakes, and feel the sting of loss. Then, many times without realizing it, we wake up into the becoming and there we are.
This powerful story has an important message. Becoming is an active word in the present tense. Whether we are discovering ourselves for the first time or after many years, we are always living into the person we want to become.
So, Poodles, I hope you will pick up a copy of Felix Ever After and enjoy the ride.
Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival
I thought I would start my first column with one of my absolute favorite picture books. I’m proud to recommend Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival. It is the story of a young boy who suddenly and without explanation grows a pair of beautiful rainbow-colored wings. He tries them out and has an amazing first flight soaring with the birds. What a thrill! The story follows his attempts to cover up the wings and hide them from his family and friends. You see, he is uncertain of their reaction. In doing so, however, he becomes miserable.
How many times have we as queer people hidden our true identities out of fear, uncertain of the reaction we will receive from family and friends, neighbors and co-workers, classmates or teammtes? These are the people closest to us; the ones we think will have our backs. The ones who should. In hiding, we become miserable too. When we choose to come out, sometimes we are surprised by who accepts or rejects us. Sometimes we are not. There is both joy and pain in this experience. But hope springs eternal. It does for us and it does for Norman.
Fear not, poodles. I have good news to report. This story has a happy ending. Norman realizes his wings are nothing to be ashamed of. He reveals them to his parents and takes off into the sky on another glorious flight. This wonderful story is accompanied with beautiful illustrations that make it a favorite at Story Time. Pick up a copy at a local bookstore or check it out from your library. I know you will read it and say, “I love that story.”