Nonfiction Review: They She He Me: Free to Be! by Maya and Matthew Gonzalez

They She He MeThey She He Me: Free to Be! written and illustrated by Maya and Matthew Gonzalez

From the publisher: Pronouns sere as a familiar starting point for kids and grown-ups to expand ideas about gender and celebrate personal expression with fun imagery that provides a place to meet and play. 

I don’t normally read other reviews prior to writing my own, but I happened to read some for this book and I want to address something I saw in a couple of them. And that is the idea that this book must be read with a parent to help children understand it. I call b.s. on that idea. It can absolutely be used as a conversation starter between parent and child (or educator and child) and since many young children cannot read on their own it may be a shared reading experience. But, the idea that kids need an adult to explain the idea of gender and especially a non-binary idea of gender to them is very, very gender normative and promotes cisgender as both normal and dominant. I think most children understand that male and female and the roles “traditionally” assigned to those labels are very limiting and frequently inadequate in expressing how they feel about gender. I certainly remember the feeling of “not being a good girl” because I liked to run around with the boys and because I wasn’t into pink or princesses, while still having close girl friends and loving My Little Ponys and identifying at cisgender female. Kids understand that a gender binary is too limiting, even if they identify as cisgender and this book gives them validation that they are right about that and also gives them the language they can use to express that.

Okay, with that out of the way, this is wonderful little book to have on your shelves. It’s very simple in it’s execution, which actually makes it work well as a picture book and an easy reader. Just a quick note, “they”, “she”, “he”, “me”, “we”, “to” and “be” are all sight words (words kids need to memorize on sight instead of sounding out each and every time they encounter them in a text). Very young kids will enjoy reading through this and looking at the people and even older children will be captivated by the ideas shown here (my seven year old still likes to read this one).

Maya’s illustrations are always so charming. Happy people and children with flushed cheeks, she presents a mix of skin colors, clothing, ability, and hair. Babies and toddlers, who love faces, will enjoy looking at the pictures, while young kids will enjoy the added experience of seeing the pronouns the people identify with below them. If you can read this to babies and toddlers all the better, as it will counteract some (but by no means all) of the societal pressure to conform to narrow ideas of male and female.

This is definitely one to have in your home and on your library shelves. Might you get push back from parents and patrons? Yes. But don’t let that deter you. Kids who don’t conform to the male-female binary deserve and need to see themselves in our books. We also need to give kids the vocabulary to describe gender. Please read my post about soft censoring books for more on the insidious nature of caving to the pressure of possible complaints.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.