I recently backed a Kickstarter for a book called Meet Polkadot, by Talcott Broadhead. And now the book has arrived in the mail, and... well...
I really like the concept, and I think kids need books about nonbinary children. But I'm not sure this book is really for kids.
There are two big issues I can see with this book.
First, it's not written at a child's level. Picture books are typically for early elementary or preschool aged children (and most kids first become aware of gender at around 3 or 4), but the language in this book reads much older than that. Polkadot and their sister Gladiola and friend Norma Alicia don't think or talk like children. Polkadot uses metaphor and understands cultural relativism; Gladiola refers to the idea of things you "didn't know you didn't know" (2nd order theory of mind, at least). Overall, the conceptual level of this book is probably at least 8 or 9, and possibly a lot older. And kids that old aren't usually interested in picture books.
Second, and more serious from my perspective, it's kind of a downer book, and potentially kind of scary. Polkadot talks about being in a box, as if they're literally trapped in a box (complete with a picture). If a child can't grasp the metaphor here, this could be terrifying to them. Later, Polkadot goes on and on about how many things in our society are gendered.
I think we need to be careful in discussing discrimination with children. Firstly, some children may not have been exposed to certain discriminatory attitudes, and debunking them could create an idea in the child's mind that would otherwise not have occurred to them. Throughout this book, a lot of information about gender stereotypes is given, including a list of personality traits attributed to each gender and the idea that toys and toothbrushes are gendered. A child with progressive parents might not realize that people think toys and toothbrushes are gendered, because their parents don't. This could lead them to start trying to figure out whether a toy is "for girls" or "for boys", because the thought had never occurred to them before.
In addition, I think there's a problem in the trend - which I also see in children's books about gender noncomforming kids, binary trans kids and LGB characters - of always depicting the LGTB identity as a problem for the person. Not every story about LGBT characters needs to give airtime to homophobic or transphobic beliefs. Not only does this tell children that those beliefs exist, but it suggests that LGBT people always struggle with hate. Which isn't necessarily true even in our society, and if we achieve our dreams for the future, it will be even less true in the future.
And it brings up unhappy emotions. A happy ending doesn't negate that entirely. For a child who hasn't realized their identity yet, or knows who they are but hasn't faced discrimination, knowing that identifying a certain way can bring fear that they will suffer that themselves.
And for a child who is cisgender and heterosexual, if they always associate LGBT characters with suffering, this can provoke pity rather than true acceptance. Pity doesn't lead to empathy - the disability community knows that very well. There is more to being LGBT than being discriminated against.
And that's why we especially need books about "what are they when they're at home?" Books where the identity is discussed in terms that aren't about how the haters treat them. For example, not every book about Judaism needs to discuss the Holocaust. And not every book about LGTB people needs to discuss homophobia and transphobia.
With that said, I think Meet Polkadot is an important book, and I'm glad it exists. But when it comes time to discuss gender with my child, I'm not sure I'll want to read this to them.
Fortunately, Polkadot is supposed to be a series. Hopefully future Polkadot books will be more child-friendly.