From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea

By Kai Cheng Thom, illustrated by Wai-Yant Li and Kai Yun Ching. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017. 40 pages. $17.95/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 3–8.

Gender variance has always been with us, but in recent years we’ve been drawn into greater awareness of what it means. Have we been paying sufficient attention? A long time ago, a Friend showed up at quarterly meeting sporting a button inquiring, “How dare you assume I am hetero?” Since the appearance of that button, American society has been challenged to become informed and aware in new ways. One way is the use of pronouns that keep up with new sensitivities. For those of us in the habit of using pronouns conventionally, a small effort suffices to learn to adopt pronouns requested by a friend or acquaintance, but it is a great courtesy to those who ask.

This is a brilliantly illustrated children’s picture book about a child “born when both the moon and the sun were in the sky, so the baby couldn’t decide what to be.” The child, who is able, at will, to grow feathers, fur, scales, or sparkles, is always changing. But every evening their mother brings them back to their little blue house, gives them a bath, and sings a loving song she learned from her own mother. Problems arise when Miu Lan goes to school. Will they make friends? The other children appear to be either boys or girls and don’t know what to make of Miu Lan’s tiger fur or peacock feathers. Once Miu Lan dresses as a boy and is invited to play baseball, but when Miu Lan attempts to join the hopscotch game, a little girl admonishes, “Boys don’t play hopscotch.” Miu Lan’s mother reassures Miu Lan that although it is not easy to be different, “you can only be who you are.” What can they do to make friends?

This is a beautiful book, easy to fall into and to enjoy its fanciful illustrations in bright colors. The illustrators have used edge-to-edge paintings on these pages, creating a world for the little blue house that is both familiar and unusual. The hand-lettered text closely resembles Comic Sans font, without capital letters except for the child’s name, but with standard punctuation. Kai Cheng Thom writes throughout using “they” and “them” to describe the genderfluid child, Miu Lan.

Children raised from birth as strongly pink or blue may be puzzled by this story, even in its fairy-tale form. For parent groups, the story raises questions that could generate enlightening discussion about societal stereotypes, what children need, and how to support them and each other. What is needed? Just as we see in this book, a child needs affirmation, understanding, and most of all love. Quakers know this. It is a large part of our work: to help our children, ourselves, and each other grow in loving understanding.

While thinking about this review, I found a helpful resource from Limerence Press: A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson. It is a small comic book that would be a useful addition to meeting libraries.

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