Queer children's book author and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez did something unique with her third picture book; she didn't specify the main character's gender in the story.
Gonzalez has illustrated more than 20 children's books during her two decade long career, and in 2007 she began writing her own stories as well.
Gonzalez said the decision to write a story with a gender neutral character really harkens back to the beginning of her career.
"I moved to San Francisco to paint full time as an artist and at my first show I ended up selling one of my pieces to Harriet Rohmer, who is the founder of Children's Book Press, which is now an imprint of Lee & Low," she said.
The encounter with Rohmer launched Gonzalez's illustrating career.
"It was a phenomenal experience that opened my eyes to what was really possible and that somebody like me could have a voice in the world, essentially," she explained. "I allowed that to guide me."
Because she was illustrating children's stories, Gonzalez began visiting classrooms and working with kids. She quickly became interested in curriculum as she came to realize kids today are negotiating a lot of the same things she negotiated growing up.
"I used art as a way to figure things out," she said. "So I started teaching art, the same way I used art, basically to know myself and to heal my experiences."
To support her teaching and ideas on how to work with kids through art, Gonzalez decided to write her first book, My Colors, My World, which was published in 2007. Also, with the help of her partner, Matthew Smith-Gonzalez, she opened an online school, School of the Free Mind.
As part of School of the Free Mind's curriculum, Gonzalez created Gender Now, an activity book for kids focused on understanding gender.
She said she'd been interested in gender since having her first child.
"My daughter was in a school setting where there was a trans kid and a lot of people in her life were transgender," she said. "It was impossible to find any books to provide that reflection for her. Because of my work in the Latino community I knew just how powerful having that reflection was. So I created Gender Now in response to wanting to provide my kid with this sane way of talking about it."
In her most recent and third book, Call Me Tree/LlÃˇmame Ãˇrbol, Gonzalez said her exploration of gender happened naturally, rather than as something specific she'd set out to do.
"It just evolved," she explained. "I had held this manuscript to my heart for a number of years, and in the meanwhile I had another child and I really saw the character of my current child. For all intents and purposes she's assigned female at birth and yet I could see even more the limitations of that."
With Call Me Tree, Gonzalez wanted to provide a story that was not a pointed lesson about gender, but in a natural way helped kids explore the idea of why someone is called he or she and what assumptions are made in doing that.
"We are so hooked into this idea that there are only boys and girls, when in reality there is this entire wheel, a bigger idea of what is expressed in gender," she said.
In all three of Gonzalez's books nature plays an integral role to the story, which Gonzalez said has a lot to do with her background and how she grew up.
"In nature, which we are a part of, gender is expressed in multiple ways," she said. "It's acknowledged and being acknowledged more, how we can really learn something from nature about this multiple expression of gender."
In Call Me Tree, she uses the uniqueness of trees in nature to help draw parallels to gender expression.
"If you say tree to somebody it can conjure all kinds of different images," she said. "It could be a Yucca tree from the dessert, an Aspen from Colorado, a pine tree from the Northwest.
"What is really, inspiring and validating are the images where there are a lot of kids that look different and a lot of trees they are connected to that look different. So we actually have this visual experience, this understanding that there is this vast array of difference and yet we are all here together and nature serves as this place to reemphasize what we have maybe forgotten in some ways."
Kirkus Reviews recognized Call Me Tree as one of the "Best Picture Books of 2014 That Celebrate Diversity."
Gonzalez said she hopes to see her book make it into classrooms across the country.
"I'm in talks with a number of school settings where I think the book will end up going into schools en masse, hopefully," she said.
Gonzalez is already at work on her fourth book, which she said has a trans character at its center. The character is navigating both gender and cultural in the story.
"This one is about a person who is assigned girl at birth … she is beginning to understand she actually feels more like a he and how that expresses in her life within the Mexican culture," Gonzalez explained.
"In Mexico … there is an indigenous-based community that is still really acknowledging multiple gender expression and the power of that. In the United States, many of the Native American communities have histories of having multiple gender expressions. So these provide my imagination with all of these characters and ways of thinking that are really exciting to me."
Gonzalez, Jasmin Cardenas and Pat Mora will be at the Noche de Cuentos event at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 E. Wacker Dr., on Saturday, Jan. 31, 8-10 p.m. There is a suggestion donation of $10 for this event, which is also a fundraiser for REFORMA's Children in Crisis Project. Visit nochedecuentos.org/noche-news/ .