For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, young children who do not comply with the typical gender norms are increasingly being referred to as "gender variant" or "gender exceptional." There's a real pressure not to label them as transgendered, since their age and maturity create some doubt as to whether their current feelings will necessarily become life choices.
What prompted the discussion was my review of Brian Katcher's Almost Perfect, which isn't children's fiction (it's definitely more young adult), but which develops the story of a "gender variant" child who does grow up to be transgender, complete with all the struggles and torments involved in both definitions.
Anyway, accompanying the recent press coverage has been some welcome publicity for titles like Jennifer Carr's Be Who You Are and Cheryl Kilodavis's My Princess Boy. Published late last year, both were written by mothers of "gender variant" children and promote the concepts of education, understanding, acceptance, and loving support. Jennifer's book is targeted at a slightly older age-group (ages 9-12), while Cheryl's is aimed directly at the children's market (ages 4-8).
One of the articles my friend was referring to quoted Jennfer Carr as saying her book was "the first in what she hopes is a series of children's books starring a gender nonconforming child." As exciting as it is to see more titles entering this growing niche, I was quite pleased to explain to my friend that this trend actually goes back several years. David Walliams released The Boy in the Dress in 2009 (aimed at grades 6-8), while Marcus Ewert released 10,000 Dresses in 2008 (aimed at ages 4-8). Preceeding both of these, however, was The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein, which was released way back in 2005 (aimed at ages 4-8).
Perhaps even more exciting than the books themselves is the overwhelmingly positive reception they have enjoyed. Take a look at the reviews on places like Amazon.com or Goodreads.com and nearly all of them are positive - yes, there may be the occasional critique of the writing style or illustrations, but there's little or no condemnation of the subject material itself.
At the end of the day, I think the fact that these books involve children is (ironically) what makes the subject so accessible. Agree or disagree with the concept of gender identity and expression all you want, it's hard to disagree with the idea that there's anything more wonderful for a child than to be able to find acceptance, whether it's through a book, a friendship, or a parent's love.