The title of this new English/Spanish bilingual children’s book written by Jesús Canchola Sanchez and illustrated by Armando Minjárez Monárrez comes unapologetically to the point: the boy in the story has a doll. There is no twist or cute dramatic reveal or a slow build up to accustom the reader to this uncomfortable truth for many: that some boys may like to have a doll to play with.
In the age of gender-neutral language and the acceptance of multiple identities, beyond the boy/girl heteronormative model of defining a person’s being, Pepito Has a Doll may be a very safe idea but it’s still an important one to get across to children; namely, that it’s okay for he/she/they to look upon a doll as a positive expression of play and as a tool to explore imagination and friendship.
Pepito gets teased at school for having a doll, Lola, who he takes to school every day. She is his friend and he talks to her. However, he fears that his classmates will laugh at him for having a doll but he worries about her literacy, wondering, “If she doesn’t come with me, how will she learn to read?”
His prayer every night is that he may find a friend to play with him. Eventually, that friend does show up as a new boy in school, Miguel, and they become friends. There’s a charming illustration of the two of them running through a field of grass, holding hands with each other and with Lola, hinting at the possibility of a life free from negative social attitudes.
Pepito brings Miguel home where his grandmother provides a safe space for the boys to be truly themselves without fear of ridicule. She teaches them to dance and by doing so, to embrace joy and celebrate their differences. The boys start to walk to school together and Pepito is happy to have a friend.
One day, Lola falls out of Pepito’s mochila and the other children make fun of him. “Pepito is a girl!” they say, in an attempt to reinforce what is considered unacceptable behaviour for a boy. Luckily, Miguel comes to his defence, “but the kids keep making fun.” Pepito has the courage to fight back with words, “No. No. No! Lola is my doll. She’s my friend. I love her and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. What’s interesting in the story is that the kids do stop making fun of Pepito and after this confrontation, leave him alone. This scene made me wonder about the importance of standing up for oneself. So much of bullying happens because children are not empowered to resist being victimized. The lesson here is to assert your own truth and perhaps, just maybe, those who had been teasing and making fun of you, will come to respect you, despite differences.
Pepito thanks Miguel for coming to his rescue with a besito, a kiss. This is another powerful message in the story, one that shows that it’s possible to show love and affection for one’s friends. I don’t think we need to interpret this exclusively as a coming out story. Boys and men are socialized from the start to avoid intimacy with each other because hugging and holding hands have been sexualized to the detriment of basic human touch and interaction. This story shows the possibility of friendships between boys to include the emotional responses we are taught to avoid, regardless of sexual or gender identification.
This wonderful story should be translated into every language and read not only by children but by adults who need to be reminded of the importance of letting children decide for themselves what they wish to play with and to even have a doll who represents the possibility of learning about human interaction through fantasy and imagination.
I wish I had read Pepito Has a Doll, had it been written when I was a little boy. It would have shown me that it was acceptable to play with dolls while also exploring my own identity and feelings towards boys.
I didn’t have a doll growing up Portuguese in the Azores but I do remember being allowed to play with my girl cousins and their dolls. What I did do was create dresses for them. My mother used to give me remnants of fabric she no longer needed for her own dressmaking materials. I did learn how to use needle and thread, cut patterns and sew them by hand into dresses and outfits which my cousins loved.
Looking back, I am impressed that the women in my family were comfortable enough to let me play this way without worrying about it being a threat to my masculinity. I learned from a young age that dolls and cars could be part of a boy’s childhood play choices. However, I know that my situation was not the norm and that more often than not, parents reinforce traditional models of play to teach children to stay within the narrow confines of outdated notions of femininity/masculinity.
A book like Pepito Has a Doll can go a long way to help break the stereotyped ideas around gender-based play, the meaning of friendship, and inclusive belonging.
The author acknowledges the role of his grandmother in teaching him how to be himself. There’s a touching scene in the story when Pepito asks his abuela, grandmother, why he has to hide his doll at school. I love her empowering response, “We have to be careful. Someone can make fun of you or hurt you. If someone does that to you, tell me. I will always protect you.”
I know that there’s other grandmothers out there who support the differences they see in a special grandchild. I can attest to that with my own grandmother who knew who I was long before I could understand it myself. One of my cousins told me much later in life that when she was still a child, and did not understand what our grandmother was referring to, had said to her, “Emanuel is different, but always be his friend.”
Pepito Has a Doll is a book that celebrates, through the power of words and lovely illustrations, the power of letting young boys explore their identity through play and imagination, not as a hidden secret thing but in the wide open space of friendship and community.