Recent headlines have brought transgender issues into the public consciousness: the homecoming-queen crowning of a transgender teen in conservative Utah, the very public transition of former Olympian and reality TV star Bruce Jenner, and a California woman’s lawsuit against Barnes & Noble for wrongful termination after she announced her gender transition, to name just a few. To many authors, editors, and booksellers, the best way to increase acceptance of transgender people is to publish more of these stories for young people.
David Levithan at Scholastic (editor of Alex Gino’s transgender novel George, due out in August) says he has “certainly” seen more transgender titles cross his desk, and added, “Hopefully more trans writers will write them.” George is an unusual title, as the protagonist is a fourth grader, making the book middle grade, rather than the typical YA range for addressing this topic. Ami Polansky’s Gracefully Grayson (Disney-Hyperion, 2014) is also aimed at younger readers: the protagonist is a sixth grader.
Bookseller Alex Schaffner at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass., says that they “absolutely” are seeing more trans titles for young readers on the store’s receiving shelves, citing picture books, middle grade, and YA.
Hannah Moushabeck, children’s director of Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass.—near Smith College, the all-female school that recently revised admission policies to admit transwomen—says, “To my delight many new books featuring trans characters are being published.” Yet booksellers report difficulty in handselling trans titles to nontrans readers. Moushabeck tells reluctant customers: “If people only read within their own demographic, I would have never discovered Harry Potter.”
Addressing and dismantling the gender binary in literature is key for authors of trans stories. One hurdle is the very practical issue of words themselves. In Sex Is a Funny Word (Seven Stories/Triangle Square, July), a middle-grade nonfiction title by Cory Silverberg, illus. by Fiona Smyth, the topic of gender identity prompts the question, “If every body is different, how could there only be two kinds of people?”
As Silverberg explains: “Language matters for everyone. I understand that for writers and editors who aren’t trans or queer, or who might not have trans, queer, or gender nonconforming people in their lives, this can be confusing, but I encourage writers and editors to understand that this issue isn’t that different from the way language works in other communities. Some people use the term ‘people of color’ to describe themselves. [Others use] brown or black or beige.”
Among people who identify as genderqueer, or nonconforming to the gender binary, for example, they is becoming a preferred pronoun. In the case of trans novels, too, the transgender character’s preferred pronoun is important. Gino, when drafting George, “went through a lot of changes in the pronouns I used. While George’s gender is secret from the world, I wanted the reader to be clear from the beginning who they were seeing.” So Gino stuck with she for George.
Bookstores are starting to see more titles addressing transgender topics, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. Overwhelmingly the authors, editors, and booksellers interviewed want to see, as Silverberg puts it, “more books with trans characters where their transness isn’t a major plot point. They are just there. Because they are just here.” Representation of the diversity of trans lives is something else those interviewed want to see. Gino hopes forthcoming books will include “more people of color, more fluidity of gender and space for kids to be in an in-between place, and more joy and hopeful endings.” Levithan adds, “We won’t really have a full representation until we see how this identity intersects with a variety of other identities.”
In discussing why she wrote Gracefully Grayson, Polansky says the novel “blossomed from my frustration with our culture’s divisive, narrow views on gender, as well as my intense hope that my children would always have the courage to be who they are, regardless of what others might think.”
To see lives reflected in literature is indeed where its power lies. In particular children’s literature offers a space for young people to see possibilities that may reflect and resonate with them. As Gino put it: “You cannot protect kids from their own realities. You can shame them, you can fault them, you can try to change them, you can ignore it and try to pretend it’s not there. But in doing so, you can only delay their process and make their road harder for them. You can’t change their path.”
A selection of recent and forthcoming children’s and YA titles featuring transgender characters and subjects:
Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall (Greenwillow, out now, ages 4–8)
George by Alex Gino (Scholastic, Aug. 2015, ages 8–12)
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky (Disney-Hyperion, out now, ages 10–14)
Lily & Dunkin by Donna Gephart (Random, June 2016, ages 10–up)
Beast by Brie Spangler (Random House, Oct. 2016, ages 12–up)
Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall (Sky Pony, out now, ages 12–up)
Spirit Level by Sarah Harvey (Orca, spring 2016, ages 12–up)
Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman, (Holt, out now, ages 14–18)
Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson (FSG, spring 2016, ages 14–18)
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illus. by Shelagh McNicholas (Dial, out now, ages 4–8)
Sex Is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg (Seven Stories, July 2015, ages 7–10)
This Book Is Gay by James Dawson (Sourcebooks, out now, ages 14–17)
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin (Candlewick, out now, ages 14–up)
Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill, (Simon & Schuster, out now, ages 14–up)
Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews (Simon & Schuster, out now, ages 14–up)