Trans Characters in Children’s Literature

It is undeniably difficult – currently – to find representations of trans people in literature, but especially in literature aimed at children. Here I collect as many examples as I can find, with reviews and analysis of the quality of the representation.

The Ratings

Representation of the trans experience

How well does this bok portray what it’s like to be a trans person? How accurately does it reflect how I and other trans people I know think and feel about their transness? Does the character feel realistically trans?

Treatment of trans character(s)

Not just how the other characters treat them, but how the narrative treats them and the extent to which the narrative condones/condemns the behaviour towards them.

Quality of read

In short, did I enjoy the book? Of course, this may well be influenced by the above ratings.

reading age

Rough estimate of the ‘reading age’ for which this book is ideal.

Maturity Level

Age suitability based on the themes and contents of the book.

Final Judgement

Is this book a good example of representation of trans people? Should you read it/put it in your classroom?

Index

Lily and Dunkin – Donna Gephart

Lily and Dunkin front cover

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★☆☆

There are moments when this book captures the trans experience. For example:

I blink a few times, praying the right words will come. True words. But what actually happens is the real part of me closes down. Walls spring up. Doors clang up. Mental alarms are set.

I hate this feeling.

Lily’s response to an opportunity to be honest about her gender. Page 44

In addition, the character’s concern with the changes she is experiencing as she goes through puberty – counting every new hair she finds on her chin, for example. However, over the course of the book there does seem to be a very strong sense of a cis viewpoint, viewing the experience through cis eyes.

This quote from the author’s note made me particularly uncomfortable:

In 2012, I attended Lunafest … with my friend and neighbour, Pam. One of the films was I Am a Girl!, written and directed by Susan Koenen. … [The main character] Joppe is a firl, born with male anatomy. … When the film ended, I looked over at Pam. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

I knew I had to write about this.

Author’s description of ‘The Genesis of Lily’s Story’. Page 327

Although she goes on to talk about how she spoke to trans people to gain a greater understanding, this quote suggests to me that this story was always written to, basically, make cis people feel things. It reeks of pity porn. And this just reinforced a feeling that I had been getting on a low level throughout the book.

Treatment of trans character(s) – ★★★☆☆

Most of the other characters in the book are supportive. Those that aren’t are criticised by the narrative. At the most basic level, the treatment of the trans character is good. However, there are more subtle ways in which Lily is not so well treated. For example, Lily’s sister Sarah and her best friend Dare are often expressing disapproval when Lily feels the need to give into society’s expectations, or when she is too afraid to take steps to come out. This is not challenged by the narrative at all – indeed, Lily often feels guilty as a result of this. I feel like this totally undersells how difficult it can be as a trans person to be open, how scary it can be, and the risk it can be (or feels like it can be). I feel like this plays into the somewhat cis-centric perspective I mentioned above. Not only that, but Dare at one point deliberately deadnames Lily because she doesn’t wear a skirt on the first day of school and outs Lily to someone else without her consent. This does not set a good example for cis allies and this is not made clear by the narrative.

Also, the first time Dunkin sees Lily, he reads her as female because she’s wearing a dress. Later, he sees her dressed in “boys’ clothes” and doesn’t recognise her, because he thinks this must be a boy. I struggle to believe that seeing someone he believes is a girl wearing jeans and a t-shirt is enough to lead him to no longer see this person as a girl, considering girls wear jeans and t-shirts and other “boys’ clothes” all the time. I suppose it could be argued that Dunkin was a long way away when he saw Lily in the dress.

In addition, I’m not super keen on the way Lily’s chosen name is generally treated in the same way as Dunkin’s nickname. Trans people’s name are not nicknames. They’re their names.

Quality of read – ★★★★☆

The above may seem pretty negative, but overall I enjoyed the book. I read it all in one go and I liked the majority of the characters.

reading age – 7-8 years

Maturity Level – 10+ years

This is the age listed on the back of the book. However, if you’re planning to use this in your classroom, it’s worth being aware that the book features a character who stops taking atni-psychotic medication and suffers a severe psychotic episode that results in hospitalisation, as well as mention of a historical attempt at self-mutilation by a child. These are dealth with in a sensitive and age-appropriate way, but it will of course be necessary to take your children and your community into consideration.

Final Judgement – It’s alright.

Magnus Chase – Rick Riordan

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★☆☆

Alex Fierro’s genderfluidity is generally associated with their shapeshifting ability. They live in a world with gods and creatures that we only know from myths. Therefore, their experience is in many ways very different from the average trans person’s. That said, there are discussions about what life is like for Alex that do reflect trans people’s experiences.

Treatment of trans character(s) – ★★★★☆

Genderfluidity is hardly any more unsual than any of the other things they face day to day for most of the characters around Alex. They take it in their stride and treat them exactly as they should.

There are a few characters who have a problem with Alex’s identity in the highly masculine context of the Viking afterlife, but the effects of their actions on Alex are made clear and are largely condemned by the narrative and the other characters.

Quality of read – ★★★★☆

The stories are enjoyable, though I didn’t find them necessarily gripping. The fact that this is a series means children can get really into the world. The author also has other series for children to get into.

reading age – 7-8 years

Maturity Level – 9+ years

Final Judgement – it’s pretty good.

Although it’s limited in its reflection of what it’s like to be trans, it will help to broaden readers’ views of gender.

My Brother’s Name is Jessica – John Boyne

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★☆☆

I was ready to hate this book based on the title, the blurb, the tagline, everything I’d read about it, but it wasn’t that bad. Still, the focus is naturally (given the narrator) on the feelings of the cis characters and this is very much the lens through which the plot is viewed. As a result, Jessica is repeatedly deadnamed and misgendered right up until the last couple of chapters and we don’t get a huge amount of insight into what she’s going through.

That said, it’s a pretty realistic description of what it’s like to be surrounded by people who don’t accept who you are.

Treatment of trans character(s) – ★★☆☆☆

As mentioned above, Jessica isn’t brilliantly treated by the narrative. Her parents put her through quite a lot, and her brother outs her without her permission to a new friend, who then (SPOILER ALERT!) passes that on to her (the friend’s) parents, who then reveal it to the national press (Jessica’s mum is in the running to be the next Prime Minister). So Jessica literally outed to the entire country without her permission.

As a whole, the narrative is not super sympathetic to Jessica and focuses much on how hard it is for her family without really considering how hard things are for her.

Quality of read – ★★★★☆

It’s a good read. Despite the above, it kept me interested and I read it all in one go.

reading age – 10-11 years

Maturity Level – 10-11 years

Final Judgement – Don’t bother.

MONSTER – Michael Grant

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★☆☆

We meet Cruz when she’s beaten up at a bus stop. This is, unfortunately, a reality for many trans people. Is it what books about trans people should be focusing on? I’m not sure. There needs to be a balance between realistic representation and not spreading the idea that being a trans person means only pain and persecution. In this case, I think the generally good treatment of Cruz in the rest of the book largely makes up for it.

Beyond the first introduction, Cruz’s trans status is hardly mentioned, so the opportunities to represent other aspects of the trans experience are limited.

Treatment of trans character(s) – ★★★★☆

The first chapter’s a bit off. Notwithstanding the attack at the bus stop, Shade’s inner monologue when she first encounters Cruz made me somewhat uncomfortable. It felt quite clinical and voyeuristic. This is to some extent a reflection of Shade’s personality, but it happens early enough in the book that I don’t think the reader really knows Shade well enough for that to be clear yet. There are also a few narrative comments about Cruz which struck me as odd and … not great.

On the other hand, after that point, pretty much all the other characters see and accept Cruz as female straight away, which is pretty much the dream.

Quality of read – ★★★★★

Michael Grant is a genius and his books are fantastic. Simple as that.

reading age – 10-11 years

Maturity Level – 12+ years

(Due to the sheer amount of violence, killing and gruesomeness)

Final Judgement – For secondary classrooms, go for it.

George – Alex Gino

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★★★

It is immediately apparent, on reading this book, that it is written by a trans person. The reflection of the trans experience feels authentic in a way most of the other books did not quite manage. I related to Melissa and her experiences on almost every level. Full marks on this one.

Treatment of trans character(s) – ★★★★☆

Transphobia still exists in the book, so I don’t feel I can give it 5 stars. That said, the narrative is very good to Melissa and it’s great to see her get her own back sometimes!

Melissa’s mother is not initially supportive, but eventually begins to come around. Other important characters are hugely supportive, which makes this an uplifting read overall.

Quality of read – ★★★★★

George is a sweet story that feels like a classic children’s novel.

reading age – 8-9 years

Maturity Level – 9-10 years

Final Judgement – it’s super.

The Pants Project – Cat Clarke

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★★★

This book did give a fairly accurate portrayal of the trans experience. The stress of having to pretend to be someone you’re not all the time. The feelings of anger, frustration and hopelessness that dysphoria causes over an extended period of time. The logistical gymnastics of changing rooms and bathrooms. The inner battle of deciding when to disclose your truth to people – including when you think they might already know but you’re still too scared to actually say it aloud.

I also appreciated that all this was just the background to the plot, not the actual plot itself. It felt organic and authentic. It occupied the narrative in much the same way my identity occupies my mind – always present but rarely the main thing.

Treatment of trans character(s) – ★★★★☆

Some characters are mean to Liv but they are condemned by the narrative, which treats Liv well – aided by the fact that it’s written in the first person. Liv’s reality is given priority over other characters’ feelings and her new best friend is very supportive when she comes out.

Quality of read – ★★★★★

A great and empowering book about working to make a difference and accepting and being proud of being different. I read it straight through.

reading age – 8-9 years

Maturity Level – 10+ years

Final Judgement – excellent.

Gracefully Grayson – Ami Polonsky

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★★★

I certainly identified with a lot of the descriptions of the emotions felt by Grayson when she was dysphoric. The desire to isolate onesself from others due to needing to keep the secret and also knowing that even when you’re included you’ll still feel like an outsider was also relateable.

Treatment of trans character(s) – ★★★★☆

The other characters’ treatment of Grayson feels realistic and, due to the narration being in the first person, the narrative is sympathetic to her and shows how hurtful the negative reactions can be. A lot of the characters are very supportive of Grayson, but those that aren’t tend to be very cruel.

Quality of read – ★★★★★

I read through all in one go and thoroughly enjoyed it.

reading age – 8-9 years

Maturity Level – 10-14 years

Features some homophobic/transphobic language including slurs.

Final Judgement – it’s very good.

The Other Boy – M. G. Hennessey

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★★★

I don’t know if M. G. Hennessey is trans herself but she’s certainly done a lot of work with trans people and it shows. The pain of waiting for treatment and other people just not getting it. The fear of being exposed and that reaction that I’m trying hard to unlearn – it’s all gone wrong here, time to move somewhere nobody knows me and start again. One particular line – “I always look more feminine when I’m at Dad’s” – stood out to me as an accurate reflection of a very subtle phenomenon, the way dysphoria triggered by the people around you viewing you in a certain way, referring to you in a certain way, seems to change your own self-perception. I, for example, tend to misgender myself more often if I’ve spent a long time with my grandparents (they’re trying).

Treatment of trans character(s) – ★★★★☆

Much the same as Gracefully Grayson – first person narrative means in general it’s sympathetic, but some characters are very cruel. It is very clear which behaviours are acceptable and which are not, but some moments are hard to read. The addition of a (small) trans support network around the main character is a positive, though.

Quality of read – ★★★★★

Very enjoyable.

reading age – 8-9 years

Maturity Level – 11-13 years

Features some homophobic/transphobic language including slurs.

Final Judgement – Super.

Special Mention: Bill’s New Frock – Anne Fine

Representation of the trans experience – ★★★★☆

This book is not about a trans person, but it pretty accurately reflects what it’s like to be trans. See my other blog post for more information.

Treatment of trans character(s) – ☆☆☆☆☆

No actual trans characters, so N/A.

Quality of read – ★★★★☆

I enjoyed it.

reading age – 7-8 years

Maturity Level – 7+ years

Final Judgement – go for it.

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