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As a parent who cares deeply about raising a socially aware, compassionate kid, I’m always on the lookout for books that can help teach them the lessons I hope they’ll learn. My children are still young—just two-and-a-half and four months — but I began collecting books for them from the moment I found out I was pregnant with my oldest. I wanted their bookshelf to be a reflection of the world they live in: diverse, challenging, and vibrant.
My white children, growing up in a heterosexual presenting household, are relatively privileged. And while this makes it all the more important for them to be exposed to realities that are unlike their own, there’s also no way for me to know what gender my young children will come to identify with. Maybe they are cisgender, and if that’s the case, it means they will grow up seeing themselves reflected in almost everything they read. It also means that without being exposed to another reality, they may have a hard time understanding that their experience is not universal. But maybe one or both of my kids is trans or gender expansive. And if that ends up being true, it’s even more vital to me that they know from the time they are small that these are real and valid identities. I want them to have the awareness and language to talk to me about it. This matters to me because recent studies have shown that trans youth are less likely to develop mental illnesses and/or attempt suicide if accepted by their families. I want my children to both survive and thrive, regardless of who they are.
This is where the books come in. Alex Gino, author of 2015’s George, told me that when they came out, the first thing they turned to were books. “That’s where I’ve always gone to understand the world,” Gino explains. But while Gino found that there were books with trans protagonists for adults, there were very few for children. “I wonder who I would be now if I had been able to see some reflection of myself when I was younger,” Gino says. And so, they wrote George, a story for middle-grade readers about a fourth grade girl who wants to be Charlotte in her school play but isn’t allowed because she is seen as a boy. “I wrote it because I didn’t see it in the world,” Gino tells me.
Kai Cheng Thom wrote her YA novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, for similar reasons. “Young trans and gender-diverse people need to be able to see ourselves reflected in the world around us—we need books, yes, and also TV and art and music that offers us validation of the simple fact that we are alive and deserve to live,” she explains. “Stories offer us comfort and hope and courage, they are a map of survival and the key to imagining a better future for ourselves and everyone else.” In that vein, Thom wanted to write a trans character who was strong and powerful, who yearned to be a good person but struggled to figure out how, “a heroine who was frightened and vulnerable in her deepest heart but masked it with a veneer of competence and aggression.” A character, she says, that is a lot like her.
“I wonder who I would be now if I had been able to see some reflection of myself when I was younger,” Gino says.
“Historically, trans characters have been portrayed as outsiders and freaks, as the butt of crude jokes, or as depraved villains. And in those rare moments when trans characters are portrayed as protagonists, we are most often shown as pitiful victims without any agency or strength,” explains Thom. “In other words, we are written as caricatures, not as full, complex people.” These portrayals have real world implications, and they are often bleak. According to one study, 30 percent of transgender youth report a history of at least one suicide attempt, and nearly 42 percent report a history of self-harm. Reasons for the high rates of suicide among trans kids include self-loathing, bullying from peers, and lack of acceptance from their families. Not only that, but trans women, particularly trans women of color, experience the highest rates of violence and homicide of any other population in the United States.
What might the world look like if everyone—trans and cisgender folks alike—had more exposure to the stories of trans folk? And what if that exposure began from the time we were small? Books not only have the ability to reflect us within their pages, but they can allow us access to worlds that are different from our own. They introduce us to people who are not like us and help us to understand those people and have compassion for them. “At the heart of it, it is never too early to be a compassionate person, and it’s never too early to understand the world,” says Gino. “Books with trans characters do not make people trans. Books with trans characters make people trans aware, and awareness is critical for acceptance.”
Both Gino and Thom point out that books that center trans narratives are not only important for trans children to read; they’re crucial for cisgender children, too. Cisgender children live in and share a world with trans folks in real life, and that’s always going to be true, whether that’s reflected in our arts or not. “Encountering difference—different ways of living and seeing the world—in stories makes us more capable of loving other people in real life,” says Thom.
Unfortunately, the idea of a character being trans—particularly one written for children—is still seen as controversial in some circles. Criticism, and what the author called “trans-panic,” ignited when CJ Atkinson’s Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? was released in December. A hate group in Washington forced a school to cancel its reading of the book I am Jazz, written by trans teen Jazz Jennings. 10,000 Dresses, a book by Marcus Ewert about a young trans girl, was banned in Texas schools. And when Harper Collins Children’s Books Twitter account tweeted about the release of M.G. Hennessey’s new middle-grade book The Other Boy, the first response was from someone who said, “If God doesn’t condone it, then why would I read it? I’m not celebrating ungodliness.”
And, as Hennessey points out, trans books are often shelved with LGBTQ books in a completely different section of the library, which immediately “others” them. “A lot of kids who don’t identify with that group would not necessarily go to that section, because they think these books are not for them,” she says. If they were shelved with the rest of the children’s books, not only would more children have access to these materials, but it would go a long way in normalizing the content.
“Trans people are marvelous and magical and we are just trying to live in this world—to find ways to live in our truths and to act according to our values. What’s controversial about that?” asks Thom. “A book doesn’t become ‘mature’ or ‘controversial’ just by having a trans character in it—or rather, it only becomes controversial to those who think that diversity is controversial.” At the end of the day, trans stories are human stories.
“Encountering difference—different ways of living and seeing the world—in stories makes us more capable of loving other people in real life,” says Thom.
Everyone I interviewed agrees that we need more trans protagonists, not fewer. But who is writing those stories and how they’re told matters. Gino says that while they want to see more books written with trans characters, they are also nervous about more books with trans themes. “What I mean by ‘trans themes’ is that the book is about the person being trans, and that makes it seems like the transness is the important thing, when the important thing is respecting the transness,” they say. Gino stresses that it’s not a cis person’s job to understand the trans experience as much as it is to accept and respect it. “I want cis people to write knowledgeably and well about trans characters but not try to make sense of the trans experience [itself] by writing about it,” says Gino.
Thom has thoughts about that, too. While it’s important for cis writers to write trans characters, “writing trans people well doesn’t include making us out to be victims or perfect survivors or heroes or angels,” she says. “I want to see trans girls eating KFC, binge eating, being shits to each other, being shits to other people, having these intense moments of realness and kindness.” Essentially—being people.
These are the stories I want my children to grow up reading: ones that challenge them, that expand their view of their world and make them more compassionate. Particularly in the days and years ahead, when we do not know what a Trump administration will mean for trans rights and trans acceptance, trans representation in children’s and YA literature feels even more important. Queer and trans-specific suicide hotlines have been bombarded with calls since the election, and these books could even wind up saving the lives of children—mine or someone else’s. “Good literature is literature that is useful to people, on a daily, tangible level: stories that express necessary truths and find hope in a world that is often terrifying and inexplicably cruel,” says Thom. “Trans people’s stories are those stories. To trans folk who want to become storytellers, I would say: Don’t wait. Don’t doubt yourself. We need you, and we need you now. You are not alone.”