Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Trans Children and their Books - Cathy Butler

I’m currently at the Congress of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature, which takes place every two years at exotic locations all over the world and this time happens to be in Worcester. For a children's literature nerd like myself this is a wonderful occasion. There are many dozens of academic papers being given, as well as storytelling, performances and readings. This morning, for example, we were treated to the legendary Roger McGough reading from his work. (Thought for the day, courtesy of one of Mr McG: "When one glove goes missing, both are lost".) It's a great conference, but alas the internet is patchy, so I'm having to write this blog quickly in a local Costa (other coffee shops are available). Apologies if it ends up rather undigested…

One of this year’s themes is the body, and when I gave my own paper a couple of days ago it was on a relatively new subject that has emerged in children’s literature only within the last decade or so: books for transgender children and young adults. I was particularly focusing on books about children who had either transitioned from the gender they were assigned at birth to the gender they felt themselves to be, or else were wishing, hoping or planning to do so.

So new is this genre, in fact, that I can list almost every book in it. To give sense of numbers, there were apparently more than 90 children’s books with LGB (lesbian, gay or bisexual) content in 2013 alone, 8 of them in the UK. Here, by contrast, is a chronological list of all the children’s and YA books featuring transitioning child characters published in English anywhere.* So far, as you will see, there is only one from the UK.

Author
Title
Date
Country
Age
Genre
Julie Anne Peters
Luna
2004
USA
YA
Novel
Ellen Wittlinger
Parrotfish
2007
USA
YA
Novel
Brian Katcher
Almost Perfect
2009
USA
YA
Novel
Marcus Ewert and Rex Ray
10,000 Dresses
2009
USA
PB
Novel
Cris Beam
I am J
2011
USA
YA
Novel
Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
2012
USA
YA
Novel
Rachel Gold
Being Emily
2012
USA
YA
Novel
Alyssa Brugman
Alex as Well
2013
Australia
YA
Novel
David Levithan
Two Boys Kissing
2013
USA
YA
Novel
Ami Polonsky
Gracefully Grayson
2014
USA
MG
Novel
Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
I am Jazz
2014
USA
PB
Memoir
Katie Rain Hill
Rethinking Normal
2014
USA
YA
Memoir
Arin Andrews
Some Assembly Required
2014
USA
YA
Memoir
Lisa Williamson
The Art of Being Normal
2015
UK
YA
Novel
Alex Gino
George
2015
USA
MG
Novel

I’ve helpfully listed these books not just by author, date and title but also by age group: YA for young adult books, MG for middle-grade books, and PB for picturebooks. Unlike LGB books, which are naturally primarily aimed at readers who have reached puberty and are exploring their own sexuality, trans issues crop up from a very young age – from the time, in fact, when children first start to understand and articulate whether they are boys or girls. This is new territory for fiction writers, and reading these books it's clear that they are still working out the best ways to approach it. Even within the short time these books have been appearing, it’s fascinating to see how the genre’s developed, from books in which trans people are essentially tragic figures who have to forego their home and family (as happens in Luna or Almost Perfect) through to ones in which they start to overcome the many challenges involved in coming out, accessing medical care, surviving rejection and making a life in their true gender. We have yet to reach the stage beyond that one, in which being trans is seen as simply one aspect of a person rather than as the site of an almighty life-defining struggle, but when society gets there (and it is getting there) then so, I hope, will books about trans people. 

I could say a lot more about these books with my academic hat on, but I’d like to stop for a moment and think about them as a writer for children. Of all the books on my list, there are only three that were written by authors who are themselves transgender: these are the three ones I’ve labelled as memoirs, which were all written by trans teens. None of the authors of fiction have actually transitioned themselves.

Is this a problem? I’m not one to say that (for example) no man could ever write a convincing woman, or that no American should presume to write about the experience of someone from China. No doubt part of the attraction of writing about trans experience lies in the opportunity it offers any writer to explore questions about one’s embodied and gendered condition, about the relationship between self-perception and the perception of others, and about the various ways in which all of us are engaged in "performing" gender" all the time. Fair enough. Empathy, imagination, and other kinds of experience can all be brought to the task by authors who aren't trans themselves.

Even so, just as it would be a strange world in which the only stories about women and Chinese people were written by men and Americans respectively, a situation in which the only stories about trans people are written by people who aren't trans strikes me as… odd.


There are some very good books on this list. For my money (if you would like recommendations), I am J, Being Emily, Gracefully Grayson and 10,000 Dresses are a good selection, for a range of age groups. Most of all, though, I would like to see trans authors find a way to write about trans experience in fiction, in a way that is authentic without being narrowly confessional.

And yes, I’m looking at myself sternly when I say that.


* At least, that I could find before I gave my paper. I've since been alerted to a few more, and I’d love to hear about any others in the comments. Remember, though, to make the list they must be about children or teens who are transgender, and who have either transitioned or are intending to do so. Something like David Walliams’s The Boy in the Dress does not qualify.

14 comments:

Alex said...

Hi Cathy. Thanks for this post, and the mention. I am also eagerly watching the emergence of a variety of trans books for youth, and am very dedicated to trans voices telling trans stories. For reference, I am genderqueer and non-binarily transgender. - Alex Gino

Alex said...

Which, as language morphs, "transgender" seems to be moving towards a more binary definition. And to be clear, my main character Melissa (George)'s transness is very different from mine. - Alex Gino

Catherine Butler said...

Hi Alex,

Thanks for your comments! I very much enjoyed George, which arrived (via my sekrit US YA source) just a week or two ago.

I agree that there's tendency to revert to the binary, and I've probably been guilty of it in the framing of this post (which has limited space and a general readership). In the paper itself I hope you'll be glad to hear that I did make clear you identify as genderqueer, and also that "trans" can cover a wide range of gender identities and expression, but that I was confining myself to books featuring binary transition from girl to boy or vice versa.

Alex said...

Thanks for your response. And your point remains that we need more trans and gender nonconforming voices telling trans and gender nonconforming stories. I look forward to reading yours. ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Cathy

You may also want to add to your list My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis which is aimed at a young audience.

Personally I feel that although 1000 dresses is a pictue book I really think it is aimed at older children/teens due to the storyline.

Catherine Butler said...

Thanks, Anon. I'll certainly take a look at My Princess Boy, which I've not seen before. At first glance (which may of course be misleading) it seems to be about a boy with feminine gender expression rather than about a transgender child in the fairly narrow sense I've used above (and in my paper) - i.e. one who is transitioning or seeking to transition - but of course it's not always immediately clear which category a child falls into, certainly to parents.

I'm curious why you think 10,000 Dresses is aimed at older children. The way Bailey looks, behaves, speaks and is spoken to all suggest a young child to me.

jocotterill.com said...

Hi Catherine, I've recently read and reviewed a brand-new UK YA novel in which the protagonist is transgender. The problem is, it's impossible to flag this up because that's the twist in the story! So to include the title here gives away the ending...!
I'll email it to you anyway, so you can add it to your list.
Best wishes
Jo Cotterill

Catherine Butler said...

Thanks, Jo. Someone gave me a book at the conference which I suspect may be the one you're referring to - at least, I'm only a third of the way through it, but seems to be being set up that way. Are its initials OWK?

I actually feel a bit - no, a lot - ambivalent about stories in which the fact that someone is trans is the made into a "twist" or "shock reveal". There have been quite a few, in fact - and usually (as in The Crying Game and Almost Perfect, listed above) it's the cue for the cisgender point-of-view character to throw up all over the floor, a reaction that reached its apotheosis in Family Guy: https://youtu.be/hFi2icrBRJI. Even where the come to a less vomit-centred level of understanding later in the story, it's hard to not to take away the message that "Yes, it's only natural to think of trans people as disgusting freaks, but look a little harder and you'll see they're people too!" Which isn't the most uplifting takeaway when you're the on being vomited on.

That said, OWK is taking a very different tack. So, while I'm not mad keen on the transgender-as-twist conceit, I'm curious to see how it all plays out!

jocotterill.com said...

Ha - your guess is correct! And I was going to say exactly the same thing about the twist. If the 'issue' (I hate the word, but you know what I mean) is the point of the book, then it seems kind of...not 'cheap' exactly, but perhaps too easy to use it as a plot device. I'd be interested to see what you think of the ending. I felt it was perhaps a little too neat. Although for its audience, a good message, I think. Given how painfully few books there are on this (and I remember being asked by an English teacher about four years ago if I knew of a book she could give a lad who was returning as a girl after the summer holidays - and I didn't) it's maybe a good thing to send a positive 'we're all people!' type message?

Catherine Butler said...

"We're all people" is definitely an advance on many of the things trans people hear about themselves! I'd just like it to come without a side-order of "Despite how weird they seem to normal folk." I don't actually think any of the books I've listed were written with the intention of doing objectifying and fetishizing trans people: it's quite hard to avoid, given the parameters of what publishers consider "a good/marketable story". Some definitely manage better than others, though.

Lucy Coats said...

Great piece, Cathy, but I have to say I am a bit shocked that Lisa Williamson's book is the only one about transgendered teens from the UK. I guess that at last and at least we are now starting a conversation about this - and about time. I was listening to Kellie Maloney only yesterday, talking about telling her 12 yr-old daughter that she would be transitioning, and the initially very negative reaction she received. I really hope you WILL take up your pen and write something fictional - like Alex, I look forward to reading it!

Catherine Butler said...

The stop press news is that there are now two UK books (see Jo's comments above), but that's still pretty thin pickings, admittedly. And neither author is trans, of course. I've had quite a few false starts, but it is a book I want very much to write if I can find a way to do it. Writing the paper and doing the associated reading has in fact clarified my thoughts on what works (and particularly on what doesn't) quite a bit, in fact, so maybe that will help.

Sally Nicholls said...

I think there's a really interesting question here about fiction and memoir - when you're writing about something you've experienced yourself, how do you decide whether to make that story fiction, or memoir, or something in-between like 'Little House on the Prairie' or 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit'? Whichever option you choose, you lose something and gain something.
I can quite see that a story written about the experience of a modern young person - as you say in your post - is going to be very different from the sort of story told even ten years ago, and if that's the experience you want to write about, it's naturally going to need to be fictionalised. And obviously a book for young people needs the crux of the action to happen when the person is a child or teen. But the process of making those choices must be a really complicated and fascinating. Like everyone else, I look forward to reading more!

Catherine Butler said...

Very true, Sally. The experience of being an isolated trans child in the 1970s, before the internet and when understanding even amongst the medical community was very different from (and far more pathologizing than) now, is so alien to that of teens today as to be almost illegible. Of course, Facebook, Wikipedia, Google et al have transformed teenhood generally, but for trans children and other stigmatized groups its effect has been even greater. From a writerly point of view, that's one of the many problems involved!