Feature: The importance of trans literature for children and young adults

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, author and lecturer B.J. Epstein explains why it’s important that children can benefit from trans characters in literature.

Until fairly recently, it was rare to see lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and otherwise queer characters (LGBTQ) in children’s literature, but the past 30 or so years have seen something of an explosion of queer literature. This is the good news.

The bad news is that until the past few years, the trans has been mostly absent, or trans parent. Further bad news is that the representation of trans characters in children’s literature hasn’t always been that positive and nuanced.

Three of the most remarked upon young adult novels on this topic are Luna by Julie Ann Peters (2004), Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish (2007), and Cris Beam’s I Am J (2011).

Luna is about a trans woman, Liam, who was declared male at birth and wants to be affirmed female and become known as Luna. The novel is told from the point of view of Regan, Luna’s younger sister. In a way, the story is primarily about how Luna’s identity affects Regan; Liam/Luna comes across as self-involved and selfish. She routinely wakes her little sister up in the middle of the night to talk, to show off her latest outfits, and to use her mirror/room, and she also causes trouble for her at her baby-sitting job, so Regan loses the job. In return, Regan seems to get little from the relationship. So the reader might be forgiven for getting a sense of trans people as being egocentric and only interested in their own issues. Regan’s isolation and trouble paint a rather negative picture of trans people. The novel also seems to imply that being trans is necessarily stressful and must involve leaving home, which might suggest to a reader that there are few or even no happy trans stories.

Parrotfish is a stronger book, in my opinion, and also shows that it is possible to be trans and to receive support, encouragement, and respect, and to have a positive life, but it too isn’t perfect. Wittlinger’s novel is about Grady, who is declared female but is male, and it is told from his perspective. This book is much more positive than Luna in that while Grady does encounter some difficulties, he is supported by his family to the best of their ability (which isn’t always as great as one would hope), and also by one particular teacher. Wittlinger’s book focuses on Grady’s identity as a whole and not just on the gender aspect, which is why I believe that it is more successful, although I am not always convinced by the depiction of Grady and sometimes find it didactic (there are “mini-lectures” in the book that sound as though they come from the mouth of an adult who wants to teach readers rather than from the mouth of a teenager). Grady has a number of things going on in his life, and being transgender is simply one of them, but the book doesn’t always feel authentic to teen life and the way teens speak.

Cris Beam’s I Am J is my favourite of these three young adult books that feature trans characters, in part because it shows more diversity – J has one Jewish parent and one Puerto Rican Catholic one, while most LGBTQ YA books feature white, Christian characters. Although gender is undoubtedly the main topic and J’s best friend even points out how gender-obsessed he is, J is a pretty well-rounded young person who also has hobbies, is dating, and is trying to decide what university to go to. J’s parents aren’t necessarily that supportive and J does have to leave home, but despite all these problems, J is a creative person with a passion for photography, he appears to understand and like himself, he knows what he wants to do with his life, he finds a queer community, he meets friends and family friends who like him for who he is, and he eventually gets accepted to university. J is in most ways a typical teenager, which is why it is easy to relate to him.

Just three prominent trans texts aren’t a lot and they clearly are problematic in some ways. The trans characters can be repetitive in their discussions of gender, the protagonists often have to leave home and/or school in order to live their lives, and the books can seem educational rather than enjoyable in literary terms. Perhaps this is a first stage for trans lit.

These books are all for teenaged readers, but since we know that pre-teens, school-aged children, and even some pre-schoolers are recognising that their psychological gender does not match their physical body, and also because children will meet trans people, there ought to be some trans books for young children too. I am unfortunately aware of no middle-grade texts about trans characters, i.e. for readers between five and twelve or so. However, there are a couple of picture books, which at least can be used with children up until the age of five or six, regardless of whether they are themselves trans or know any trans people.

My Princess Boy, which is by Cheryl Kildavos (2011), is about a boy who likes pink and enjoys wearing tiaras and other princess clothes. While there is no indication that this boy is transgender, in that he seems to identify as a boy and of course the title suggests he is and will remain a boy, the book is positive because he is accepted for who he is and how he likes to dress. This is a strong message to pass on to children. It does not matter if the princess boy is transgender or not, if he will grow up to identify as a transvestite, if he will be straight or gay or bisexual or something else; for now, he is a little boy who likes pink sparkly dresses, and it is implied that that is completely fine with his relatives, classmates, and teachers. This book was based on the author’s own son.

10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert (2008), which is another picture book, is, in my opinion, one of the best trans books. The main character, Bailey, dreams about beautiful dresses and longs to make them and wear them. However, Bailey’s family is not understanding or supportive, because Bailey was declared male at birth. Although Bailey faces some problems, she is still a confident person who believes in herself and who looks elsewhere for support. Some readers might find the ending upsetting, in that there is no resolution with Bailey’s family – the only person to be accepting of her is a young friend who lives nearby – but perhaps in the sequel that Ewert is currently writing, this will change. One strong aspect of this book is that Ewert uses female pronouns when referring to Bailey, even though Bailey’s relatives repeatedly say, “You are a boy, Bailey.” This suggests that the narrator has accepted Bailey for who she is and that therefore so should the reader. This shows respect for the character and for trans people more generally.

Trans characters tend to be trans parent in children’s literature, although this is slowly changing. The books aren’t always as positive as one would hope, and this may upset the young trans people or confuse non-trans folks who are reading them. Also, there simply aren’t enough trans books for children and young adults; we need more, and we especially need more that show trans characters with more in their lives than just being trans. That would be good news indeed.

B.J. Epstein a lecturer in literature and public engagement at the University of East Anglia, and she is also a translator from the Scandinavian languages to English. Her new book, Are the Kids All Right? Representations of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, was recently published. More information about her can be found here.