Sam Martin was browsing in a Boston record store 23 years ago when an unusual photography book caught his eye. Martin flipped through its pages, which featured portraits and interviews with women who had become men, and started to cry.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not the only one,’” said Martin, 43, who started transitioning to male from female after he bought the book. “When I was growing up, I never saw people like me in movies or books.”
Martin is now on a mission to change that. He belongs to a small group of emerging authors who are writing children’s literature that centers on transgender characters, hoping to fill the void they felt as young readers. His debut work of fiction — a semi-autobiographical story about a transgender teenage boy who falls in love with an older boy on the beach in Cape Cod — will be published in a collection this month by Duet, a new young adult publisher that specializes in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer fiction.
Photo: E! via AP
“My goal was to write stories that would have helped me feel less alone at that age,” said Martin, who works as a Starbucks barista in Washington and writes at night.
A few years ago, gender fluidity was rarely addressed in children’s and young adult fiction. It remained one of the last taboos in a publishing category that had already taken on difficult issues like suicide, drug abuse, rape and sex trafficking. But children’s literature is catching up to the broader culture, as stereotypes of transgender characters have given way to nuanced and sympathetic portrayals on TV shows like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent.
Recently, the highly publicized transformation of the reality TV star and former Olympian Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner — revealed to the world via a glamorous portrait on the cover of Vanity Fair — brought even more visibility to the movement for transgender equality.
Photo Courtesy of Dial Books
More writers and publishers have started tackling the subject, not just with memoirs and self-help guides tailored to transgender youth, but through novels aimed at a broad readership. This year, children’s publishers are releasing around half a dozen novels in a spectrum of genres, including science fiction and young adult romance, that star transgender children and teenagers. “In our culture, it was really something that was in the shadows, but suddenly people are talking about it,” said David Levithan, vice president and publisher of Scholastic Press. “As our culture is starting to acknowledge transgender people and acknowledge that they are part of the fabric of who we are, literature is reflecting that.”
THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES
Several of the movement’s debut authors have published books drawn from their own experiences. Last fall, a transgender teenager named Jazz Jennings published I Am Jazz, a picture book she co-wrote about a transgender girl. Simon & Schuster released dual memoirs by Katie Rain Hill and Arin Andrews, two transgender teenagers from Oklahoma who met and fell in love.
Photo Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Andrews, 19, said that books for young adults on the subject were scarce when he began transitioning to male from female in 2011.
“When I first started transitioning, I mostly had YouTube as a source,” he said. “I wanted to write a book to help others because there were not a lot of sources out there, and I thought that one book could save a person’s life.”
Andrews says he receives 15 to 20 Facebook messages a day from readers about his memoir, Some Assembly Required, including notes from children as young as 8 and readers in their 60s and 70s who say the book helps them navigate questions about their gender identity.
Photo Courtesy of Disney-Hyperion
The body of children’s literature on the subject is still tiny and relatively new. When Julie Anne Peters published Luna, a novel about a teenage girl whose brother wants to be a girl, in 2004, it was the first young-adult novel with a transgender character to be released by a mainstream publisher. Since then, more than 50 novels with transgender characters have been published, mostly for teenagers, according to Talya Sokoll, a librarian who compiled a reading list of children’s books with trans characters.
Some of the writers who are exploring the topic have faced criticism and online attacks. A blistering Amazon review for I Am Jazz, written for 4 to 8 year olds, called the story of a transgender girl “inappropriate material for young readers,” while another reviewer scolded, “We should not be indoctrinating young kids about ‘trans.’”
But writers and publishers have been undeterred, noting that child psychologists and LGBT advocacy groups argue that very young children can question their gender identity and that families should be open to discussing the subject. The next frontier for authors writing about transgender people seems to be middle-grade literature, or books aimed at 8 to 12 year olds. In November, Disney Hyperion published Gracefully Grayson, a novel for readers ages 10 and up about a sixth-grade boy who feels like a girl.
In August, Scholastic will publish George, a middle-grade debut novel about a boy who knows he is a girl but doesn’t know how to tell his family and friends. George decides to try out for the part of Charlotte in a school production of Charlotte’s Web in hopes that it will help others see him the way he sees himself. For readers, it’s not much of a leap. From the first paragraph, an omniscient narrator refers to George as ”she,” so that when other characters use male pronouns to refer to George, it feels jarring.
The author, Alex Gino, who grew up in Staten Island and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, identifies as genderqueer, a gender identity that falls outside of the male/female binary, and goes by the pronoun “they.’’ Alex started writing George 12 years ago, while working as a tutor, and wrote more than a dozen drafts.
“I wrote it because it was the book I wanted to read,” Alex said. “I wanted trans voices telling trans stories.”
In the first draft, Alex didn’t even use the word “transgender.” “I was like, how would a 10-year-old ever come across that word, but now I’m like, of course they would,” Alex said.
Scholastic is facing resistance from some teachers and librarians who question whether third and fourth-graders are ready for the discussion. About a month ago, the publisher sent 10,000 early copies to teachers around the country to get feedback, and the responses were largely positive with some mixed reactions.
But Scholastic is aiming to turn the book into a mainstream success. It increased the first printing to 50,000 from 35,000 based on strong preorders and sent Alex to meet with booksellers and librarians at the ABC Children’s Institute in Pasadena, California, and at BookExpo in New York. They hired Jamie Clayton, a transgender actress, to narrate the audiobook.
So far, early responses from parents of young readers have been encouraging. Marietta Zacker, a literary agent who lives in South Orange, New Jersey, picked up a copy of George at the expo and read it with her 11-year-old daughter, Natalia, who loved it.
“It was not shocking to her,” Zacker said. “It’s the story of every person, the quest to be your own self.”
Carolyn Mackler, a young-adult novelist who lives in Manhattan, gave a copy of George to her 10-year-old son to read. She told him that it was about a transgender child and explained what that meant. After he read it, she asked him what he thought.
“I said, ‘If you met George, would you be friends with him?’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Mom, it’s her, and I would be friends with her if she was nice.’”
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