There’s been a veritable explosion of children’s books with transgender characters in 2020, so here’s a roundup of them (and one music album!) for Transgender Awareness Month. They’re great at any time of the year!
I’m including here only books published this year that have clearly transgender characters; there are a few others that show gender creative characters who aren’t necessarily transgender, which I’ll round up in a separate post in the future. (Stay tuned, too, for my annual roundup of LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books as a whole.) I’m also sticking with picture books and a couple of graphic novels that cross somewhat into middle grade territory; young adult books form a separate genre that I unfortunately don’t have the bandwidth to cover in depth. (Check out Lee Wind’s blog if you’re looking for YA.) I’ve linked to my full reviews of the books I’ve written about previously—but there are a couple of new ones below, too!
Let’s also take a moment to celebrate that just a few years ago, having this many books with any LGBTQ characters would seem like an abundance. Now, we have this many with trans characters!
Transgender Women and Girls
Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution, by Joy Michael Ellison and Teshika Silver (Jessica Kingsley, 2020), tells the story of Stonewall icons Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson by focusing on their close friendship and how they cared for their community in the face of harassment by police and others. Full review.
She’s My Dad!, written by Sarah Savage and illustrated by Joules Garcia (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) is the first-person story of Mini, a six-year-old whose dad is a transgender woman. Mini’s explanation of their dad’s gender identity comes from a place of pride, confidence, and love. Full review.
Jamie and Bubbie: A Book About People’s Pronouns, written by Afsaneh Moradian and illustrated by Maria Bogade (Free Spirit Publishing) is a sequel to the duo’s Jamie Is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Way (my review here), but either can be read independently of the other. Both books star Jamie, a White child whose gender is never specified. In the latest book, Jamie’s Bubbie comes for a visit. As she and Jamie do things together in the neighborhood, Bubbie mistakenly misgenders several of the people they meet—a woman as a man, a man as a woman, and a transgender girl whom Bubbie had previously met when the girl was still using her male birth name. Jamie knows everyone’s correct genders and pronouns, though, and gently informs Bubbie, who is receptive to the feedback. Full review.
My Rainbow, written by DeShanna Neal and Trinity Neal and illustrated by Art Twink (Kokila), is based on Trinity’s own life as a Black transgender girl. In the book, Trinity wants long hair to express her true self. She explains to her mother, who has short hair, that “It’s different for transgender girls.” Growing her hair has always been difficult for Trinity, however, since she doesn’t like the feeling of the hair scratching her neck as it gets longer. (We learn that “like many kids with autism,” Trinity “loved soft things.) Her mom takes her to a wig store, but nothing is a perfect fit. Her mom therefore decides to create a colorful wig with help from Trinity’s nonbinary sibling, even while acknowledging that Trinity’s natural hair is “already perfect.” A joyful and personal story. [Thanks to Jen Rivka Schultz-Badik, who just wrote a great LGBTQ-inclusive picture book herself, for alerting me to this one.]
Raven Wild, written by Caitlin Spice, Adam Reynolds, and Chaz Harris, with illustrations by Christine Luiten and Bo Moore, is the third fantasy book in the crowdfunded Promised Land series (after Promised Land and Maiden Voyage), but can be read as a standalone tale. This one is the story of Raven, a transgender young woman who has various daring adventures and eventually finds love. I am thrilled to see a story about a trans protagonist, by a real transgender woman (Spice), that is simply a fun adventure and romance and isn’t simply “about” being trans per se. (Those stories are important, too, but we have far fewer of the former.) I love that Raven is a spear-wielding badass while also embracing her female identity. At the same time, the wordiness and number of plot lines strain the picture book format and age range. I think that it would have worked better as a graphic novel aimed at middle grade readers.
I also worry that the explanation of the character’s transition from Hawk (her birth name) to Raven is potentially confusing. The story tells us, “Hawk’s thoughts … soon turned inwards to questioning his own identity. Although Hawk had grown up as a boy, he realised he needed to be a girl.” Readers (especially cisgender ones) who are new to thinking about trans identities might not understand why he “needed” to be so. Was it because of external forces, such as girls being treated better in the society or the opportunities open to them? No—but that’s unclear. A better phrasing might have been, “he realised he was in fact a girl.” Raven also then seeks out a potion master who provides “medicine that could help.” Some young readers might mistakenly think that being trans requires medicines or a doctor’s assistance, which is not the case—but young trans readers who are likely the main audience may simply relish the idea that they could take a potion to have their bodies match their gender. Cisgender folks who may need a little more background information on what it means to be trans may be better served by other books, but that’s fine. It’s about time transgender people had a fairy tale romance of their own. Decide for yourself if this one works for you and the young people with whom you may be reading it.
Another fantasy story that is a graphic novel is The Deep & Dark Blue, by Niki Smith (Little, Brown). In it, two twins must hide with a group of magical women after a coup threatens their noble house. For one, dressing as a woman to blend in with the group is a disguise; for the other, it is the first step towards living as her real gender. The story takes up some familiar fantasy tropes—noble families; an evil relative who takes over from a rightful heir; young people coming of age—but transforms them into something fresh and original. The publisher’s suggested grade level of 3 to 7 slides it towards middle grade territory, but I think it would also appeal to the top of the elementary school age range. Full review.
Worth a mention, too, is Snapdragon, by Kat Leyh, one of the creators of the lauded Lumberjanes comics. The protagonist of this magical realist graphic novel isn’t transgender, but her best friend is, and the latter’s transition forms a secondary but clear storyline. There’s also queerness aplenty among other characters. Aimed at children in grades 5 to 9. Full review.
Transgender Men and Boys
Max on the Farm, by Kyle Lukoff and illustrated by Luciano Lozano (Reycraft), is the third in a series by a Stonewall Award-winning author about a transgender boy and his friends, and shows it’s possible to create picture books about LGBTQ characters that neither dwell on nor ignore their LGBTQ identities. Max, a White transgender boy, going on an overnight trip to a farm with his class, including his friend Teresa, a darker-skinned girl. Teresa, though cisgender, bends gender stereotypes—she likes to get “really dirty” while playing outdoors and tends to be the leader in their adventures. Max is more hesitant, but ultimately has fun during their gentle mischief. Full review.
The Fighting Infantryman, by Rob Sanders and illustrated by Nabi H. Ali (Little Bee), is the true story of Albert D. J. Cashier, an immigrant, a Union soldier in the U.S. Civil War, and a transgender man. Sanders paints a sympathetic portrait of a young immigrant finding his way in America and putting his life on the line to keep his new country united, even while trying to remain true to himself. Full review.
Love Remains: A Rosh Hashanah Story of Transformation, shows changes in the life of a Jewish mother, father, and child as they go year after year to the grandparents’ house for Rosh Hashanah. One year, their favorite flower shop is closed and they must find another; the next year, the grandfather has died; the year after that, a cousin has a new baby. The child similarly transforms and comes into his identity as a transgender boy, which the family wholeheartedly accepts. Full review.
I’m Not a Girl, written by Maddox Lyons, a 12-year-old transgender boy, and Jessica Verdi, with illustrations by Dana Simpson (Roaring Brook Press), is a first-person story based loosely on Lyons’ own life. The protagonist struggles against his well-meaning mom’s attempts to have her dress like a girl on many occasions. “I’m not a girl,” he insists. On one page, in a nice touch, he admires a poster of famous women and says, “I know girls are really cool. I’m just not one.” That’s a welcome acknowledgment that girls may read this book, too, and shouldn’t come away with the message that there’s anything wrong with being one, if that’s who they really are.
The protagonist, however, isn’t. Eventually, his frustrated mom lets him pick out any swimsuit he likes, and he chooses boy’s shorts and a swim shirt. At the pool, he meets two new friends, who assume he’s a boy but are confused when his father calls him by a girl’s name. He insists he’s a boy, and the friends say he’s like their transgender cousin, who’s actually a girl, although the family had thought otherwise. This gives the protagonist the courage and the language to talk with his parents about his identity. The book closes with him happily getting a boy’s short haircut.
The protagonist and his family are White; his new friends are Black. An afterward by Lyons’ mother, Verdi, and Simpson (a transgender woman herself) offers additional insight, as does a list of famous transgender people and additional resources. This is a sympathetic and personal account of transition that should find many fans.
My Maddy, written by Gayle Pitman and illustrated by Violet Tobacco (Magination Press), is a gentle story told as a series of reflections by a child about her nonbinary parent. A Note to Readers at the end, by clinical psychologist Randall Ehrbar, explains that “Maddy” is used by some families “to describe a parent who is transgender or gender diverse.” He also notes that while some trans people have nonbinary identities, others may identify in a more binary way as men or women. It’s unclear from the book whether this Maddy is trans, but since they could be and there are very few books about nonbinary trans parents, I’m going to include it here for those seeking such a story. Full review.
The Trans and Nonbinary Kids Mix is a multi-artist, multi-genre music album offering transgender and nonbinary children and youth songs that reflect and support who they are. It’s is the brainchild of Julie Lipson, one half of children’s music duo Ants on a Log, and contains 21 songs from musicians representing hip-hop, pop, folk, country, and other genres. Full review.
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