In a new picture book by the real-life mother of a transgender daughter, a young boy isn’t quite sure what’s happening when his younger sibling, whom he thought was a boy, begins to want long hair and to wear dresses. The whole family learns together in this story that adds to the small number of picture books about transgender children and their siblings.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a clinical social worker and advocate for children and families whose memoir about her own years in foster care, Three Little Words (Amazon; Bookshop), was a New York Times bestseller. She and her husband have been foster parents to more than twenty-five children. Her first children’s book, Sam Is My Sister (Albert Whitman & Co.), is not about foster care, however, but is based on her own family’s experiences raising a transgender daughter and two cisgender sons (whose names have been changed for the story).
The tale, brightly illustrated by MacKenzie Haley, starts with three White siblings, Evan, Sam, and Finn, who “did everything together.” When Sam starts to want books about princesses and to wear his hair long, Evan wonders why. To their mom’s credit, she says that books are for everyone. Their father explains that Sam’s hair is Sam’s and “isn’t hurting anyone.”
When Sam wants to wear a dress to school, however, the mom hesitates, giving Sam a hair bow and suggesting, “How about this for now?” This feels true to the gradual process that many families go through when a child comes out as trans.
On the next page, some kids at school tease Sam. Evan glares at them, but doesn’t say anything. Sam becomes sad and withdrawn. Eventually, though, their parents start letting Sam wear dresses outside of school, and “Evan had never seen Sam so happy.” When Evan doesn’t understand, however, how Sam can feel like a girl on the inside, Sam makes the analogy to knowing which hand one uses to draw. Evan says, “Drawing with my other hand doesn’t feel right.” Sam explains, “Well, being a boy doesn’t feel right to me.”
One day, the parents sit the whole family down to share that “Sam has been talking to us about something important,” and that they’ve met with “some doctors and experts.” They’ve learned what “transgender” means and realized Sam is transgender. Sam affirms this.
Sam reassures Evan and Finn that they can all still go fishing and play “spaceships, planes, and trains.” Evan, who seems to be expanding his view of gender roles, tells Finn that “Girls like to fish, too.”
Back at school, though, some kids call Sam a “boy in a dress.” This time, Evan confronts them, saying, “Don’t talk like that to my sister!” Sam is delighted he called her his sister.
At the end, the brothers ask if Sam will still fly to the moon with them, and Sam tells them, “Princesses can go to the moon.” Leia Organa would be proud.
While the story has a clear educational purpose, Rhodes-Courter lightens it with some gentle humor. I also appreciate her emphasis that gender is about what’s inside, not about the books one reads or the toys one plays with.
Sam Is My Sister feels like a complement to Jack, Not Jackie, by Erica Silverman (Little Bee), which offers the perspective of a cisgender girl whose sibling is a transgender boy. (My review here.) Like that earlier book, this one seems aimed mostly at the siblings (and possibly friends) of transgender children rather than transgender children themselves. Kyle Lukoff’s When Aidan Became a Brother, in contrast, is told from the perspective of a transgender boy awaiting the arrival of a new sibling. (My review here.) Each of these viewpoints will likely appeal to different families. (And for more children’s books with transgender characters, not necessarily with siblings, see my database. Start typing “Trans” into the Tag box and the various options will come up.)
Rhodes-Courter shares a little more of her family’s real story in an Author’s Note at the end, relating that, “One day, when we read aloud a wonderful book about a young transgender girl, Sam’s face lit up. ‘Mommy, that’s ME! I’m transgender!’ This was a breakthrough moment. I had never seen Sam so happy.” That’s the power of books, friends. May this one in its turn help families and individuals to find their way.
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