It’s Transgender Awareness Week, and hot off the presses today is a new picture book about transgender icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera!
Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution, by Joy Michael Ellison and Teshika Silver (Jessica Kingsley, 2020), tells the story of Sylvia and Marsha by focusing on their close friendship and how they cared for their community in the face of harassment by police and others. We see them at the heart of the Stonewall Rebellion, then opening a home for homeless trans girls and continuing to fight “for the survival and rights of transgender people.”
Some of the violence during the rebellion has been tempered for the age group and a few historical details could be argued, but as the authors note, this is only one retelling of what happened. What comes through clearly, though—and is probably most important for young readers—is the bond between Sylvia and Marsha and the overall sense of how they worked to help those in need. To read that they “strode with pride, like two lionesses” down the street after the rebellion, and to see Silver’s image of them smiling confidently, arm in arm, is to know that trans women can be strong and powerful. A few of the narrative transitions are a little jumpy, but the thread of Sylvia and Marsha’s friendship helps hold things together.
One point that may require a little adult explanation is when members of the community call out “Here comes Alice in the blue dress!” to indicate the police are on the way. We’ve learned earlier in the book that the police can arrest trans women for wearing dresses—and the police (all male) are not wearing dresses themselves. Young readers may think the call means the police are chasing someone named Alice until they understand the ironic slang. (Having said that, I’m betting that once young readers catch on, parents may be hard pressed to stop them from shouting this phrase themselves when they see a real officer on the street. Fair warning….)
The back matter offers additional details on the two, a glossary, discussion questions, and activities. There are a couple of errors in the two online resources listed, though: “Queer Kids Stuff” should be “Queer Kid Stuff,” and “The Family Equality Council” should be just “Family Equality.” (Also, I would have added PFLAG and Gender Spectrum as key resources, since they do a lot of work with families of trans kids.) Those are minor issues, though. This inspiring story of friendship, community, and revolution rightly gives Sylvia and Marsha their place on our kids’ bookshelves alongside the mostly White and male figures who have dominated LGBTQ picture book biographies.
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