February 16, 2012
Dreaming of Dresses: Transgender Books for Children
By B.J. Epstein
Young people are coming out as transgender ever earlier, which often means that they want medical treatment at younger ages. This is a thought that worries and bewilders some adults, in part because they do not believe that children can really know who they are or what they want but also in part because they simply don’t have enough information about gender dysphoria.
These days, we see some trans and intersex people in the media, although there is often an emphasis on the problems they face. News reports discuss bullying and suicide. Films such as Boys Don’t Cry or XXYdepict struggles and pain. Novels often do a bit better in terms of nuance (such as Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex or Annabel by Kathleen Winter), but are not always easily available (one thinks here of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues). So it’s not surprising that adults don’t always get accurate information or positive ideas about trans issues.
Then there’s the perhaps more pressing problem of where trans or intersex young people themselves can read about other people like them. If someone recognizes at a young age that she or he is trans, that person might immediately want to know that she or he is not alone or “abnormal.” The media and, more specifically, literature is usually the first stop.
There are two well-known young adult novels about trans characters, Luna by Julie Anne Peters and Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger.
Luna is about a transgender male-to-female, Liam, who wants to transition and become known as Luna. The story is told from the point of view of Regan, Luna’s younger sister. In a way, the story is mostly 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 transgender people as being egocentric and only interested in their own issues. The novel also seems to suggest that being trans is necessarily stressful and must involve leaving home.
Parrotfish does a much better job, in my opinion, and it is one I use in class as a way of teaching about transgender issues. Wittlinger’s novel is about a female-to-male, Grady, and it is told from his perspective. This book is much more positive in that while Grady does encounter some difficulties, he is supported by his family, to the best of their ability, 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. Grady has a number of things going on in his life, and being transgender is simply one of them.
In a sense, that’s the way literature about any minority is done best; that is to say, having a particular race, religion, sexuality, ability, gender identity, class and so on is just one part of a character and not all there is about him or her.
Luna and Parrotfish are both for teenaged readers, but since we know that pre-teens, school-aged children, and even some pre-schoolers are recognizing that their psychological gender does not match their physical body, there ought to be some trans books for young readers, too.
I am unfortunately aware of no texts about transgender characters 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 Kilodavis and illustrated by Suzanne DeSimone, 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, the book is positive in that the boy is accepted for who he is and how he likes to dress.
This is a strong message to pass on to children. It doesn’t 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; for now, he is a little boy who likes pink sparkly dresses, and that’s completely fine with his relatives, classmates and teachers.
10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert is my favourite transgender book for any age group. 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 is biologically male. Although Bailey faces some problems, she is still a very strong person who believes in herself and who looks elsewhere for support.
One thing I love about this book is that Ewert uses female pronouns when referring to Bailey, which suggests that the narrator has accepted Bailey for who she is and that, therefore, so should the reader. While this might confuse some young readers, it can be easily explained by an adult reading besides them, and also is a good starting point for discussion.
The book also has strong, symbolic illustrations that emphasize which characters see Bailey for who she is and which do not. Also, of course, the ten thousand dresses of the title are creative and fun and can inspire other readers.
10,000 Dresses is a simple, powerful book and when I show it to my students or at talks I give, people inevitably respond very well to it and find it moving.
Clearly, transgender literature for children is rather mixed at the moment in terms of how it portrays transpeople and trans issues. Also, the fact that there is such a small number of texts suggests that there is much more work to be done in the field.
Right now is a time when many transgender children are taunted or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable at school, when they consider or attempt suicide, or when they see no hope for the future. I believe that featuring trans and intersex characters in literature for young people can help to change this.
Let young people dream of dresses (or trousers, or whatever else they might desire) and what’s more, let them have them.