In my recent quest to find quality young adult literature, I ended up sitting down to read several YA books about trans teenagers. Trans teens were hard to find in books while I was growing up, so I was pleased to discover several YA novels written in recent years that present very nuanced and sympathetic portrayals of trans teens.
These books are important. Most trans teens grow up feeling isolated because of widespread transphobia, and their ability to access resources is often limited. But these books can act as makeshift resources, showing trans teens that there are others out there that share their struggles. A couple even include lists of websites and phone numbers for trans teens at the end, presenting options for readers looking to further explore transitioning.
And these books aren't just important for trans teens. These books should be required reading for cisgendered teens and adults, as they tune the cisgendered reader into everyday struggles that trans teens encounter, and they teach the reader just how important it is that we work to eliminate transphobia.
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
Angela's had enough of acting like he's a girl, so he buys some used men's clothing, cuts his hair, and changes his name to Grady. While he's excited to have made this transition, several people in his life aren't accepting of this change. He's lost his best friend and his family isn't acknowledging the importance and permanence of the change. And while Grady struggles to explain his name change to school faculty and decide which bathroom to change in before gym class, a girl at school is already plotting to humiliate him.
Grady encounters a lot of hate in the hallways at school, but he also finds a few unexpected friendships. Sebastian, one of his new friends from his TV Productions class, introduces him to the stoplight parrotfish. These ocean fish are capable of changing gender, and Grady finds their existence affirming and comforting.
Grady is a sharp character with lots of thoughtful observations about the ridiculousness of gender roles, and his ideas about gender performativity will resonate with any reader. If you're reading this with a group of teens, Ellen Wittlinger provides a discussion guide to accompany the book here.
Luna by Julie Anne Peters
This story is told by Regan, a fifteen-year-old who finds herself frequently putting her life on hold in order to cover for and support Liam, her brother who has yet to come out to anyone else as a girl. Liam decides to go by Luna, which means moon, and is symbolic of the fact that she can only come out at night. But Luna's been talking about transitioning, and it's got Regan worried. Regan's happy to buy underwear for Luna and let her dress in feminine clothing in her room at night, but she has a hard time imaging what social transition will look like. Regan stresses out about how her family and kids at school will react, and then finds herself targeting her frustration towards Luna. The reader follows Regan through her confusion, and watches her grow to understand and accept Luna's need to share her true self with everyone else.
Take a sneak peek at the story here.
Eon: Dragoneye Rebord by Alison Goodman
This story (also published as The Two Pearls of Wisdom, Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye, and Eon) follows Eon, a girl who has been masquerading as a 12-year-old boy while she trains to become a Dragoneye, an apprentice to one of the twelve energy dragons of good fortune. Girls who use Dragon Magic are killed, so when Eon's secret is threatened, she ends up in a fight for her life. One of the characters in this story, Lady Dela, is a key player in helping Eon to find her sense of strength. And Dela was born in a male body. It's made clear that she dealt with transphobia while growing up, but her identity has largely been accepted and supported. When Eon asks her why she didn't have her male genitalia removed surgically, she says, "I don't need to be cut to know I am a woman." And while the fact that she's trans does come up, the fact that she is trans is not the focus of the story.
While Parrotfish and Luna focus on trans characters who are in the midst of social transitioning, the plot line in Eon does not revolve around the trans character being trans. We need more books like this. While it's important that we have books that tell stories about what it means to transition as a teenager, we also need books with trans teens just being teens.
It's exciting to see space being made for trans teens in YA lit, but we've definitely got a long way to go. What strides would you like to see being made in YA lit in order to make it more trans-friendly? And do you have other recommendations for YA books that touch on trans issues?