This winter I read a couple of memoirs that really made me think about gender and sexual identity. Both, written by teens who grew up within miles of each other, are coming-of-age stories set in the south.
As I was reading, one thought kept pushing to the front: gender-questioning kids - and their parents - need to see these books. Both of these books raised as many questions as they answered. Both Katie and Arin shoot straight from the hip and get to the heart of their stories. I truly think that these books can save kids' lives - but only if they have the opportunity to read them. If we are truly going to embrace diversity in children's and young adult literature, then stories like these must find a place on the shelf.
Rethinking Normal: a Memoir in Transition
by Katie Rain Hill
264 pages; ages 12 & up
Simon & Schuster, 2014
What happens when you're born into the wrong body? For Katie, that realization came at a young age. She realized that a serious mistake had been made: she was a girl who had been born in the body of a boy. As a toddler, she knew something was "off", but at that age a kid's gender isn't a serious concern. If little boys to play with dolls and little girls roughhouse, adults don't think too much about it.
But add a couple years, and other kids start to notice. Katie, named Luke by her parents, didn't fit in. She had a graceful walk, a girlish voice, and no interest in football - and that didn't go over well in Okay, Oklahoma. Now Katie was judged and bullied, and it made her life miserable to the point where she wished she was dead.
When she started high school, and after reading an article about another transgender girl, Katie finally found the courage to talk with her mom. I think the line that broke my heart is when her mom asked, "Can't you just be gay?" Fortunately for Katie, her mom became an ally, and supported her (now) daughter's desire to be called "she" and dress like a girl. There is a lot of heartache in Katie's story, and a lot of poor decisions, miscommunication, and just plain not knowing where to go - things that would be true in any coming-of-age story. But when your coming-of-age also means realizing you are a completely different person.... that is a deeper story.
One of the transgender friends Katie becomes close to is Arin, born into a girl's body he never felt comfortable in. Arin tells his story in:
Some Assembly Required: the Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen
by Arin Andrews
256 pages; ages 12 & up
Simon & Schuster, 2014
Arin, beginning life as Emerald, preferred playing tag and other active, outside games. But by the age of three, he was enrolled in dance classes. "My tap movements were more like stomps," he recalls. As for leotards and tutus and bunny ears and fishnet stockings - he loathed them all. His letters to Santa listed wishes for a backpack, legos, a pocket knife... but gift boxes held frilly skirts and Barbie dolls because that's what people expected a little girl to want.
It's hard for a young child to understand why he feels different... it's not like Arin knew he was a guy. But one day, in fourth grade, he forgot running clothes and needed to do a mile run for gym class. A cousin lent Arin some of his: skintight tank top and black shorts. When Arin slipped them on it was like putting on a superhero suit - no zippers or buttons or other fastidious nonsense. Just simple running clothes.
What really horrified Arin, though, was the talk all moms give their fifth-grade daughters. When he heard what would happen every month, he burst into tears... that was something that happened to girls. Not him.
Like Katie, Arin looked for answers on the internet and read articles about other transgender teens. That's how he learned about Katie. And it was those articles, shared with his mother, that helped her finally understand that the daughter she called Emerald didn't feel like a girl at all.
Both Katie and Arin speak from the heart, and their books are eminently readable personal accounts. They do not mince words or dance around hard topics: they tackle issues of body image, dating, gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. They write about their feelings. And they write about their relationship with each other - a romance that hit the media as a story about "America's first teen trans couple".
Both books conclude with sections on tips for talking to transgender people, and resources for families including books, movies, and helpful websites.
On Monday we'll be joining the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copies provided by the publisher.