The Pants Project

Hey it's another one! Another middle-grade novel about a trans kid, written by a cis person (Cat Clarke), and blurbed by another cis person who wrote another middle-grade novel about a trans kid. And I'm sure you'll be shocked out of your seats to learn that I didn't like this one either.

"The Pants Project" is about a trans boy about to start middle school, who decides to fight against the school dress code that requires girls to wear skirts. Liv knows he's trans, but hasn't told anyone else in his life, so he decides to argue about the sexism and discrimination inherent in the dress code rather than talk about his gender identity. In the meantime his best friend Maisie becomes friends with the popular girls, while he befriends a cute new boy with his own identity-based secret (content note: a disability is used as a surprising reveal at the end, which just makes the whole thing more upsetting).

My main issue with "The Pants Project" is that I just don't buy that it's about a boy. It reads to me like a book about a masc/butch girl, who would also feel dysphoric around being force-feminized, but somewhere along the way Clarke was convinced to turn Liv into a trans boy because cis people feel really dedicated to talking about us for fun and profit. Liv tells us that he's trans here and there in the story, but nothing in his voice, or his relationships with others, or his reactions to life as a closeted trans kid, actually makes me believe it.

One of the main tensions in the book is around the deterioration of his friendship with Maisie, which all feels like a very typical middle-grade-girl story. There's nothing in his relationship with Maisie that makes it seem like he's a boy with a girl for a best friend, or that Maisie sees Liv as anything other than just a weird girl (like is done so well in "The Thing About Jellyfish," by Ali Benjamin). The only ways that we know Liv is trans is because he tells us occasionally, but nothing in his inner life or external reactions carries that out.

Similarly, in a middle-grade novel about a friendship with the cute new boy, I would expect something about a romance. If Liv and/or Jacob aren't interested in romance, the perceptions of that as a possibility could at least come through. Maybe Liv doesn't like Jacob because he only likes girls (even though there's no indication of that), or because he's asexual (again, no indication of that), or maybe Jacob thought Liv was cute but subconsciously loses interest because he's straight. Something, anything, because I just don't buy that the two of them would strike up a completely platonic friendship without even a hint of middle-school drama about liking or like-liking.

All the scenes where Liv talks about being trans feel tacked on and unnecessary. The author explains in various scenes that Liv is trans and doesn't like skirts, but that's about how deep his dysphoria gets. If this were a book about a tomboy/butch/masc girl fighting for her right to her gender presentation, I would be all for it. But instead what I read was an inconsistent story about a character who doesn't feel authentically anything, who also weirdly seems to reinforce stereotypes about what girlhood should be or should look like. Cis people who like this failed execution probably believe that trans boys are just tomboys who take it a step further. 

Voice is hard to get right. As much as I disliked "The Other Boy," at least I could tell that Shane was a boy. "Lily & Dunkin" is bad for a lot of reasons, but at least Lily really felt like a girl. But after reading "The Pants Project" I still can't really think of Liv as a boy, and that's not fair to him, or to me, or to kids who will read this book.

I could pull out more from the text, but I just don't want to have to read it again. I'm so tired of cis people trying to write about us, failing to do us justice, and then succeeding anyway. I hate knowing that kids will be impacted by their lack of imagination and creative ability. I hate knowing that cis people who like this book won't realize what that means about their perceptions of us. Please just stop.

Kyle Lukoff
The Other Boy

The Other Boy (2016) by MG Hennessey is a middle-grade novel about a trans boy that doesn’t quite break ground, though I suppose it dislodges a pebble or two. It’s telling that two of the blurbs on the dust jacket are by other cis people who have also successfully capitalized off of trans representation, Jill Soloway of Transparent and Ami Polonsky, of a similar book called “Gracefully Grayson.”

What I find interesting about this book is how often it hints at the better book it could have been. It seems like Hennessey is trying so hard to make Shane, the main character, as boring as possible so readers don’t have to engage with the messy realities of a real person. He’s straight. He really likes baseball. He’s casually ableist*, racist**, and fatphobic***. All he wants is to be as close to cis as humanly possible, and parrots the “boy brain in a girl body” that is so prevalent. There are some confusing and mixed messages about whether or not Shane agrees with that interpretation, probably because we trans people don't all agree on it and Hennessey didn't want to make her characters pick a side.

And yet, there are a few hints of of a story that could be actually better. Shane is completely stealth in his middle school, made possible by hormone blockers and because he came out as trans in the third grade, before he and his mom moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He describes his coming-out process as relatively smooth, as a child with liberal, white, middle-class San Francisco family privilege. He says that no one cared that he was trans, and “By the end of third grade, it seemed like everyone was used to it” (94). He even got into a fistfight with a guy who "never would've hit a girl" (95). But he still claims that his friends “still behaved like I was fragile and had to be handled carefully” (96), and that being completely stealth in his new school helps him feel more authentically male.

But this is why the book is also so boring and so trope-laden. Of course, of course the main conflict centers around a bully finding out his “secret,” calling him a "tranny" (side note: would a middle schooler say that? I'm not sure. What do you think?) and outing him to the whole school. If he had stayed in San Francisco, maybe his story could have been about publishing the graphic novel he’s writing. Or adventures with his new girlfriend, who wouldn’t break up with him when she found out. Or actually meeting the trans girl in his stepmom’s family and, I don’t know, solving some mystery with her.

Similarly, Shane also has some trans community, which is nice to see. But again, the scenes where he’s with other trans kids hint at the possibility of something more interesting or complex, but nothing more. In his PFLAG group (and elsewhere) Shane talks about how many problems trans kids can have--depression, eating disorders, self-injury, abuse. But at the end of a support group scene Shane refers to a kid who “had talked about feeling lucky to have been born this way, because it made us unique and special. He said he wouldn’t change it if he could” (127). Of course, we never get to meet that kid. I’m really interested in his story, how the other kids respond, what his life is like, but instead the just get a passing mention from Shane. Almost as if the author doesn’t really know how to write a fully-fleshed out trans character, just knows that we exist.

Similarly, Shane has a trans friend he’s pretty close to, an older girl named Alejandra. She’s cool, I guess, but we never get the sense that Shane likes her that much. She pesters him with overly upbeat text messages, tells him that her life is way harder than his and he shouldn’t mope so much (I agree but also know that middle-schoolers will mope no matter what), and is always flirting with him while in a miniskirts. There’s nothing wrong with excited, vivacious trans teenagers embracing their sexuality, of course, but she feels a little forced. Like her whole purpose is just to be his opposite, while at the same time keeping it real for him. Like the kid in the support group, Alejandra doesn’t get the wholeness of character she deserves, because she’s too busy propping up Shane.

This book is very carefully constructed to avoid some issues common in trans representation, but that care is somewhat haphazard. For example, Shane never had to change his name, since his birth name is easily taken for male. On the one hand, it means that the author avoids “deadnaming” him, since his given name is also his preferred name is also his legal name. At the same time, though, I wonder if that was author choosing an easy way out. As if she couldn’t figure out how to show a respect for a trans character’s chosen name when it differs from a name that other people might call them. Like the only way to avoid deadnaming a trans character is to evade the problem completely. Which is fine, I guess, and I do know some trans people whose names work like that, but to me this still seems a little lazy.

The author also clearly wanted to take care in writing the obligatory locker room trauma scene. To her credit, Shane isn’t sexually or physically assaulted there. He’s not even verbally harassed, not quite. Instead, his best friend, trying to quell the rumors that Shane is trans, encourages him to pull down his pants and prove that he’s male-assigned. Shane can’t do that, of course, and humiliation ensues.

It’s clear that the author wanted to avoid the common trope of transphobic violence in gender-segregated spaces. Instead of assault, Shane is just humiliated and outed by default in this highly-charged space. It’s almost as if Hennessey wanted to avoid repeating a well-worn plot point but couldn’t conceive of any other way of framing this dramatic climax. She shoulder-checks the very trope she was trying to avoid, instead of just, I don’t know, going in a different direction. Points for trying? I guess? Nah, I don’t have any points to give anyway.

The Other Boy shows what happens when someone has the best of intentions, clearly worked very hard at avoiding offense, but still can’t imagine what a trans life can look like outside of predetermined stories. We’re at a point now where your average cis writer can successfully capitalize off of trans visibility and create something something realistic. But don’t readers deserve more than just coming out, disclosure, and shame? Why can’t we have stories about everything that a trans life could be? And why is it so much easier for cis people to succeed telling their ideas of our stories, when art created by us is allowed to languish?

 

* “I wish it was different, but it could be worse. There was a kid in my old school who was born with cerebral palsy; every move he made was jerky and wrong, and he couldn’t play sports or anything. That would really suck.” 43

**”His [Shane’s Chinese best friend Josh] mom...pretty much only cooked Chinese food, it always reeked.” (105)

***"'Dude, check it out. Fat Spider-Man,' Josh said.... 'Hey, you know what would be awesome?' I said. A superhero comic where they were all totally out of shape.' 'Yeah,' Josh agreed. 'The Legion of Horrible.'" 128-129.

 

Kyle Lukoff
Lily and Dunkin

"Lily and Dunkin" (2016) by Donna Gephart is one of several recent books by cis authors that pair a transgender girl with an otherwise-marginalized cisgender boy. It’s weird that this is such a popular pairing—I can think of two other books with the exact same idea behind them. I want to write an article, or maybe just a parody, called “Trans Girl + Weird Boy,” but for now I want to talk about why the huge problems I see in "Lily and Dunkin". I know this book is trying to represent a possible future for trans fiction: by giving a trans character a motivation beyond just transition (saving her beloved tree from being cut down), and showing how there are lots of different issues that children might face (her friend Dunkin is bipolar and struggling with his father’s recent suicide), and being trans is just one of them. But this story still relies on tired and damaging ideas of trans children created and perpetuated by cis authors.

One of my biggest concerns is how often the author talks about Lily's genitals. Cis people are obsessed with the genitals of trans people, especially trans girls and women, and it's obvious that the author shares this fixation. There are so many times when Lily refers to herself has having "male parts," "male anatomy," "a boy's body," and often refers to hair and growth "down there." I find an adult's fixation on the genitalia of a child, and then putting this fixation onto the child herself, and thus giving readers permission to similarly fixate, troubling and dehumanizing. I hope you know as well as I do where this obsession with trans people's genitals can lead: discrimination, marginalization, violence, and death. Also, Lily doesn't have a male body. She's a girl. She has a girl's body. I understand why Lily doesn't realize that, but it seems like the author doesn't realize it either, or else she would have done something to push back against her character's internal monologue (I hope).

It's also very revealing (no pun intended) that the author doesn't talk about Dunkin's genitals at all. He talks a lot about his body too, how much bigger he is than other kids, hairier, and how awkward and uncomfortable he feels about that. And yet we don't see him ruminating about how maybe his penis is bigger than other boys, how he has pubic hair that he feels weird about, maybe he has erections at unwanted times, or wet dreams. For some reason Dunkin gets his sexual privacy respected in a way that Lily does not. Which says way more about the author's discomfiting fascination with the genitals of trans people than anything else.

It also just continues a highly medicalized and pathologized view of trans bodies. It is almost an interesting comparison, Lily's desperation to get on hormones vs. Dunkin's desperation to get off psych meds. I see the parallels she's trying to draw. But it also worries me, Lily's constant agonizing about puberty and her obsession with medical intervention. What about trans girls who are 16, in puberty, reading this because some well-meaning adult was like "This is about a trans girl so it's great for you"? What does it say about their voices, their height, their bodies? I know that the author isn't trying to speak for all trans girls, but I think Lily's terror about puberty, and her conviction (which is never questioned or alleviated by anyone in the story) that if she doesn't get on blockers soon her life as a trans woman will be over before it starts, is actively harmful to just about every trans girl or woman who transitions after puberty.

One could compare this book to "Almost Perfect," by Brian Katcher. This book is from 2009, and won a Stonewall the year it came out. It was also published by the same imprint as "Lily and Dunkin," and often pops up on lists for books about trans teenagers. It's tempting to point towards "Lily and Dunkin" as a step forward, but honestly, it differs in scale from the violence and hatred in "Almost Perfect" but doesn't differ in execution. One huge complaint about "Almost Perfect" is how the trans character, Sage, keeps coming back to the main character Logan even after he treats her like shit, over and over. Which is exactly what Lily does for Dunkin. He blows her off, sucks up to the boys who bully her, pretends like he doesn't know her, and she keeps coming back to him with forgiveness. And, like I've seen so many times, Lily deals with an unsupportive parent, is subject to verbal and physical abuse, and, of course, gets sexually assaulted in a locker room. I'm not saying that those things don't happen, of course. But it's a trope. A harmful, scary trope that is not inevitable but is constantly being enshrined in fiction like it's just a natural, typical part of growing up trans, that trans kids can expect to get assaulted. That won't make any trans child feel less scared. I want that mindset to stop, especially when it's cis people who are responsible for transphobia, both in action and in creative imagination.

Lily is such a passive character the whole time, letting even her best friend bully and push her around, and the one moment she shows some backbone, trying to protect her favorite tree, she still caves. And she doesn't only cave about the tree. When Dunkin is all prepared to start calling her Lily, she tells him to keep calling her by her birth name, which she hates. Everyone seems to have power over Lily's life but Lily. And as soon as she starts to take some power, she gives it right back up.

There are other issues in this book that deserve further exploration, particularly from a mental health standpoint and critical approach of how race is treated; specifically Lily’s best friend Dare, who is referred to as "dark" and "brown," with the occasional use of AAVE, but is given no context or reality as a Black child in Florida, and exists solely to prop up her white trans friend. But from solely a trans standpoint, the issues in Lily and Dunkin exemplify why cis people should not be the creators, gatekeepers, and arbiters about which trans stories are allowed into the world.

 

Kyle Lukoff
Red Diaper Review: A Is For Activist, by Innosanto Nagara

When I first came across this book I didn’t like it, but wasn’t overly upset about it. The more I see it, though, and the more I see it touted as a must-have for any family that wants to raise a radical or thoughtful or informed child, the more frustrated I get.

I believe in talking to children about big, important ideas, and the author of A is for Activist obviously agrees with this. I disagree that an abecedarium with haphazard capitalizations, rhyming verses that don’t scan properly, and radical buzzwords tossed around with little to no context, is the way to do it.

I’m not sure who the intended audience for this book is. The format is a board book, usually intended for the youngest children, infants through toddlers, who are as likely to gnaw on the pages as listen to them. But much of the vocabulary is more appropriate for middle-schoolers at least, or the very few children who have been thoroughly instructed by a family that regularly discusses the Zapatistas and labor unions. I understand the adult appeal of reading this to infants, or children who don’t need every page explained in painstaking detail, but grown-up enjoyment doesn’t equal a successful picture book.

Take the D page. “Little d democracy./ More than voting, you’ll agree./ Dictators Detest it. Donkeys Don’t get it./ But you and me? We Demand equality.”  In just 22 words Nagara addresses two kinds of democracy, the animal mascot of the Democratic party, the failings of that party, dictatorship, and more. On top of that, the capitalization is visually confusing, the rhymes are wrenched, and the meter is inconsistent. Every one of the 26 letters suffers from these same basic problems.

Children deserve subtle, interesting, tightly-constructed stories about these huge issues, which affect their lives both immediately and systemically. I love abecedaria as much as the next word nerd, and I really wish this one worked better.

 

A is for Activist, by Innosanta Nagara. Seven Stories Press, 2013.

Kyle Lukoff 1 Comment
Red Diaper Review: Which Side Are You On? A Story of a Song, by George Ella Lyon

It’s tremendously challenging to write good picture books about deeply important historical events. The most well-intentioned picture books about Christopher Columbus, or Rosa Parks, or the Vietnam War are often too vague or too specific, overly didactic or just plain boring. Lyon chose an incredibly difficult subject to explain, labor history and union organizing, and managed to construct an exciting, engaging story that is educational without being heavy-handed.

Like the best picture books, this one has a central structure that the text is built around, in this case the lyrics of the famous labor song “Which Side Are You On.” The illustrations are great; the style is reminiscent of a graphic novel, which enhances the story and adds to the action. The voice is very unique, done in an Appalachian accent that does a great job of setting the scene without being distracting. There are a few important vocabulary words, such as “strike” and “scab,” that are accurately defined in ways that don't derail the central narrative.

 Instead of trying to give an entire overview of that pivotal moment in eastern Kentucky, Lyon focuses tightly on one important night, when the father in the story tries to protect his family by hiding out in the hills. Strikebreakers attack the house anyway, shooting bullets through the thin walls. The mother (Florence Reese) writes the lyrics while the children hide under the bed. This single moment, with a bit of background and a glimpse of the future, makes an enormously compelling story that even younger children can begin to understand.

 

Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song, by George Ella Lyon. Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

 

 

 

Kyle Lukoff