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.