Hello, and thanks for joining us at Tundra Telegram, the column where we discuss things that are engendering heated conversations on social media and pass along some queerly excellent titles.
This past weekend, November 20, was the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed the year prior. Tragically, it was a day of remembrance that was marked by further anti-LGBTQ violence, as news broke early that morning of a mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs – a tragedy that would have been much worse, if not for the actions of some heroic patrons at the club.
In the face of such tragedy, we wanted to take a moment to feature books of trans joy – books that celebrate trans lives and experiences, with minimal focus on the hardships and tragedy. (Obviously, we appreciate books that speak to trans sadness and pain, too, but this week, we’re hoping to accentuate the positive.)
Let’s start with some picture books that cheerlead trans stories. Calvin by JR and Vanessa Ford, and illustrated by Kayla Harren, celebrates the lead-up to young trans boy’s first day of school, complete with new haircut, new clothes, and . . . a new name. Any hesitance Calvin had introducing his true self to the world melts away as family, friends, and teachers rally around him in a joyful story inspired by the authors’ own child.
Jodie Patterson and Charnelle Pinkney Barlow’s Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope likewise lightly fictionalizes the experiences of the author’s son, as Penelope faces some frustrations and, eventually, real triumphs on his journey to share himself with the world. The main takeaway from the book is that it always makes you stronger when you are true to yourself and who you really are – and that sounds like a message to celebrate!
Can a book only published in 2018 be a classic? We think so, which is why we’ve included classic picture book Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love on this list. A buoyant celebration of self-love and genderfluidity, the story follows young Julián after he notices three women dressed spectacularly on the subway, all on their way to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. When Julián gets home, daydreaming of the magic he’s seen, all he can think about is dressing up just like the ladies in his own fabulous mermaid costume. He worries what his abuela will think about how Julián sees himself, but soon realizes he needn’t worry: his abuela just wants to perfect his costume and take him to the parade!
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas is the real-life story of co-author Jazz Jennings, a transgender child who has become a spokesperson for trans kids everywhere. (She’s also, for TLC Fans, the star of a reality show by the very same name!)
Another book based on a true story (and inspired by a documentary), Ho’onani: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale and Mika Song, features a young Hawaiian girl in who dreams of leading the boys-only hula troupe at her school. Ho’onani feels in-between. She doesn’t see herself as wahine (girl) OR kane (boy). She’s happy to be in the middle. So when Ho’onani finds out that there will be a school performance of a traditional kane hula chant, she decides to be part of it in this musical celebration.
There are few things more joyous than a rainbow wig, as any My Little Pony cosplayer can tell you. You can experience that joy yourself with My Rainbow by authors DeShanna and Trinity Neal, and illustrated by Art Twink (who has maybe the best illustrator name of all time?). When young transgender girl Trinity decides she needs long hair, her dedicated mom puts love into action as she creates the perfect rainbow-colored wig for her daughter.
We also recommend Pink, Blue, and You!: Questions for Kids about Gender and Stereotypes from Canadian children’s book artist Elise Gravel and trans activist and educator Mykaell Blais, an easy-to-understand picture book that opens the door to conversations about gender stereotypes and identity. We’ve found the book also has a crossover audience with adults who are trying to learn more, sometimes inspired by the kids and grandkids in their life who are trans or nonbinary.
CHAPTER BOOKS & MIDDLE GRADE
Okay, so it may not be the definition of trans joy, but Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker is a cyber mystery, and that was fun in The Net! Zenobia is an expert hacker trans girl in a new town and new school. So, when there’s a mystery to be solved around hateful memes being posted anonymously, Zenobia goes full digital Nancy Drew to crack the case and finds a new home in the process.
If cyber detective work doesn’t sound joyful enough, how about gliding through the open water like an otter? Obie Is Man Enough, a book by Schuyler Bailar, competitive swimmer and the first transgender athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA Division I men’s team, is a coming-of-age story that closely mirrors Bailar’s own experiences in the pool. Transgender tween Obie, after his transition, has to leave his swim coach and pool (there is some bullying in this book), but soon dives into things with a new, more supportive swim team, with support from family and friends – including Charlie, his first crush.
What about a combination coming-of-age transgender and ghost story? That’s what Too Bright To See, the National Book Award finalist by Kyle Lukoff, is. Best friends Moira and Bug spend the summer before middle school investigating a haunting in Bug’s eerie old house while preparing for a new stage of life. For Bug, that preparation – and, in a strange way, the haunting – lead to the revelation they are transgender.
This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, and Us edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby, is an appetizing sampler of stories for middle-graders from all genres. Whether they’re in the mood for contemporary coming-out trans stories or adventures of nonbinary pirates on the high seas, this dazzling anthology has a colorful tale for everyone.
Few things bring more joy than love and baked goods, which is why we’re recommending A. R. Capetta’s Heartbreak Bakery. Teenage baker Syd (who is agender) sends ripples of heartbreak through the queer community of Austin, Texas, when a batch of post-being-dumped brownies turns out to be magical – and makes everyone who eats them break up their romantic relationships! Syd has a major crush on Harley, the sexy trans delivery messenger, and reading this book is akin to nuzzling underneath a big, magical, queer electric blanket.
But for a touch more magic, there’s Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, a whimsical, dark fantasy about Jam, a transgender girl who befriends a horrifying monster that emerges from one of her mother’s paintings. Jam lives in a utopian society, where trans kids are trusted to know their own bodies and feelings (that’s good), but it’s a creaky utopia that may rely on secrets and deceit (not so good). Still, there’s enough wonder and magic to bring a smile to any reader’s face.
Sports, romance, and courage are the highlights of The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimmons, the story of a trans boy athlete who gets a fresh start at liberal private school – where no one knows he’s trans. Not his soccer coach, and not even the cute, down-low Christian guy he has a crush on. When the soccer league enforces a discriminatory rule, Spencer has two choices – he can keep silent and let discrimination win, or he can reveal the truth about himself and fight for his rights and face the fallout. But Spencer will find that people can always surprise you in good ways.
In the mood for a little romance, but also the adrenaline rush of an argument? Both Sides Now by Peyton Thomas has the benefit of not only having a title that’s also a Joni Mitchell song, but also featuring a trans protagonist, Finch, who loves school debates! (Nerd alert!) And this isn’t just any debate Finch is competing in, it’s the Nationals, and Finch has developed a tiny crush on his very attractive, very taken, and very gay debate partner as he is scheduled to debate – in a cruel twist of fate – against transgender rights.
And since we were just talking about sports, let’s hop back into the pool. Man o’War by Cory McCarthy is a frequently comical coming-of-age novel about an Arab American trans swimmer taking the plunge into self-discovery in a very not-coastal Ohio town. We’ll admit, there’s some external (and internal) homophobia and a lot of angst, but it’s also – at times – a real barrel of laughs.
We should also note there is no shortage of books about the dizzying excitement of life as a trans youth published in the Pocket Change Collective series, all illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky. As just a sampling, Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon is like a gender-binary-smashing pep talk, giving readers access to the infinite possibilities within themselves. Leo Baker’s Skate For Your Life is the professional skateboarder’s personal journey within the sport as a non-binary athlete and proves that being authentically yourself is truly rad. And Continuum by Chella Man has the deaf and transgender artist, actor, and activist (from Titans) pushes readers to unlearn certain constructs in their lives and set off on a beautiful and chaotic road of exploration.