- Identifying Effective Trans* Novels for Adolescent Readers
Definitions of masculinity and femininity are expanding every day, and adolescent transboys are finding more creative ways to discover, and be, themselves. As their ranks grow, I imagine, they’ll look for even more reflections of who they are and are becoming. And their teenage friends, who know them or wonder about them, need and often crave a way to understand their experience. That is why I’m so excited and hopeful about I am J and about the many books that others are writing about themselves and their friends right now.(Author’s Note to I am J by Cris Beam, 2011)
From deciding whether to come out to their families or asking out a prom date, the protagonists of transgender adolescent literature can provide reassurance to trans* readers struggling through puberty. Effective transgender young adult novels provide a safe space in which readers can consider the arbitrary nature of gender or find a place to validate their frustrations as they [End Page 83] navigate the adolescent experience. Providing LGBTQ novels in classrooms and libraries has proven to be an effective way to inform students and promote discussions on gender and bullying in secondary schools. Beyond opening avenues for conversation through in-class discussions, adolescent literature fosters the development of individuality and provides coping mechanisms for personal conflict. By reading transgender literature and participating in conversations concerning gender variant roles and sexualities, students are able to more accurately articulate their own gender and sexuality as they move through adolescence.
Over the past decade there has been a steady increase in adolescent literature with transgender characters or trans* themes, though the canon is still in its formative stages. When there so few books to choose from, it becomes difficult to critique a genre for fear of limiting resources and accessibility for a group of readers who desperately need these novels. Despite these limitations, uncovering what makes an effective trans* novel is crucial to determining how to provide quality literature to gender-variant adolescents. Young adult novels with transgender protagonists are often criticized for being problem novels that revolve entirely around the struggle of a character to transition— in this sense, transitioning is painted as a “solution” to the problem, thus ostracizing readers who may not wish to fully transition and also making the assumption that one’s adolescent experience is entirely rooted in gender. Transgender adolescent literature needs to be moved out of the problem novel category and populated with complex characters who are defined by more than just their identity as transgender. While trans* readers need reflections of their own feelings about gender and personal identity, they also need to see the daily activities and mundane everyday experiences that comprise the human condition.
Publishing more trans* novels is hardly helpful if the characters and experiences do not match the lived experience of trans* youth. Here, I’ve provided an annotated bibliography wof what I consider to be the most effective and realistic trans* adolescent novels:
Mary Catherine Miller is a doctoral student at the Ohio State University, where she teaches undergraduate courses in children’s and young adult literature. She earned her MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research interests include LGBTQ YA literature, comics, and multimodal literacies.
Berry, a twelve-year old on the edge of puberty, struggles with his desire to keep his voice from changing—so he tries to castrate himself and begins taking hormone pills. Berry does not actively identify as MTF; however, the story offers an interesting look at an adolescent understanding and developing gender identity.
One of the few successful FTM adolescent novels, I am J is one of my favorite books in the genre. J identifies as both Jewish and Puerto [End Page 84] Rican, a breath of fresh air the sea of white trans* protagonists that make up the genre...