Dear John: Gender identity and stopping boredom
John McIntyre from The Children’s Bookshop in Wellington is a top children’s bookseller. He's here once a month to answer your child-related reading questions.
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My 11-year-old has just come out as a trans girl. I'd love to buy her some novels to help her feel more comfortable and help celebrate her true identity. What are some books that deal directly and indirectly with gender identity? (She's completely disinterested in everything to do with romance and kissing, so no mushy teen love stories please!)
The first book I'm going to recommend is non-fiction. Beyond Magenta is the personal testimony of six transgender teenagers, both Female-to-Male and Male-to-Female, talking about their own experiences. Some are less confronting than others but they're all compelling. Whilst it is a small snapshot of a fairly narrow group, the teens themselves are open and honest, and to make their stories, names and faces so public is courageous.
As your child is 11, I'd recommend you read it first to see how much you want her to know, but it would be as much for you as for her in terms of the pleasures and pitfalls you face, the level of language to use and the depth of knowledge she needs right now.
I've personally read two books that may help. The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams brings humour to the poignant subject of a boy who misses his dead mother so much he wears her clothes, and then must act as a girl to sustain the ruse. It is more about cross-dressing than gender reassignment but it may make her feel less alone. The second was Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hide and that was for an older audience – Elle is 16 and abandoned by her mother in New York. She is cisgender but she mixes with a group with diverse sexualities. Again I suggest you read it, and any other of the books you'll find on the topic, first. You will know when and if they are suitable for her.
I will say, too, that many of the online reviews of these books can be unhelpfully negative (some of the LGBTQ community often don't think they go far enough or are condescending, and the moral guardians are outraged that these books are encouraging 'abnormal' behaviour).
You may also find this opinion piece and book list from The Guardian helpful in your quest.
My daughter is six and a bit, she has devoured the Katie Woo, Hey Jack and Billie B. Brown series. Any suggestions of where to next? She hates reading her school readers, she says 'they're boring' and other series we've looked at are a bit too long, so while she can read them, she loses focus and patience. New ideas gratefully accepted!
In the first 'Dear John' in March, I made a number of suggestions in reply to a request for ideas for a 7-year-old who had enjoyed The Magic Faraway Tree series. Those titles would probably work for you too, as would the Usborne Young Readers which cover a range of interesting topics.
Maybe it's time for Roald Dahl, the shorter books first – George's Marvellous Medicine, Esio Trot, The Twits, The Enormous Crocodile. His other books would make great read-alouds for a parent, but Dahl had a dark sense of humour – some can be pretty scary.
If she's struggling with the longer books try sharing the reading – start the book quickly by reading the first three or four chapters and then either ask her to read or stop at a cliff-hanger part. Often their need to find out what happens means they'll read on. It's worth a shot.
Good luck, John
Photo by Tiffany Matsis
My daughter is a bookish Year 1 and her teacher told us her reading level belongs to Orange band. English is her second language and before starting school, I let her read the scheme readers Oxford Reading Tree and a variety of picture books. I am looking for some readers which are interesting and can upgrade her literacy. Can you recommend any books or writers for my kid?
Lots of thanks.
I need to start this by emphasizing that have no expertise in the teaching of reading – teachers are the professionals and you should be guided by them.
I don't even know what 'orange level' means, nor if the teacher was flagging that as a problem, pointing out how advanced she is or a just stating a fact. What I do know is that bi-lingualism is an advantage – all the research I've ever read is that children who grow up knowing two or more languages score highly in tests of language facility and cognitive ability.
I'm also noting that your daughter is a Year 1 student, so 5 years old. It strikes me that it may be a little soon to worry about reading levels or ages. You appear to have given her a perfect start – she is 'bookish' and you've actively sought reading material for her.
Watching my children learning to read was a bit like driving an automatic car – you don't see the change-ups but they happen. You are right, though – the more she reads, the more she will upgrade her literacy. Keep reading to her and keep visiting your local public library. Ask the librarians what they recommend – and that includes your school's librarian. They, too, are experts. Ask parents of her peers.
For her reading check out the Usbourne Young Reading series – lots of stories and non-fiction topics at a level ideal for transition readers. The Billie B Brown and Lily The Elf are good series to try. Stick with picture books too – they are often have longer stories and aren't all rhythm and rhyme. Margaret Mahy's The Boy with Two Shadows or The Great White Man Eating Shark are examples.
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John McIntyre is the owner, with his wife Ruth, of The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington (since 1992). He is a leading voice in children's literature in New Zealand, and he and Ruth are ardent supporter of our local authors, illustrators and publishers. Their store has hosted numerous launches, seminars, speeches, workshops and book related events over the years.
John has been the children's book reviewer on Nine to Noon on Radio NZ for 15 years, and has twice judged the New Zealand Children's Book Awards. He regularly speaks to ante-natal and Plunket groups about the value of reading, libraries and books – and bookshops.