The reckoning: trans books matter
Where are the young trans heroes fighting dragons? Kylie, Rey, and Mindy Parry recount their experiences of trying to find trans role models in literature.
As the parent of two transgender kids working as a school librarian, I’m keenly aware of the lack of queer representation in YA. I find myself especially frustrated when so many of the few examples focus on painful transition stories. Where are the young trans heroes fighting dragons? Solving crime? Just stressing out over exams?
School libraries have forever been the safe place that kids come to. Part of creating an inclusive, welcoming space is providing stories that uplift and affirm our students. For some students I can provide this. It’s a lot harder for queer students.
I work in a primary school library, so the recent trickle of queer romances are aimed too old for my students. I need books that just happen to have trans or queer characters. So, my students who are not out yet can read them without outing themselves. Where they can see someone like them and feel hopeful about their future. Books that let my straight cis students know that being trans or gay or queer is no big deal. So, when their friends come out to them, they have a framework of understanding to respond from. I need books where queer characters are normal.
I need books that just happen to have trans or queer characters. So, my students who are not out yet can read them without outing themselves. Where they can see someone like them and feel hopeful about their future.
Most importantly, I think people from the community should have their voices heard. Too often people speak for or over the trans community, so in that spirit I’m going to hand the keyboard to my kids now. But before I go, here are a few honorable mentions of YA (or YA suitable) books providing queer or trans rep.
Becky Chambers, a science fiction author who seamlessly includes queer characters, without it being a plot point.
Puberty Is Gross but Also Really Awesome, by Gina Loveless is the most inclusive puberty book I’ve ever read. Perfect for leaving around the house for your tween or teen to read.
Finally, a shout-out to Switchback by Danika Stone for not only writing a survival story that rivals the classic Hatchet, but also for providing an excellent asexual character.
I’m Rey, and I am a 21-year-old transgender and asexual person in rural New Zealand. I spent my teenage years in Wellington and went to Wellington High School. With that out of the way, I feel it is important to look back on those years and the representation I saw as a young queer person. Sadly, as you will see, there wasn’t much.
As a young person struggling to come to terms with my identity, I really needed some strong role models in the media I consumed, characters I could look to and see something of myself reflected back. Sadly, when I looked, all I saw was a straight world with no room for queer people. My teenage years were filled with the The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and CHERUB… Not a lot of queer representation to be found between those pages.
My teenage years were filled with the The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and CHERUB… Not a lot of queer representation to be found between those pages.
I found fictional worlds filled with women who loved men and not a single mention of being transgender… Book after book showed the same thing, straight relationships with cisgender characters. On the rare occurrence that a queer character would appear, they would inevitably either be a side character or a tragedy to support another character's development.
When looking at myself and my identity, I found it difficult to accept any hint of queerness, my teenage idols all appeared to be straight… Therefore, I had to be straight.
...my teenage idols all appeared to be straight… Therefore, I had to be straight.
This wasn’t so much a lack of education: I knew about queer identities, I had been a denizen of the internet for years by this point. This was a lack of role models. It’s all well and good to know about an identity, but it is entirely another to actually look up to someone with that identity and say “I want to be like them when I grow up!” I was in turmoil, fighting against the feelings within and the standards from the world around me.
I wish I had seen more positive queer characters in the books I read, the games I played and the films I watched. I wish that I had been told that it was okay to be who I am, not just by those around me, but by the monoliths I looked up to. I wish that thirteen-year-old me had been able to pick up a book and read about the joyful adventures of a transgender teen, the hopeful growth of someone, rather than just another tragedy.
I wish I had seen more positive queer characters in the books I read, the games I played and the films I watched.
I'm Mindy, and I’m nearly 14, I have been an active member of the transgender community for over 7 years now, but my journey is only just beginning. As I am just entering my third year of teenage-hood, I would like to look forward to what is to come. Here are my thoughts from the perspective of someone who was able to be who I wanted to be from the beginning.
My time of transitioning was mentally tough, I had to completely redefine who I was and this lead to the need to suppress this time from my mind. I remember patches such as me deciding my new name but most is still fuzzy, that's probably for the best.
The next parts of my story were chaotic and emotional, I don't quite feel like sharing them yet. But what I will share is how amazing my parents were. While transitioning and in the build up before-hand my parents were always by my side, I understand and feel remorse that others didn't have my level of parental support but am grateful and proud of it nonetheless, they were my lifeline and I don't know where I would be without them.
While transitioning and in the build up before-hand my parents were always by my side...
That brings me to books. Sometimes it feels like the fields of trans representation in books are forever barren, so here are some of the things I wish I could read: I would love media with characters whose parents are like mine, actually supportive. I wish trans people could be anything but the point of drama in the story. Even books like Cheer, Love and Pom Poms (which is known for being inclusive) fell into the trap of making the trans person the point of contention and drama. I have had to deal with my own baggage and don't feel like reading about someone else’s.
Sometimes it feels like the fields of trans representation in books are forever barren, so here are some of the things I wish I could read: I would love media with characters whose parents are like mine, actually supportive.
Honestly, I just want trans people in books to not be a big deal, so they’re not a point of contention, that's just how the character is.
Me again. Just a final plea to publishers. Please, please can we have more trans characters. Characters where their identity is not the main plot point. Characters where they are not just a trauma punchline. Where they are more than character development for the actual hero. Trans youth deserve better. They are diverse and interesting, they have the same hopes and dreams as all young people. They need to see themselves reflected in their reading.
Editors' note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children's literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They're not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers.
kylie, rey, and mindy parry
Kylie Parry is a school librarian, a writer and a Mum of gorgeous kids. Mindy Parry is 15 and can't understand why every school subject isn't science. Rey Hannen is 21 and likes to spend more time in fictional worlds than the real one.