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This article was published 13/8/2016 (2112 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In May, Meredith Russo’s literary debut arrived in the world, one of countless first novels published every year in search of readers. But Russo’s If I Was Your Girl — the story of a transgender teenage girl named Amanda who is in love with a boy named Grant — had deep personal resonance.
"I wanted to write the story I needed myself" as a teenager, says Russo, 29, a trans woman in Chattanooga, Tenn., who remembers growing up with only negative cultural messages about trans people. "I wanted to create a power fantasy for trans kids."
If people judge a book by its cover, If I Was Your Girl carries a message with its striking photograph of trans model Kira Conley.
From public figures such as Caitlyn Jenner and Jazz Jennings to TV shows like Transparent, Orange Is the New Black and MTV’s Faking It (which this past season featured a trans teen boy character), transgender stories seem ubiquitous in pop culture.
Now they are front and centre in a perhaps surprising place: young-adult novels.
If I Was Your Girl, published by Flatiron Books, is not an outlier; 2016 is shaping up to be the year trans teen fiction achieves breakout visibility, with a number of titles already published or lined up for the fall.
"There’s something in the zeitgeist," says author Kristin Elizabeth Clark, whose 2013 novel Freakboy, featuring a teen boy who "sometimes" wants to be a girl, was ahead of the curve. Clark’s new young-adult novel, Jess, Chunk and the Road Trip to Infinity, about a trans teen girl (Jess) with a major crush on her best friend Chuck (better known as Chunk), is due in November from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
LGBTTQ* issues have found a home in books for young readers in recent years, but only now are fictional trans stories reaching critical mass.
Numbers are hard to come by, but a common estimate is that only 0.3 per cent of the U.S. population identifies as transgender. It’s not unusual for trans people to say they knew at an early age, however, while some teens may be "questioning." In elementary school, Russo says, she "knew something felt wrong about my body."
Young-adult novels "are one of the most important ways we can start conversations about important issues that reflect shifting norms in society," says Joy Peskin, editorial director of Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers and Clark’s editor. "For kids who are questioning their gender identity, or going through these periods of wondering who they are or who they’re going to be, that’s a very heavy burden to bear. It can be very lonely."
For other young readers who may be encountering friends, classmates or teachers who are transitioning, trans tales "normalize something that might seem strange," Peskin says.
Jennings, the 15-year-old star of I Am Jazz on TLC, which follows her life as a transgender girl, says teen trans fiction is "absolutely" important.
"Having transgender characters leads to more visibility, which creates education," says Jennings, whose memoir Being Jazz was published in June. "Education," she says, "can hopefully lead to everyone treating our community with acceptance and love."
That search is a common theme in these novels, most of which feature kids ages 15 to 18. Teenage trans characters deal with parental discord and divorce (usually the moms are loving and the dads are distant and disapproving), bullying, suicide attempts and "passing" (often the characters are in a new high school and must decide whether to reveal they are trans). And they navigate hot-button issues like taking hormones and using school or public bathrooms. But these are also hopeful books, and many are love stories starring a Romeo who’s sometimes shocked to learn his Juliet may have been born James. (Fewer stories so far feature female-to-male trans characters.)
How important is a happy ending? "I think a realistic ending is important," Clark says. "Leading people on the road to ‘OK’ is important in young-adult fiction."
Clark came to write trans teen fiction through her own daughter, 27, who is transgender. Jess, Chunk and the Road Trip to Infinity was inspired by a road trip Clark and her daughter took a few years ago, when she witnessed her daughter’s discomfort using public restrooms.
"The violence against trans people is staggering," says Clark, 50, who adds she wants her novels to make the "make the world a safer place" for people like her daughter, who is "doing really well." (Clark, like Russo, says she frequently hears from readers thanking her for her books.)
Brie Spangler comes to trans teen fiction from a different place. Hers is a connection that’s less personal but no less passionate. Her novel Beast (which Knopf will publish in October), a trans spin on Beauty and the Beast, is told from the point of view of Dylan, a 15-year-old boy who is unhappy with his appearance (he’s large and hairy). Dylan falls for the gorgeous Jamie, whom he meets in group therapy, but doesn’t realize she’s transgender.
"I don’t feel it was appropriate for me, being cisgender, to write from the point of view of a transgender person," says Spangler, 38, explaining why Dylan is her narrator. She sees a happy ending for her characters. "I don’t want people to think that just because they fall for a trans person they need to keep it a secret," she says. "If you want to hold hands going down the street, hold hands."
The case for visibility for trans teens characters seems to be finding support among educators and librarians. Spangler, Russo and Donna Gephart, author of Lily and Dunkin (Delacorte, published in May), took part in a panel called Reflecting Realities: Transgender Fiction for Today’s Tweens and Teens in Orlando at the American Library Association’s annual convention in June.
The reaction was "so great," Spangler says. "Everybody was champing at the bit to support these books." She also hopes parents will find their way to these books, noting that YA fiction often has "crossover" appeal.
Of course, LGBTTQ* books also have a history of being challenged, and last year, four of the 10 most challenged books, according to the library association, had LGBTTQ* themes. Two were specifically about transgender issues, but both were non-fiction: I Am Jazz, a children’s picture book by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin.
"We typically get a rash of (complaints) when school starts," says James LaRue, director of the library association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, noting that trans teen novels published this year have not been challenged so far.
Authors and editors working on trans teen fiction say they have seen little to no backlash, however.
Literature has always opened readers’ eyes to experiences that are both new and ultimately familiar. Margaret Ferguson, editor of The Art of Being Normal (FSG, published in May), says she hopes Lisa Williamson’s novel about two trans teenage friends (a boy and a girl) will make readers "more accepting and less judgmental. No matter who we are, we all have a universal experience, which is being human and making our way through life."
— USA Today