It’s an easy phrase, often repeated, and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’d nod to that expression– you will echo the sentiment, and mean it when you say it. I’ve written about it myself, as regards the music world and writing about music. But what about when you’re a parent or a teacher or a librarian, say, and you don’t really know about a thing and maybe it’s published but it’s not your thing, precisely, and it’s out there but it’s not a thing you’re comfortable with and…
Look, I’ve never reviewed a book specifically dealing with a trans character here. I actually regret that, because I thought I “wasn’t qualified,” and after thinking it over this past few weeks… I might not be trans, but I’m a medievalist. I think I’ve got a better historical perspective on the range of LGBTQ+ issues and their prevalence globally than many a reviewer of kids’ books (look: if that puzzles you because you thought the Middle Ages were somehow sexually dry– there’s a story about a man and his nephew who get transformed into animals of different sexes so they can copulate, there’s the lovely and moving Roman de Silence which I’ll let you look up for yourself, and a fascinating story about a wife who dresses up as a knight to try to seduce her own husband to a homosexual encounter… there’s more, believe me), so, even though that’s not what this post is going to be about, I look at the past five years of reviews with humility and remorse: I should have said something, somewhere.
In fact, I’m going to own up to re-reading this post with a jaundiced eye today. Half the reason I remember buying It’s So Amazing is because I felt uncomfortable with the binary representation of “you can tell who’s a boy and who’s a girl solely by the equipment under the clothes.” Why didn’t I say that made me uncomfortable, like I was lying to my kid? Why didn’t I say I was asking around for a sex ed book for the Changeling that at least mentioned the existence of transgender people? I honestly can’t tell you. Maybe, back on (checks date of post) March 1, 2019 I felt concerned about who might read that? But if I don’t say directly “I want trans representation in books about sex written for kids” as a cis parent of a girl who’s apparently cis as well… it feeds directly to the advantage of bigots who consider the existence of transgender people problematic, and I see that with blistering clarity today.
Why? OK, here’s the thing: Kyle Lukoff is an author, once upon a time an elementary school librarian (I think he must have been great), and as a trans man and author, he channels his experience to represent transgender characters in kids’ lit. So, among other books, he’s written Call Me Max and When Aidan Became a Brother, among other books, both of which are narrative introductions to being trans or encountering transgender friends geared towards children. And what I’m wondering is– how many of us are just naturally picking them up for our own young kids? We wouldn’t exactly censor them, because representation matters! But are we buying and reading them? Yes, I’m talking to myself, too.
I admit that when I first encountered Aidan I thought, “Cute story, but in between the Changeling and the Spriggan– I’ll keep it in mind for down the line.” I didn’t consider reviewing it at the time. Apparently, the Changeling had other ideas. She pulled it off the shelf and read it without my noticing. We’ll come back to that.
Fast-forward a few months and it’s about mid-February 2021. I read this article about a Utah school district which is reviewing all literature in its “equity book bundles” program because– get this– a kid brought a copy of Call Me Max from home (it was not in the “equity book bundles” nor is it in any of the district’s libraries) just to make sure there’s nothing that, I guess, makes anyone upset. The issue rather exploded, and I was one of the many readers who was outraged. I imagine you are, too, hearing about this. The reporting was also notably problematic, to put it delicately. Take this tweet from Chelsea Clinton, for example:
Let’s move on. Another schoolroom, another problem. Kyle Lukoff finds himself once again defending Call Me Max, this time to the Eanes School District in Texas. I’ll let you read about that yourself, since he responded in his own words.
What I noticed, again, was in myself– I’m not here to rant (too much) about the sins of others, when you can perfectly well see that, again, I haven’t said much myself in the past. So, I was, indeed, ranting about all of this to my husband, when my daughter popped her head up: “Kyle who?” “Kyle Lukoff,” I said. “He’s an author– you may have seen…”
The Changeling interrupted: “HE WROTE When Aidan Became a Brother!” she squealed. “I love that book!”
I was shocked, since, you know, I didn’t buy it. “Where did you read it?”
She saw it in a face-out display at the Brookline Booksmith and read it.
“It’s really good,” she told us. “It’s about a boy whose parents are having a baby and he wants to make sure the baby feels comfortable and understood because when he was born they thought he was a girl and he didn’t feel comfortable and he wants to make sure the baby is happy and feels loved and–”
Very quickly, I understood something myself: the Changeling was identifying with Aidan in the story. The trans protagonist was excited to have a baby in the family– just as she was. She wanted to make sure our baby was loved, was comfortable, was happy. She wanted to cuddle our baby. Aidan wanted to be a good brother. Aidan was trans. The Changeling is not. But she identifies with the humanity of Aidan. Representation doesn’t just matter for trans kids seeing themselves. It matters for my daughter, too, seeing that trans kids exist.
Representation matters because for the rest of the Changeling’s life, she will have had the experience of seeing a trans protagonist as “different in some ways, but in many others, just like me” so that when someone calls trans people “they” in front of her, it will hopefully clash and she’ll maybe have the courage to say “we’re all human” in reply.
Before I move on from her role in this post, I have to fulfill a promise to her. “If you’re reviewing Aidan, can you put in pictures?” I told her I always make sure to include the cover of a book. “What about inside the book? There’s the last page, where Aidan is cuddling the baby. Can you put that in? Please?” She held it up. I saw what she saw: There’s an older sibling, just like her, holding a new baby, sitting in a chair because no grownup lets a kid hold a newborn without careful support from a chair and an army of adults to make sure that new little neck is supported. He seems to be feeling the soft baby fuzz against his chin and cheek and even though there’s fuss around him, his eyes are closed and he’s entirely focused on the baby. The Changeling saw, in a word, herself:
Look, I know. I remember when the Changeling was asking about sex and gender at age 3. I had so many conversations! Someone kindly reminded me “you don’t have to teach her everything all at once.” True, I guess, but I had books that were teaching her incorrect things as facts: the equipment under the clothes is not an infallible sign of gender. So that put me in an uncomfortable position– do I allow incorrect facts on gender, even though I won’t allow them in other books? Do I go through the books with a red pen? Do I hover in the background and explain everything myself? Do I print out articles for her? Or do we actually procure books with correct information and real representation by someone who has lived the experience and knows how to write about it for kids? I think I know which route I think makes the most sense.
“You don’t have to answer every question fully!” Honestly, I grinned and I told that line to my cousin who literally ROARED because she’s met my Changeling and she gets it. But even if you don’t have a feisty “answer my question fully or I will continue badgering you until the windows explode from the force of my questioning” child, why not? Why deflect? Honestly, what are we so afraid of? If we believe representation matters and trans rights are human rights– what’s wrong with telling kids that transgender people exist? I’ve just demonstrated the Changeling’s happiness in reading it. I promise– she’s fine! In fact, when I bought the book, she held it up and giggled, “When I Became a Sister!” I wasn’t going to tell you that because it’s so adorably on the nose you’ll think I made it up, but it’s actually true.
In my experience, the people who feel the discomfort and anxiety and confusion about transgender characters in books aren’t the kids… Only the adults feel that discomfort. And, naturally, if we’re uncomfortable we might convey that to the kids. “What’s upsetting my mother about this?” is a frequent child thought. But the Changeling read it on her own and skated right through: “ah, yes, transgender– that’s like the thing mentioned in It’s So Amazing, cool,” and she recalled that I told her about our trans friend. Her true, natural focus was on the bits she identified with.
In the article linked above (hang on, here it is again), Kyle explains very directly: “It’s only a problem if you think that being transgender is itself wrong,” Lukoff said. “And it’s not. That’s something the parent then has to work through.”
He’s right, and that’s why I feel bad that I haven’t written about this before. Whether I had anxiety or discomfort with speaking up because I didn’t want to be attacked for it (and, come on, I’d rather be called out for supporting trans rep than deal with a fraction of what trans folk deal with for the mere fact of being trans, so…) or whether I just didn’t notice the lack of rep on my own blog– it was wrong of me not to say anything.
So I want to tell other parents, teachers, librarians, other grownups in general: really, if you’re concerned about “talking about it” with your kids– it’s really ok. It’s more than ok, it’s great! Talking about gender is very different from talking about sex because with gender the worst they can ask you is “what gender are you?” rather than, mercy on me, “Can you and Daddy show me how sex works, though?” (Although that did lead to a useful and interesting conversation about intimacy and privacy, at least. It’s also very much the same. Kids are direct (see questions quoted above). They are also very matter-of-fact. “OK, so that’s what that is.” And they’re proponents of justice: “Well, I think the school district should just read those books, then! There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re cute! They should read them!”
If you’re afraid of introducing discussions of gender with your kid, maybe think about where that fear comes from. I’m not saying that as an indictment of you! When I asked myself why I had no trans rep on the blog I think the answer was fear of outside accusations: would a reader reproach me? And I thought, “So what if they did?” And then I wasn’t afraid any longer. So– think about the question for yourself. And, I would recommend, read some of those books yourself! Kyle’s books, as you can see from my daughter’s reaction, are warm, lovely, hugs of books, and I found them comforting, too. In When Aidan Became a Brother, the mother is asked about whether she’s having a boy or a girl. Lord, did I always hate that question! It was nice to see the mother smile and say, “I’m having a baby.” Cheers for Mom!
So, this is not to say we’re bad people. But let’s recall: trans kids exist, trans authors exist, and if cis kids like my daughter can identify with trans kids? Give them the chance to! I love that my daughter is experiencing a chance I simply didn’t have because Kyle Lukoff wasn’t writing these books when I was her age. So give your own kids that experience.
Representation matters. Trans representation matters, too.