By Charlotte Lieberman
The young-adult novel The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson gained notoriety in 2015 for telling the story of a young transgender protagonist: David Piper is deep in the throes of adolescence—and yet his most pressing malaise does not concern the prototypical examples of braces, acne and sexual awkwardness. It is that David is regarded by all as a boy, though he yearns desperately to be a girl. The story is about identity, friendship, sexuality, growing up, and, of course, gender—and it’s a profound gift to humanity that narratives like these are actually being circulated in the capitalist marketplace to young American adults.
There’s no denying that “young adulthood” is a developmental stage marked by infinite amounts of questioning, burgeoning self-awareness, and plenty of insecurity alongside growth. This is true whether you’re the popular straight white cheerleader, or David Piper, struggling inside with fundamental questions about gender identity and self-expression. That there are stories about the urgent need for self-exploration and acceptance for readers at this age is, to me, an unfathomable blessing.
As an ally, a bookworm/nerd and a perennial adolescent at heart, I am enlivened by simply knowing there are rich novels out there for young readers who want to be entertained by stories about selfhood, who want to to feel less alone, who want to identify and connect with others—regardless of gender identity.
With that, here are five of my favorite YA books about transgender and identity…if only I were actually still 14 years-old.
A + E 4ever by I merey
I knew I’d like this one from the fact that its title appears to be extracted from an enigmatic tumblr or Snapchat story. This radical and contemporary book is a graphic novel about two genderqueer, Jewish-identified and free-spirited friends who share a love of art, music and each other, the last of which lends a bit of drama to the story. This one’s about love, identity—and how we define ourselves in reference to everything from gender to religion, ethnicity to our interests. It’s a story about two people, and all of their quirky specifics—but is also a mind-blowing guide to thinking about identity at a very macro level.
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
Gracefully Grayson tells the story of Grayson Sender, a 12-year-old born a “he,” who knows he is a girl inside. The novel plays interestingly with the role of space in how we express our identity, no matter our age: when Grayson is at home alone, she is able to bask in the freedom of emotions, thoughts and dreams, and is depicted as ebullient and inspired. But at school, she is debilitated by insecurity and weight of her secret. The novel unfolds as Grayson’s impulse toward authenticity grows stronger; along the way, there are friends, mentors and a special teacher who offer comfort, solidarity and acceptance to readers as well as to the book’s main character.
Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz
Lizard Radio takes on a landscape of allegory and invites us into a pseudo-utopia. The book chronicles the teenage-hood of Kivali, abandoned at birth and subsequently rescued by Sheila, a nonconformist adoptive parent who sends Kivali off to CropCamp, a place where teenagers are forced to choose their identity (using terms like boy vs. girl; leader vs. follower) in order to mark the formal passage into adulthood. This ain’t your average transgender coming of age story (if that’s even a sub-genre yet—here’s to hoping!), but it is a thought-provoking parable about society’s norms and their limitations—from the gender binary to the nuclear family to the mere notion of adulthood.
Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher
Rather than beginning with a portrait of a transgender main character, this book opens by focusing on Logan, the Missouri-born-and-bred ninth-grader, who falls in love with a girl named Sage on his first day of high school. Logan’s infatuation is eventually punctured when he learns that Sage is transgender—a drama that explores the twists, turns and shifts that accompany any person’s feelings of mistrust and disappointment. The story is interesting to me not because of any radical portrayal of gender identity, but because it quite transparently engages with questions of transphobia and overall emotional difficulty that many allies might face in their journey. To me, holding space for tough experiences like these is just as important as the victorious tales of acceptance. We all need to see reactions like Logan’s in order to move toward a world in which more people are willing to sit with discomfort, question it and learn to understand.
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
This book takes on the more straightforward YA trope: it’s about a teenage protagonist who is miserable in middle school (who wasn’t?). But Angela Katz-McNair isn’t just dealing with pubescent mood-swings. Early in the book, she comes out as male—and decides to go by Grady. The novel provides a raw representation of Grady’s loved ones’ reactions to his coming out: an angry mother, an embarrassed sister, profound alienation among his classmates.
The relationship that enriches Grady’s life, as well as our reading experience, arrives when he somewhat randomly connects with Sebastian, another school pariah who is ostracized for being a nerd. Grady is uplifted by Sebastian’s earnest and beautifully childlike comparison between transgender identity and the parrotfish, a species that can change gender. The story explores everything from basic trials and tribulations of middle school social life to intricate questions about gender identity to the wonders of the natural world to the inexplicable magic of both romantic and platonic love.
And in case it wasn’t clear, the answer is yes: I do think YA novels are to be taken seriously.
What are some of your favorite books (or movies!) that have represented transgender identity in a satisfying way? Share your perspectives by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlotte Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work often concerns the confusing journey of self-acceptance, feminism, body image, healthy communication and relationships, and meditation. Through her own writing, Charlotte hopes to inspire empathy and empower readers to feel happier and healthier. Her articles have been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Harvard Business Review, Marie Claire, ATTN, Issue, i-D, Sonima, mindbodygreen, Refinery29 and her poetry has been published by The Boston Review, The Colorado Review and Nat.Brut. You can find her at her website.