How do representations of trans and gender nonconforming young people trouble our understanding of tween identities, and, more particularly, girlhood and boyhood? To begin to answer this question, I examine four middle-grade novels aimed at eight- to twelve-year-old readers that problematize the gender-normativity of tweens and their childhoods through the centering of trans and/or gender nonconforming characters—George (Gino 2016) and Gracefully Grayson (Polonsky 2014) (hereafter Grayson) that center trans-girls, George and Grayson, and The Other Boy (Hennessey 2016) (hereafter TOB) and The Pants Project (Clarke 2017) (hereafter Pants), that center transboys, Shane and Liv.1 All the characters are eleven years of age and in grade six, except for George, who is ten and in grade four. Unlike young adult (YA) fiction, middle-grade novels rarely include romance narratives. While the link between gender identity and sexual orientation is a background tension in these novels, they are treated separately.
I found, for the young protagonists in these books, that objects and spaces—including girl and boyhood—of gender enfranchisement are often out of reach, and their narrative labors center the search for objects and spaces in which they can comfortably assert their gendered identities as they know them. This knowing makes them, despite their young age, agentic subjects in their quests for particularly gendered futures. Each narrative invites us to look with these characters, as they mirror for us their potential futures in the present. These characters exist in queer temporalities in which their futures are imagined “according to logics that lie outside [of] those paradigmatic markers of life experience” (Halberstam 2005: 2) belonging to the dominant narratives of their gendered birth assignments. These characters queer time and space through “the risks they are willing to take” (10), risks often narratively articulated by claiming objects (that should be) out of reach. Here, the books articulate a tension between critiquing “the practices and structures that both oppose and sustain conventional forms of association, belonging, and identification” (4), and maintaining those same structures through tropes of (usually unproblematically achievable) (trans)gender normativity. While these novels adhere largely to dominant “conventions of narrative” (Bruhm and Hurley 2004: xii) about trans and gender nonconforming tweens—reifying a static rather than a “fluid understanding of the trans body” (Engdahl 2014: 269)—by bringing gender into focus, and leaving sexual orientation out of focus, these books leave room to imagine, at least, the possibility of queer futures for their main characters.
The theoretical roots of this article are found in the work of Sara Ahmed (2006), Jack Halberstam (2004, 2005), Jose Muñoz (2009), and Kathryn Bond Stockton (2004, 2009) who offer conceptual spaces from which to think about books that center particular forms of queerness that are, or feel, new in middle-grade literature. Ahmed’s work on queer phenomenology offers a way to think about how transchildren are represented as oriented towards objects that follow particular “line[s] of desire” (2006: 70). The genderqueer child is often represented as oriented towards objects that “have been made unreachable by the lines of conventional genealogy” (107). Stockton argues that “children are shown as having a knack for metaphorical substitution, letting one object stand for another, by means of which they reconceive relations to time” (2009: 15). While particular objects remain inaccessible, the child is “out of sync with the children around her [or] feels repelled by the future being mapped for her” (52). The novels I discuss here consider what putting different objects within reach of queer children looks like, and what futures might open up as a result.
Muñoz’s intersectional writing on queer futurity reminds us that gender alone does not confer privilege, nor does variance remove it. He describes acts that can be considered in service of the “sweet revenge on gender” (2009: 69), because, while “queerness is not yet here … it approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality” (185). Halberstam’s work on the transgender look or gaze reminds us that “whenever the transgender character is seen to be trans-gendered, then he/she is failing to pass and threatening to expose a rupture between the distinct temporal registers of past, present, and future” (2005: 77). In the four selected novels, the visibility of trans identity must be perpetually narrated and thus on display. Although Halberstam notes several modes through which the transgender gaze may operate, the one in which I am interested here is that which “allow[s] us to look with the transgender character instead of at him” (78, emphasis in original).
The tween subject is temporally ambivalent, caught between childhood and adolescence. The significance of this is related to how sexuality is represented in much middle-grade fiction. YA novels often position teens as queer by entwining gender and sexuality, but middle-grade fiction, largely precluded from talking about sex, centers gender as a category informed by, but independent of, sexual object choice.2 Still, the specter of (future) queer sexualities lurks here because gender variance calls into question the heteronormative underpinnings of tweens as a whole. The characters in these books “construct innocence in flux, a space of contradiction and change” (Walsh 2005: 192). But childhood innocence is a constructed category. For trans and gender nonconforming tweens, their knowingness makes their status as innocents precarious. It is their possible (future) recuperation as heteronormative adult subjects, as well as their claims on middle-class white identities that pull them back to relative innocence (Stockton 2009).
As I was writing this article, a controversy erupted when feminist author Chimamanda Adichie suggested that transwomen’s experiences of womanhood differ from those of born women because they have grown up with male privilege—that is, within the institutional and discursive privileges of boyhood rather than girlhood. Writing of her own unstable boy-girlhood in response, Laverne Cox3 tweeted:
I was a very feminine child though I was assigned male at birth. My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that … Gender exists on a spectrum & the binary narrative which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege erases a lot of experiences and isn’t intersectional.
Cox draws our attention to the violence of misgendering, and shows that assuming that particular children have claims on childhoods they do not is another form of violence. Of course Cox is talking about her lived experience, and I am writing about novels, about representation. These are different, although imbricated, registers and the choice to position them in proximity is intentional. This dialogue has a long tradition. To offer just one example, consider Halberstam’s (2004) important theorization of the tomboy that moves seamlessly between examinations of Poly Styrene and 1970s punk subcultures, Carson McCullers, empirical research on self-identified tomboys, and tomboys in film. As Bruhm and Hurley point out, stories of real queer kids “are themselves confined by the conventions of narrative” (2004: xii). The books and characters studied here, read through the work of queer scholars and activists, begin to tell us something of how (and which) trans and gender-nonconforming children enter into history, and (who) remain beside it. Cox’s story and those of Ahmed, Halberstam, and Muñoz as offered in their work, “avoid typical developmental histories” (Stockton 2009: 19), by telling a story that is “beside history” (9). In telling these stories, the conventional boundaries of childhood narratives are queered. Similarly, the books discussed here push the conventional boundaries of middle-grade fiction.
Reading Queer Children and Youth
In the inaugural issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly there are two excellent essays on the child and childhood. Tey Meadow argues that, because of the potential for earlier interventions, today’s trans children may live most of their lives in a state of gender congruence unimaginable to most trans adults. At the same time, Meadow asks questions about “how to distinguish childhood self-knowledge from adult identity” and wonders if “being transgender [is] distinct from being … any of a host of other new terms for gender fluidity in children” (2014: 58). For Claudia Castañeda, childhood is a site of contestation. The child is presumed to be gender-fixed, and yet “always in the process of becoming.” Since the end result of this becoming cannot be determined in advance, “the child becomes the site of tremendous cultural investment with regard to … gender” (2014: 59). Speaking of the medicalization of the transgender child, Castañeda observes that key medical interventions put the child in either a state of delay or reversibility. While these treatments aim to make “the marks of first gendering … as invisible as possible,” they also risk becoming “a new site of bodily subjection to normalizing gender regimes [rather] than a site of greater freedom” (60–61, emphasis in original).
While there are relatively large bodies of scholarship on queer childhoods and children’s and YA literatures (see Abate and Kidd 2011; Bruhm and Hurley 2004; Cart 2016; Flanagan 2008; Kidd 2011; Pugh 2011; Stockton 2009), there is little scholarship on trans or gender nonconformity in these works. Charles Butler, in his study of two books about young boys “who spend some time as … female” (2009: 4), finds that although the narratives are intended to challenge conventional understandings of gender, they ultimately offer “binary gender identities [that] are omnipresent and immutable” (16). Victoria Flanagan, by contrast, concludes that characters who go “‘into the closet’ and [reappear] in differently gendered attire … enrich and challenge the ways in which we perceive gender and sexuality, undermining so-called ‘natural’ categories of identity” (2008: 258). In her article on literary transchildren Judy Norton argues that a successful text has the “capacity to reflect its characters’ phenomenological and psycho-social reality.” By engaging in a practice she calls “sublime realism” (1999: 420), the child subject, through play, articulates her or his “desire … for the achievement of [her or his] own self-representation” (425). Finally, Sharon Smulders (2015) offers a nuanced reading of Marcus Ewert’s 10 000 Dresses (2008) arguing that the author employs Norton’s notion of sublime realism by allowing transgirl Bailey’s “subjective self [to] assert priority over the biological self” (418–419), and for the narrative possibility of “transgender self-actualization” (422) to emerge.
I identified only two articles that deal explicitly with middle-grade books. Michelle Abate (2008) reads eight-year-old Georgia in Tomboy Trouble (Wyeth 1998), as an active participant in her own gender performance, arguing that the book reveals that “gender is not something that is, but rather something that is continually becoming” (49, emphasis in original). Jill Herman-Wilmarth and Caitlin Ryan’s study of ten middle-grade novels with queer characters found only two that include LGBTQ+ identified children. In The Day Joanie Frankenhauser Became a Boy (Lanz 2005), the eleven-year-old hero becomes John, then returns to being Joan. Since this lesson required “losing his hard fought identity” (Herman-Wilmarth and Ryan 2016: 858) it is an ambivalent ending. It does, however, introduce the possibility of gender fluidity that is not evident in other novels.
Trans Identities in Recent Middle-Grade Fiction
Objects are central to the construction of gender identities in the novels considered here. Ahmed writes, “The normative … puts some objects and not others in reach” (2006: 66, emphasis in original). The main characters yearn for non-normative objects, seeing them as part of the imagined, normative articulation of their inner, gendered selves. Gender assigned at birth (AAB) is significant for these characters. Being assigned male or female at birth—AMAB or AFAB—structures their relationships, and organizes the objects and spaces available to them. These books suggest that things help create recognizable gender identities—this is one of the things we do with things—which are linked to our ability to access particularly gendered temporal spaces. Part of what is out of reach or oriented away from these characters is the form of childhood they desire.
In these books, the main characters are oriented towards objects they are certain would have been available to them had they been assigned a different sex at birth. For George (2016), it is a denim bag filled with teen magazines that she uses to imagine herself as Melissa who wears lipstick. Grayson frequently visits second-hand shops where she imagines buying girls’ clothes, and offers a nearly constant narrative of desire for the things that make her classmates look like “an ad for the Gap in their pink and purple shiny jackets, their hair smooth and long” (2015: 159). Liv, in Pants (2017), yearns to be able to wear the pants that are part of the boys’ uniform at his school and to be recognized by those he is close to through the gifting of gender appropriate gifts. Only Shane, in TOB (2016), who already lives his preferred gender, has a life largely oriented towards objects that affirm his gender identity: short hair; a girlfriend; a male best friend; and a position on the boys’ baseball team. It is worth noting that these characters are racialized and classed as well as gendered. Gendered objects are culturally and temporally specific—not all boys or girls (AMAB/AFAB or otherwise) desire the same objects.
Orientation also underscores the rules that govern the spaces inhabited by these characters. School is represented as a ground for the fomenting of transphobic violence and as being institutionally rooted in gender normative practices that require reorientation. School bathrooms4 figure prominently; Shane is the only character who uses the bathroom that feels correct for his gender. The other characters experience bathrooms as a space of trespass against their gender identities. Grayson (2015) watches Paige go into the girls’ bathroom and imagines them standing inside together, gossiping, and washing their hands. But she cannot materialize the fantasy, and goes into the boys’ bathroom instead. Similarly, George thinks, “The whole room was about being a boy… George tried never to use it when there were any boys inside. She never drank from the water fountains at school, even if she was thirsty, and some days, she could make it through the school day without having to go once” (2015: 17). Here we see not only the disorientation of space, but the violence this disorientation does to transchildren (Bettcher 2014; Halberstam 2005; Namaste and Sitara 2013). Spatial safety, in these books, is linked to coming out and finding support from families, peers, and institutional cultures. Until then, as Shane sums it up after being outed, “No place was safe for me” (2016: 149).
Drawing on Stockton’s (2009) ideas about economies of candy and shoes, I consider these books to initiate what we might call a sartorial economy or an economy of style. The desired objects—fashion magazines, clothes, hair accessories, lipstick, pants—represent desire in a particular, economic form. It is not surprising that schools, and particularly bathrooms and locker rooms, figure so prominently—these are spaces in which this economy is on display, but they are also spaces that represent transition and change, for making and remaking the self. Although these characters are middle-class and engage explicitly in capital exchange, they also participate in what might be called economies of trash; they claim discarded objects—lost lipsticks, bags found in the garbage, a friend’s pants, second-hand dresses, a classmate’s hairclips—and repurpose them as mechanisms of gender escape or delay (Stockton 2009).
Ahmed notes that “orientations can feel ‘as if’ they come from inside and move us out toward objects and others … [These] orientations feel as if they are intrinsic to being in the world” (2006: 79–80). For these characters, resolution comes when they are able to publicly claim formerly out-of-reach objects. George (2015) becomes Melissa for a day at the Bronx Zoo. Grayson (2015) wears a pink t-shirt and two hairclips to class. Liv (2017) gets to wear pants to school. Shane (2016) is part of the winning boys’ baseball team and his dad’s best man. In these books, once the characters are able to orient themselves publicly to the gendered objects they desire, possibilities for multiple futures are radically opened. This has both a spatial and temporal function—claiming objects moves the characters into new spaces, out of pauses and into movement.
If, as Muñoz claims, waiting is intrinsically queer, the characters in these novels offer “anticipatory illumination[s] of a queer world” (2009: 49) by taking a “sweet revenge on gender” (69). In both Grayson (2015) and George (2015), revenge comes, literally, through performance on stage. When George’s teacher refuses to allow her to audition to play Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, her best friend Kelly, who gets the lead, offers to let George play the role in one of the two performances. By the time anyone realizes what is happening, it is too late. George is wonderful. “Charlotte was dead, but George was alive in a way she had never imagined” (2015: 157). In uncannily similar fashion, Grayson auditions to play Persephone in the school play, and wins the lead. Like George, Grayson (2015) is represented as a talented actor, and her ability creates space for her public articulation of a feminine identity. Both performances are widely applauded, and position both characters to perform girlhood on more public stages. To be clear, neither book suggests that these performances are equivalent to George’s or Grayson’s desire to be seen by others as they see themselves, that is, as girls. Theatre is the catalyst for a resistance to conventional codes of gender normativity that govern school and home, friendship and family.
Shane (2016) and Liv (2017) do not engage in these types of performances. Instead, Liv’s revenge comes in the form of protest. Enlisting several friends to help him, he stages a media event where those AFAB wear pants and those AMAB wear skirts and tights to school. Liv’s choice to fight the unjust rules that confine him to his assigned birth gender paves the way for him to forge connections with supportive peers and to come out to them and to his family. Shane must come to terms with the precarious nature of passing. As Talia Mae Bettcher (2014), Julia Serano (2007), and others point out, dominant narratives about transpersons often frame them as deceivers and pretenders, suggesting an obligation for transpeople to reveal their assigned birth status. When a classmate uncovers a picture of Shane when his gender presentation was feminine, rumours begin to circulate in school. Eventually, his best friend (Josh) offers a solution. He invites Shane into the locker room and suggests that Shane expose his genitals to the baseball team. Though Josh’s intention is to validate Shane’s masculinity (he thinks Shane is AMAB), he inadvertently sets up a situation of reality enforcement (Bettcher 2014). By suggesting that the simplest way to prove Shane is a boy is by showing the rest of the team his penis, Josh inadvertently invalidates Shane’s gender identity, and confirms the rumour about him. Ultimately, though, the team accepts Shane and he helps them emerge victorious over their rivals by striking out the class bully.
Muñoz (2009) describes a variety of moments when he experiences “sweet revenge on gender … camping it up with [his] nellier friends,” and “performing masculinity in the company of [his] butch female friends … being boys with them” (2009: 69). The main characters in these books do not (yet) have the peer groups Muñoz describes. They live in worlds where virtually everyone is represented as seeking gender’s pardon, and often consider gender as a kind of empirical measurement or test. Shane’s best friend Josh,5 at the end of TOB, tells him, “You’re, like, more of a guy than I am” (2016: 213). A school bully suggests that George is more of a girl than Kelly. These rely on a hierarchical, measurable, normative way of making gender sense that stems, at least in part, from the relative lack of secondary characters who offer alternative models of gender representation. While it is possible that many children of this age attend schools where gender is almost uniformly expressed in normative ways, offering a literary landscape of diversified gender identification and expression would trouble these narratives in interesting and provocative ways.
If objects open space and time to tween trans characters, space is represented as the site (sometimes literally stage) of gender (in) performance. While the performative aspects of gender work are on display, these exist in narrative tension with a wrong-body discourse (Engdahl 2014)—all the protagonists identify a clear sense of knowing their true gender identities, and having done so (usually) since the age of three. The spatial labour of gender performance thus becomes metaphorical, articulated as theatre, protest, and passing. In each case, claiming public space appears as a necessary temporal gateway through which tween trans characters must pass before they enter everyday life as the selves they know themselves to be.
According to Halberstam, “the dilemma for the transgender character … is to create an alternate future while rewriting history … a transgender gaze capable of seeing through the present to a future elsewhere.” He continues by noting the representational problem that trans characters become visible only when they are “both failing to pass and threatening to expose a rupture between the distinct temporal registers of past, present, and future” (2005: 77). Of the four books studied here, only George (2015) uses the third person pronoun rather than the first. As Smulders (2015) observes, in “enable[ing] the gendered pronoun ‘she’ [the author is able] to illuminate the dissonance between transgendered self-consciousness and externally imposed constructions of gender” (2015: 419), and, I would argue, the congruence of the character’s sense of her gender identity. Since George is told from George’s point of view, the consistency of her use of her and she positions the reader to know George as she knows herself—as a girl.
In contrast, the use of I in the other books sometimes creates ambiguity and requires more narrative labor for writer and reader. Grayson, for example, wonders if, during play tryouts, the teachers saw “me” or “her” (83)—me/her can be read as referring to actor/character, but also to Grayson boy and Grayson girl. The prose poem in this novel that describes the performance of the play is told in the third person; in the first stanzas Grayson is referred to as “he” and “the boy” (224–226). Later, as the audience comes to accept the performance, the terms shift to “she” and “the girl” (226–229). In both instances, we see the complexity of the spatial and temporal relations Halberstam (2005) describes. At the same time, it is not clear why the author chose to have Grayson imagine she as different from me. In TOB (2016), Shane has an older friend and mentor named Alejandra who is trans. Alejandra enacts a temporal rupture by invoking her past and the moments in which her body was the object of violent interruption. But because she is a secondary character, she is always she/her, and so the congruence and consistency of her gender identity remain stable; even into the past she affirms the possibility of not only a rewriting of history, but of a duality of history in which the child knows her gender even as s/he is pushed to live according to birth assignment.
These books are full of bullies who actively sanction the main characters for their gender nonconformity and/or employ various tactics of reality enforcement. Sometimes, the sanctions are intended to harm, as when Grayson (2014) is pushed down the stairs, or when Shane (2016) is publicly exposed as AFAB, or Liv is called “it” (2017: Loc 1156 of 2064). Sometimes the sanctions are personally injurious, as is the case when Madeleine, the girl Shane likes, rejects him because “she doesn’t like girls” (2016: 171), or when Liv’s best friend Maisie and Grayson’s new friend Amelia reject them. At the same time, these books offer their main characters “the believing mirror … Someone who can reflect [them] back as fantastic, honourable, wonderful and not the horrible stinking mess that [they] sometimes fear [they] are” (Ewert quoted in Melloy 2008: n.p.). Many of the children in these books are savvy. When George comes out to Kelly, she asks, “So you’re, like, transgender or something … Did you know you can take hormones so that your body, you know, doesn’t go all man like?” (2015: 104). When Shane comes out to Josh, Josh tells him, “That’s what my mom said” (2016: 213). And when Liv tells Jacob he’s transgender, he simply says, “You’re my friend, Liv. That’s all that matters to me” (2017: Loc 1242 of 2064). Grayson has fewer peers to offer her the mirror she longs for. Still, by the end of the book she is stronger and more able than before to be her own mirror.
Ward notes that gender is a “collective effort” (2010: 237). The characters in these books have others who help them. Grayson has Finn, the teacher who casts her as Persephone. George’s school principal flies the rainbow flag. Both their families move cautiously to understand and perhaps embrace George and Grayson for who they know themselves to be. Liv and Shane live more fully in worlds where collective efforts are exerted on their behalf. Their families are connected to broader LGBTQ communities and so offer not only queer characters, but queer worlds. As such, these books create the possibility for a “sublime realism” in which “transreadings” become possible through “the production of [a] fully knowledgeable and efficacious … representation of the subject, and hir/his world” (Norton 1999: 420). They begin with the assumption that how young people know themselves is the best way for others to know them. Slowly, the important secondary characters learn that it is necessary to look with, not at, the main characters (Halberstam 2005). This is perhaps most clearly articulated in TOB (2016) because Shane’s father so strongly resists his desire for transition, but ultimately comes to embrace his choices. For Liv (2017), it is the humour his grandmother uses when she gives him a big, pink birthday package that turns out to contain the skateboard he wants. George’s mother returns her denim bag with all the magazines inside. Claiming objects and spaces allows these tween characters to move. Life, at the start of these books, is lived in a held breath, a pause. The characters are waiting, avoiding a future they do not want. Invited to look with these characters, we see that moving into spaces of agency and claiming objects in those spaces allows for the invention of new futures in the present.
I began by asking how trans and gender nonconforming characters in a small group of middle-grade novels trouble how we understand tween childhoods. I found that the main characters yearn for things that will make their gender identities legible. These books put into stark relief the pain of desiring out-of-reach objects, of continually feeling disoriented in public space, especially because objects and spaces are represented as having the gatekeeping function of allowing (only) particularly gendered youth access to girlhoods and boyhoods. Being thought of as a girl or boy, these books suggest, is socially produced, at least in part, through the ability to choose objects and enter spaces that validate the gender with which one identifies, regardless of what one was AAB.
Second, these books enact scenes in which the characters fight back against gender norms. Muñoz describes his childhood intersectionally in terms of queer identity experienced as part of his life in a working-class Cuban community in South Florida:
… what was it about my body and the way I moved it through the world that was so off, so different? … I began a project of butching up, even though that is not what I understood it to be back then. I tried to avoid the fact that I was studying something that came very naturally to other boys. … I was a spy in the house of gender normativity.(2009: 68)
The characters in these novels are also spies. This is particularly true of the transgirls, who look with longing at the girls AFAB, at their clothes and accessories, at their friendships, but also at the spaces they (appear) to enter so easily, including the space of girlhood itself.6 While girlhood is represented as an especially difficult space for transgirls to negotiate, the transgirls in these books are also denied any easy access to boyhood; they are thus represented as particularly isolated within childhood cultures. Boyhood is represented as less closely guarded for the transboys, and in these stories the transboys enter boyhood much more seamlessly; slipping out of legibility as boy is represented as entering a much more seriously “degraded zone” (Muñoz 2009: 69) than is slipping out of legibility as girl. I approach this conclusion with caution, however, particularly in relation to the production of the tween transboy subject. As Halberstam notes, “Because comparable cross-identification behaviors in boys do often give rise to quite hysterical responses, we tend to believe that female gender deviance is much more tolerated than male gender deviance. … Tomboyism is punished, however, where and when it appears to be a sign of extreme male identification … and where and when it threatens to extend beyond childhood” (2004: 193). Putting aside the realities of transmisogyny addressed by Serano (2007) and others—the tween space these characters are narrated into puts them on the edge of childhood. Life stage is key here: Shane and Liv may be extremely masculine identified, but they are still, in some ways, children. In this, we can read these books as adopting a conventional narrative around acceptance for transboys as opposed to transgirls, one that assumes and/or reiterates the idea that tomboys, gender nonconforming girls (AFAB), and those others who resist femininity into adolescence and adulthood are more easily and freely accepted than those AMAB who do so with regard to masculinity.
Ultimately, these novels engage in a labor of enfranchisement, creating new spaces and discursive formations through which trans and gender nonconforming tweens can be imagined. They do so by actively engaging a transgender gaze that pushes us to unsuture ourselves from our investment in the foundational identities at the heart of girlhood and boyhood, and to examine what remains in the spaces created by their absence. At the same time, these narratives—as a group—suggest a particular kind of investment in origins for trans and gender nonconforming children, a desire for a linear narrative in which the child anticipates the adult emergence of a coherent man or woman. These books attempt to catch, as it were, their main characters before they enter puberty and its attendant changes and discomforts, although it looms large. Shane is already on hormone blockers and, in the epilogue, after starting on testosterone, he tells us, proudly, “I had grown a few inches since last year and was a lot more muscular” (2016: 224). Liv ends his story (2017) with the possibility of changing his name, and the joy of being out at home and at school. George’s (2015) and Grayson’s (2015) books end with self-acceptance and coming out to those closest to them, but they remain much more closeted than Liv and Shane (2016). For these authors, the stakes for (at least some) transboys and girls are not the same.
Having spent months thinking about these texts, what I come to, ultimately, is a sense of how exclusionary girlhood and boyhood can be. The most obvious way these texts point to this exclusion is in the difficulty the characters have in accessing the gendered childhood they want. More subtly though, these books suggest that gendered childhoods exclude those who do not conform to binary notions of gender—they remain, in Stockton’s words, again, “beside history” (2009: 9). The books share, as a primary heuristic, the joy of finding the truth of gender identity within the child’s knowing self, rather than in the physical body or birth assignment. These books reveals that “gender is not something that is, but rather something that is continually becoming by being produced and reproduced” (Abate 2008: 49, emphasis in original), allowing “the subjective self [to] assert priority over the biological self” (Smulders 2015: 418–419).
Three last comments bring this article to an end. First, these characters share, largely, a social location that embodies certain forms of power and privilege, running the risk of universalizing the middle-class, white-settler, urban trans and gender nonconforming tween. How might more intersectional subject positions change these stories, given that being read as a girl or boy, or having a boyhood or girlhood, is never exclusively dependent on gender? Second, because middle-grade novels focus on tweens, questions of gender rather than sexual orientation come into focus, and, as such, there is room to imagine gender separately from sexuality, and to allow queer futures to remain within the realm of possibility. Finally, while there are still many books to be written about trans and gender nonconforming young people, these four books labour to offer stories about children with agency today who do not have to wait until adulthood to live the gender identities they know themselves to be. As such, these books are themselves objects that participate in the creation of spaces for tweens to (re)imagine identity, to (re)imagine their orientation to objects, to (re)imagine the boundaries of their presents and futures, and spaces to look with, rather than at, trans and gender nonconforming youth.
I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, the guest editors, Natalie Coulter and Melanie Kennedy, and the managing editor, Ann Smith, for their feedback.
I use both terms—trans and gender nonconforming—despite their differences, to signal the complexity of defining gender identity, especially in these books for young readers. The problem in referring to the characters as transgirls and transboys, and not simply girls and boys, is also noted. However, the books situate transition as a process through which “hopes take material form” (Carter 2014: 236), and this process is central to the way we are invited, as readers, to know the characters.
Given the importance of objects in these books, it is significant that sexual orientation plays virtually no role except in TOB (2016).
In North America toilets or lavatories are called bathrooms.
Josh is Korean, and the racial implications of this are important, but beyond the scope of this article.
These books engage little with the way girls AFAB (or boys AMAB) fail to fit into girlhood/boyhood.
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