There are books that need to happen to pave the way for something, and you have to accept them even if they’re kind of shitty, so long as they’re not harmful. When it comes to being a trans person and having your life and identity more widely represented in YA or children’s literature, that means Luna by Julie Anne Peters, which is a literarily terrible book with piles of strawmen getting knocked over on every page. But it was what there was, and now, thankfully, there are other books coming out starring trans teens, like I am J or Freakboy. But when it comes to middle grade, there is basically nothing there, even though kids know early – very early – what gender they feel they are. That doesn’t mean they know their sexuality at three years old (though I would suggest that our idea that you don’t figure out your sexuality until about age 16 is like four to six years off), but to say that children don’t know who they are at their core is an incredibly insulting, and you know how I feel about adults who think children are stupid. Inexperience ≠ innocence ≠ ignorance (the first is what children have, the second is a fallacy, and the third can only be determined on a case by case basis and is not a given with all children about all things). Anyway. What I think is happening is that since everyone likes to conflate sex with gender with sexuality (maybe I should pull out more of those “does not equal” signs), nobody wants to put out a middle grade novel with a trans protagonist because they think that that will mean sexualizing children (oooh, another non-equation: sexualizing children ≠ children having sexuality – one is not okay, the other is true whether you like it or not), and GAWD FORBID we do that. So I was really pleased when I heard about this book that was forthcoming from Disney Hyperion, and I was so happy that they gave me access to it on Netgalley. I read it all in one day (yesterday), and I mostly really loved it.
Not everything is perfect about this book, and I feel a little ill at ease writing this review, because I can’t really gauge authenticity about an issue I can claim ZERO personal experience with and only a couple of friends/acquaintances whose experiences I have watched from a fairly far distance. And all those acquaintances happened to be FTM trans, and most books, I’ve noticed, focused on MTF, maybe because we like to conflate female-to-male trans-ness with tomboyishness and think that they’re the same? Or because we have more unease about men exhibiting feminine characteristics and therefore MTF narratives seem more subversive or scandalous? Or something else? No idea. Something to unpack at a later time, because I am digressing a lot.
So. This book is called Gracefully Grayson, and it has some issues that I hope will be cleared up before the final copy is published, namely that the author repeatedly used “loose” when she meant “lose” and “step foot” when the correct term is “set foot.” (The latter is becoming an error as often used as “with Adam and I” instead of “with Adam and me” and is unacceptable and makes people sound like idiots. “Step” is not a transitive verb.) Please, editor of this book, please make your author fix those things, because really?
But the actual meat of the book and the execution are rather good, I think – again, with the caveat that I can only assess this book from the perspective of a trans ally and a children’s book critic, not someone with nuanced understanding of this life experience. And from those lenses, I think this book does a lot right. It’s, for one, a very sweet story about a 12-year-old and his/her* relationship with a humanities teacher and about learning to have confidence through acting in a school play. It has an unusual (but in fact, in real life, not that unusual) family situation, in which the protagonist, Grayson, lives with an aunt and uncle, not biological parents, and that aunt and uncle are very loving parents who seem to deal realistically with the struggles of having raised a child from the age of three but also having biological kids of their own. Adoption takes many forms, as you know. So that’s cool. Also, this book reminded me a lot of Chasing Vermeer in that it takes a lot of time developing the school environment and its curriculum, and it’s a positive one that shows teachers not to be cliches and to actually be thoughtful, educated people who put time and, well, thought into the lessons they design and the things they teach. It felt a lot more like a real school than your average book.
Then let’s talk about how well this book exhibits the fact that sexual orientation and gender identity are different things that you can deal with or come to understand at different times in your life. There’s very little in the way of sexuality in this book. There’s a lot in the way of friendship, adult-child relationships, student-teacher relationships, and relationships with the self. There’s a ton with who-am-I-at-home vs. who-do-others-see-me-as. There is stuff to grapple with, there is wondering what it means to like wearing dresses and like glitter pens, there is a lot of kids who are totally with it and fine and kids who are bullies and kids who are in between and just going with the loudest kid in the room. It feels very real, not full of stock characters. There is a lot of classic middle school stuff where you think you’ve finally made a friend, and (SPOILER) in the end, she ends up making friends with the bitchy popular girl, and that’s just how it ends, because shit like that does happen in real life.
I just think this book is very good, and I also think it will do a lot of good, and it’s great that something that is going to mean so much to so many kids is also really well done. I look forward to the reviews it will get when it comes out next month.
*So I’ve already had some productive conversations via the comments and the twitter, and so I decided to take off the asterisk after “trans,” and where I had previously used the gender neutral pronoun “hir,” I changed to “his/her” and then tried to avoid pronouns altogether (I may very well have missed an occurrence or two), because to be fair, Grayson does not know anything about ze/hir pronouns and also, Grayson really doesn’t come to a single conclusion or a request as to which pronouns s/he would like people to use for him/her. The book really only sets out the beginning of a lifelong journey, so it’s kind of good that that conclusion isn’t made, probably. But anyway. So that is some stuff I have changed since yesterday.