Allies and Foes in Trans-Themed Children’s and Young Adult Fiction

by | May 2, 2024 | IBBYLink Spring 2024

Dena Attar

How might IBBY imagine ideal young readers? They would probably be pictured as thoughtful, open-minded, curious about the world and capable of forming their own judgments.

We wouldn’t want authors to talk down to such readers or assume they can’t read critically. But worryingly, those are not the types of reader I’ve encountered in online forums discussing certain children’s and young adult books. Instead, many of those young voices are pitched in strident bullying tones, telling others what they are allowed to read or like, or else are hesitant, apologetic and fearful. I’ve seen little respect for the rights to be entertained and form your own opinions. Timid readers are being told explicitly by more assertive ones that they have no such rights. Why is this happening?

I knew about the limitations of online data as research into readers’ views when I started investigating trans-themed children’s books and their reception, as it was a field I’d worked in before when advising students on research methods. I chose a sample of books where there was also plenty of other real-life evidence to address that issue. All the books were available in the UK, had attracted interest and comment and between them targeted a range of age groups. I didn’t look at the main characters’ transition stories which have already been the focus of other criticism on grounds such as plausibility, reliance on stereotypes and homophobia (see, for instance, the journal articles by Catherine Butler and Susan Matthews). I was interested in the apparent real-life fallout amongst mostly non-trans identified young readers, so my focus was on the other characters who were their likelier role models. Those others could be broadly characterised as either allies or foes. The striking common theme, carrying across from these fictions to actual behaviours, was ‘allyship’, which turned out to be a key explanatory concept.

Allyship isn’t just a loose idea or state of mind but has formal rules, mostly about language and what can or can’t be said. Significantly, guidance for would-be trans allies rests on the explicit underlying principle that they should not use their own judgment but must defer to anyone identifying as trans, and it also tells allies to speak up and challenge anyone not obeying the rules. It follows that allyship involves performance and confers the right to criticise others. Allyship is modelled in these books, but is also performed by readers whose reactions might otherwise look bewilderingly irrational, for instance when they denounce authors for not rigorously abiding by the rules in their fictions.

The standout examples relate to two books whose authors were attacked for giving them harmful titles and making unforgivably incorrect references to the characters they had created. The attacks on John Boyne for calling his young adult novel My Brother’s Name Is Jessica (2019) were so extreme they sent him into a depressed state and forced him to improve his home security after threats. His offence was failing to write about the teenage male character he invented as if Jason/Jessica was female all along and was never a brother. Online review sites carried claims that the book was dangerous with a ‘triggering’ title. Among the abashed responses, a typical one ran:

I feel an intense need to apologise for reading this book, as, I’m ashamed to say, I missed the early signs that this book would be quite problematic.

Boyne didn’t capitulate to his critics, but in response to pressure Alex Ginore issued George (2015), his novel for younger readers, with the new title Melissa (2022). In an exquisite example of modelling allyship, despite the child concerned being fictitious, Gino wrote that his original title was a mistake because it

made it seem as though it is OK to use an old name for a person when they have provided you with a different name that works better for them.

Both these books include a range of allies and foes amongst their minor characters, sending obvious messages about attitudes and reactions being either right or wrong. It’s worth looking at the extremely unsympathetic portrayal of mothers. George’s mother is a downtrodden drudge. His female role models come from pictures in fashion magazines, certainly not from his mum or his friend Kelly, his enthusiastic ally who is expected to subordinate herself and her own interests to support him. In Boyne’s novel, Jason’s/Jessica’s mother is a grotesque caricature of an unacceptably ambitious female politician and neglectful parent, who failed to put him first (but eventually learns better). Other female characters hardly redress the balance. There is a supportive aunt who is an absurd caricature of an eccentric single woman. The brothers’ girlfriends are each portrayed as disappointments who fail to live up to the allyship ideal.

Another instance of mother as downtrodden drudge turns up in Ellen Wittlinger’s young adult novel Parrotfish (2007), celebrated as an early example of a trans character, Grady, who is female but identifies as a teenage boy. Grady’s mother is shown as pathetically weak and dominated by her husband. Grady’s sister’s previous best friend Eve and most of the other girls at their high school are also portrayed as weak and uninteresting examples of the femininity Grady refers to with contempt. Kita, the exotic (because of her mixed race) object of Grady’s unreciprocated desires, is an exception, but the most important ally is a boy, Grady’s friend Sebastian who alone exemplifies a lively critical intelligence. These drearily familiar stereotypes are not the most disturbing aspect of Parrotfish. In a shocking scene, the arch mean girl Danya, Grady’s main foe, is punished for her attempt at a humiliating prank. At the school dance no one talks to her, she is publicly ostracised by her peers and left shamed and socially isolated. This is presented straightforwardly as justifiable revenge, even amusing. Eve and Sebastian provide commentary apparently meant to be humorous. When Eve describes Danya sobbing hysterically and having a complete meltdown, Sebastian says ‘Wow… You wanna take a camera in there and get some footage?’ It’s hard to see how this can possibly send an anti-bullying message, but the performance of staunch allyship seems to allow for callous treatment of others. Readers are invited to sympathise with Grady’s anxieties, but not notice another victimisation. It’s as if Danya, who had already been given a suspension punishment by the school, is afraid of her parents and has a teacher who hates her, is unworthy of pity.

There’s a somewhat similar high-school scene of meltdown and public humiliation in Meredith Russo’s young adult novel If I Was Your Girl (2016) where again a ‘foe’ character, Bee, who is bisexual, has a meltdown after being rejected, and reveals Amanda’s previously ‘stealth’ trans identity. Russo has acknowledged the implausibility of a teenager’s completely convincing transition, but explained it as a deliberate decision to avoid any ‘taint’ (Russo’s word) of homosexuality in readers’ minds regarding Amanda’s relationship with boyfriend Grant. The narrative requires the girls who become Amanda’s allies and friends to be clueless before the reveal scene, but that’s made easier by their lack of much in the way of intelligence, curiosity or personality. Russo even distinguishes them by hair colour when they are first described – one blonde, one brunette and one redhead. Their interests barely go beyond clothes and watching boys play football, and their support doesn’t waver after the reveal. Bee is shown as a classic bad character, generally deviant and untrustworthy whose history of sexual abuse is revealed too late on to make much difference to that impression. She leaves town in distress, but the narrative takes no more interest in her. The stark good/bad distinction between allies and foes is maintained.

The final title in this sample set is the best known, but also had the most mystifying reception. Jessica Love’s Julian is a Mermaid (2018), ostensibly a picture book for young children, gained lots of praise and awards. If it really was only an early-years picture book that would be puzzling. The illustrations are beautiful, but not a lot happens in the story apart from a small boy imagining himself as a mermaid, dressing up and going out to the parade with his grandmother. But of course it isn’t simply a children’s book, but a classic case of adults signalling to each other over children’s heads. It was praised as being a heart-warming tale of acceptance, but that makes little sense unless we understand that, while the words gender and trans are never mentioned, the real message is about unconditional allyship. There is nothing unusual after all about small children dressing up, painting their faces and having fantastic imaginations. The critics and organisations handing out awards decoded Julian Is a Mermaid as a lesson in trans allyship for good reason. The one unusual incident is the grandmother’s incredible acceptance of Julian’s behaviour when, to put it crudely, he trashes her belongings. His dress is a yanked down curtain, his headdress a torn-up houseplant, and so on. She is the ultimate ally as she doesn’t say a word about all that.

We have an interesting possible example of the book’s influence from a TV advert for John Lewis home insurance, broadcast in 2021. It featured remarkably similar scenes. A young boy, somewhat older than little Julian, pulls down a curtain to wrap round himself, puts on a headdress, makes up his face and parades downstairs causing more damage as he goes. In the room below two other characters, presumably his mother and sister, watch in silent shock as he trashes their belongings. It received so many complaints that the advertisers were forced to withdraw it. Initially they defended their advert as the joyful depiction of a young actor getting carried away but had to admit their insurance did not actually cover such deliberate damage. Many complainants had been concerned about a different issue: the way the female characters were shown passively enduring his destructive behaviour. The picture book celebrates an older woman’s openhearted acceptance of a boy doing what he wants at her expense. When it crossed into a real-life depiction, such female subordination made viewers very uncomfortable.

There is not much to celebrate in any of these books about the representation of girls and women. The subordination of mainly female allies is a constant theme across the books when we turn from the central characters to look at the minor ones around them. That’s troubling enough, but the treatment of those cast as failed allies or foes is even more concerning. Trans themes alone are not enough to make this literature progressive or demonstrative of kindness and inclusion. To the extent that it divides up its lesser characters as good or bad, allies or foes, it can equally model a brutal lack of concern for others who can either be deservedly punished or exploited. Danya in Parrotfish cries alone at the dance, mocked by the good allies, while ten-year-old Kelly in George/Melissa lends clothes and shoes from her improbably large stash (she lives with her single dad in a two-room apartment), styles George’s hair, takes him out and gives up her own part in the school play because he wants it so much.

Young readers of these books should not feel pressured into public performances as allies or feel entitled to bully others over their opinions. Those ideal thoughtful, independently minded, critical and respected readers are due a comeback.

Works cited

Boyne, John (2019) My Brother’s Name is Jessica. London: Puffin.

Butler, Catherine (2020) Portraying Trans People in Children’s and Young Adult Literature: Problems and Challenges. Journal of Literary Education, no.3, pp.10–24.

Gino, Alex (2015) George. London: Scholastic. Retitled Melissa (2022).

Love, Jessica (2018) Julian is a Mermaid. London: Walker Books.

Matthews, Susan (2023) The Children Who Wouldn’t Grow Up: Gender in Children’s Literature over 50 Years. In Sex and Gender, Alice Sullivan and Selina Todd (eds), Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.

Russo, Meredith (2016) If I Was Your Girl. London: Usborne.

Wittlinger, Ellen (2007) Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Dena Attar was formerly Chair of the Open University’s Children’s Literature course and is now an independent researcher. Her books and articles have mainly concerned the history of female education, domestic literature, and gender and literacy. She has researched gendered patterns of reading and internet usage since the 1990s.