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By Mary Ann Saunders (she/her), lecturer, UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing, and Media

I am so excited about a course I’ll be teaching at UBC starting in January, and I hope that, after reading this article, you’ll be excited too.

It’s a course in children’s and young adult (YA) fiction written by transgender and non-binary (trans/nb) writers. I have wanted to teach a course like this for a long time, but even two years ago it would have been hard to develop an adequate reading list.

In the past two years, however, an explosion of new (and excellent) work has appeared! As someone who has been teaching and researching young people’s literatures for some time, it has been extraordinary to see this new body of children’s and YA fiction appearing practically before my eyes. Suddenly I can’t keep up with it all.

I do have personal stake in this emerging literature. I’m a trans woman and non-binary femme, and when I was young, there were no books like these. I was 50 before I saw the emotional landscape of my own childhood represented in fiction, encountering it in Alex Gino’s 2015 middle-grade novel, Melissa’s Story (published as George). That book opened me to long-forgotten feelings and embodied sensations from my own middle-grade years. I cried all the way through it—and it still makes me cry.

Gino is non-binary themself and seems to remember exactly what it felt like to be a child whose gender didn’t fit social norms. In Melissa’s Story, they convey such feelings, in all their complexity, in language appropriate for and accessible to early middle-grade readers. This, combined with my own experience of reading Melissa’s Story, speaks powerfully to why it’s vital that trans/nb youth have access to Own Voices fiction (i.e., fiction by writers who share their life experiences). No child should have to wait, as I did, until adulthood to find people like them in the books they read.

Since the publication of Melissa’s Story, what an amazing body of work has emerged! It features authors and characters who represent not just diverse gender possibilities but significant racial diversity as well. The books take in many genres and story types, including science fiction and fantasy, utopias/dystopias, magical realism, and (of course!) romance. Among these titles, there is a superhero trilogy, a cyber-mystery, an animal rescue story, and a figure skating novel. And, because publishers are releasing new titles practically monthly (I am aware of 14 titles slated for release in 2022), there is so much more still to come!

It’s truly an exciting time for gender-diverse representation in young people’s fiction, and it thrills me to think of these books finding their way into school classrooms and libraries throughout BC, reaching the gender-diverse young people who need them—as well as their peers, teachers, librarians, and families.

Selected middle-grade books

Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker (trans girl protagonist, gender-queer and trans boy secondary characters)

Taken in by her lesbian aunts, orphaned and traumatized Zenobia can finally live as a girl. Friendships with other “misfits” at her new school—especially gender-queer Arli—and with members of her aunts’ extensive chosen family, help Zen slowly grow in confidence and self-acceptance. Wonderful intergenerational trans/queer representation and beautiful centring of queer/chosen family.

George a.k.a. Melissa’s Story by Alex Gino (trans girl protagonist)

Trans girl Melissa is trying to figure out how to come out to her best friend and then to her family. At times heartbreaking, this is ultimately a hopeful and affirming book about preadolescent trans girlhood. (Melissa reappears, two years older, as an important secondary character in Gino’s Rick.)

Ana on the Edge by A. J. Sass (non-binary protagonist, trans boy secondary character)

Champion junior figure skater Ana Jin is uncomfortable with figure skating’s rigid gender norms. Becoming friends with Hayden, a trans boy, opens Ana to the possibility that she might be non-binary. (Again, great modelling of diverse gender possibilities.)

Both Can Be True by Jules Machias (gender-fluid protagonist)

Ash’s new friend Daniel has illicitly rescued a dog from being euthanized and, in their struggle to secretly care for the stolen dog, the new friends develop crushes on each other. But, Daniel doesn’t know Ash is gender-fluid, and Ash doesn’t know how to explain to Daniel that the girl he fell for fluxes between being girl and boy. (It’s great to see middle-grade fiction presenting gender possibilities that challenge the male/female binary.)

Girl Haven by Lilah Sturges, story, and Meaghan Carter, art (trans girl protagonist)

Ash and his friends are transported to a fantasy realm where magical defenses allow entry only to girls. At first, it’s not clear why (or how) Ash is there, but Ash’s heroic actions eventually help Ash and others understand her true identity. A sweet and gentle graphic novel.

The Fabulous Zed Watson! by Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester (non-binary protagonist)

A hilarious romp with an ebullient and delightfully nerdy non-binary protagonist. I laughed all the way through this book.

Selected young adult books

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (trans masculine protagonist)

Felix arrives at school to find enlarged pre-transition photos of him, including his birth name, hanging in the school’s main hall. While this violation provides much of the plot focus, as Felix and his friends try to identify the perpetrator, what is most powerful about this book is the diverse group of queer youth who populate it, negotiating intersections of race, sexuality, gender identity, and economic class. Also, there’s plenty of relationship drama and a gorgeous queer/trans romance.

Dreadnought by April Daniels (trans girl protagonist)

Closeted trans girl Danny unexpectedly receives superpowers and her ideal form—that of a girl—simultaneously. Girl and superhero life would be great but for trans-related friend and family conflicts, and a less-than-welcoming legion of superheroes. A skillful blend of real-life trans youth challenges and superhero novel, Dreadnought (the first volume in Daniels’ Nemesis trilogy) is both emotionally sophisticated and a thrilling page-turner.

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (non-binary protagonist)

Kicked out by their parents for being non-binary, Ben’s adult sister takes them in. Honest about some of the bleaker aspects of trans/nb youth existence, this is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book—and a lovely queer/non-binary love story.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (trans boy protagonist)

Latinx trans boy Yadriel belongs to an ancient community of brujx, people who negotiate between the realms of the living and the dead. However, brujx roles are divided along gender lines, creating conflict for Yadriel. His efforts to prove himself lead to a romantic relationship that bridges across life and death. Determined to hold onto the boy he loves, Yadriel discovers an ancient magic that lives deep within him. Immensely romantic magical realism!

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore (trans masculine youth, trans feminine parent)

Miel, a Latinx girl whose wrist grows roses, appeared from a water tower at the age of five. Her closest friend is Samir, a bacha posh (a Pakistani trans masculine identity with no Western equivalent). While classified as YA, this poetic and stunningly beautiful work of magical realism truly transcends categorization. It’s a profound work of art and a lush, deeply moving love story.

If I Was Your Girl (trans girl protagonist) and Birthday (trans girl protagonist) by Meredith Russo

Set in semi-rural and small-town Tennessee, Russo’s novels recognize that some trans youth live in smaller, more conservative communities. In If I Was Your Girl, protagonist Amanda experiences dangerous hostility alongside life-saving solidarity from other girls. Birthday narrates the thirteenth through eighteenth birthdays of Eric and Morgan, best friends born on the same day. Through the years, Morgan gradually acknowledges to herself and others that she is a trans girl, and readers witness the changing dynamics of this lifelong friendship. Russo’s books compellingly represent the emotional complexity of trans girls’ inner lives.

Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz (gender-queer/non-binary protagonist)

In this dystopian narrative, benders, people neither strongly male nor strongly female, must choose one or the other by late adolescence. Sent to a camp that forces this choice, Kivali instead discovers her capacity to resist—and the power (and danger) that lies in resistance.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (trans girl protagonist)

Jam accidentally summons Pet, a terrifying creature from one of her mother’s paintings, and Pet reveals that an unidentified evil lurks in Jam’s seemingly perfect community of Lucille. Lucille, however, rid itself of monsters long ago, so how can Jam trust the seemingly monstrous Pet? (In Emezi’s imagined future, being trans is so ordinary that this is incidental information rather than central to the story. More like this please!)

Author’s note

Alex Gino encourages readers to alter their copies of George, changing the title to the gender-affirming Melissa’s Story, so this is how I refer to the novel. Visit www.alexgino.com/2021/07/melissas-story-and-sharpie-activism  to read more about Gino’s “sharpie activism.”

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