When Kayla was Kyle (2013), written by Amy Fabrikant and illustrated by Jennifer Levine, is a thoughtful book about an unhappy transgender child who bravely confides her gender identity to her parents and begins to transition.
At the start of the book, Kayla’s father polices her gender by pressuring her to play basketball with boys even though she is clearly uncomfortable with masculine gender expression. Although her mother is loving she does not understand what Kayla is experiencing and is unable to support her.
Kayla does not have any friends at school. She is bullied and feels alienated from her peers while she is living life as a boy.
A writing table at school provides snapshots into Kayla’s developing transgender subjectivity, but the access is limited. She is sad and lonely and expresses this in her writing. Eventually Kayla seems to adapt to bullying by becoming the class clown, but she is still isolated from her peers, alone with her gender experiences, and unsupported at home.
Her parents trivialize her loneliness, assuming she just needs to try harder to make friends.
Her tenth birthday party is a breaking point. Kayla’s mother has invited all her classmates, and no one comes. At this point it is hard for her parents to dismiss the isolation she experiences. She soon confesses suicidal thoughts.
Her parents are surprisingly quick to accept her, and Kayla begins to transition. She is much happier after an honest conversation with her parents and getting them on her team.
This is a very good book for older children. It is “heavier” than many books currently circulating about transgender children where parents seem to be on the side of their children almost from the beginning. Here, Kayla experiences a long period of isolation as her parents negotiate denial, only coming to terms with her gender identity after she confesses feeling suicidal.
Kayla’s experience when she was Kyle is lingered on, as suggested by the title. As a result, the end seems a bit rushed. Kayla explains she feels like a girl, her parents accept her, friends appear as if out of thin air, and all is well. Although the story’s abrupt conclusion seems both too quick and too happy, I recommend this book for children 8 – 12-years old. It is a conversation starter, and explores transgender experience nicely.
This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ Kid Lit” project. I’m working on a book, The New Queer Children’s Literature: Exploring the Principles and Politics of LGBTQ* Children’s Picture Books, which is under contract with the University Press of Mississippi. Part of my research is identifying and interpreting English-language children’s picture books with LGBTQ* content published in the US and Canada between 1979 and 2019. Follow my blog to follow my journey!