I’m Not A Girl (2020), co-written by Maddox Lyons and Jessica Verdi and illustrated by Dana Simpson, is the story of a transgender boy who develops clarity and confidence about his identify as well as the ability to self-advocate.
The cover depicts a white child with long red hair, freckles, and big green eyes staring longingly through the window of a barbershop. On the other side of the glass, a young white child of approximately the same age is getting a short haircut.
As the story opens, it becomes clear that the red-haired child is both frustrated and sad with the gender role expectations heaped upon him. His mother dresses him in girlie garments much to his chagrin. However, early in the text, the unnamed protagonist doesn’t self-advocate, even though his mother appears to choose the most feminine wardrobe options available. For instance, at one point, he compares his girlish pirate costume to the more masculine costume of a girl friend and inquires as to why she is allowed to dress like a boy. The girl replies that she’s a tomboy and that her mom understands, since she was a tomboy too. The protagonist shares that he isn’t a tomboy since he isn’t a girl. His friend insists that he is and the two resolve the conflict with a friendly duel. Interestingly, when being a tomboy is discussed it is characterized, albeit subtly, as a phase that girls grow out of. Even more, both children acknowledge their moms as gender norm gatekeepers who allow or do not allow their children to express themselves.
Lacking language to explain how he feels, the protagonist attempts to communicate through images. He draws pictures of himself with short hair in masculine clothes. Drawing pictures to express one’s gender identity is a familiar strategy often depicted in picture books about transgender and gender nonconforming youth.
Eventually, the protagonist’s frustration at being misgendered leads him to express how he wants to look and, while purchasing a bathing suit, he chooses board shorts and a black swim shirt.
Later, at a community pool, he wears his new bathing suit and make two new friends. His friends see him as a boy, but then, his dad refers to them as Hannah and his new friends are confused. They tell him that they assumed he was a boy. He replies that he is and explains that no one believes him. His new friends assure him that they believe him and explain that they have a transgender cousin.
After learning what transgender means, the protagonist is empowered to identify as transgender. He soon gets up the confidence and courage to share this with his parents.
The last image in the text brings readers back to the barbershop depicted on the cover. This time, the protagonist sits in the chair and gets a haircut. Instead of looking through a window longingly at another boy’s short hair, he stares at his own reflection in a mirror.
I like several aspects of the book, especially the importance of a language to self-identify and self-advocate. I was a little disappointed with other aspects. Although Simpson’s illustrations are very expressive, I wasn’t always clear what they were trying to express, particularly with the protagonist’s facial features. Additionally, throughout much of the text, the protagonist wears very feminine clothes and has very long hair. Clearly, he is not comfortable with either. This creates an unnecessary opposition between feminine and masculine gender expression. Even more, it appears that the protagonist is unable to articulate that he is a boy throughout most of the book, but then he effortlessly identifies as a boy at the pool with a declarative statement about his gender identity. Even more, although he explains to his new friends that no one believes he is a boy, at no point in the text has he confronted anyone with this reality.
The story is based on co-author, Maddox Lyons, experience as a transgender child.
This is a sweet story that brings the Lyons family experience to life. I’m sure it will resonate with many families. There are too few books about transgender children and this is an important addition to the archive that focuses on a child’s experience learning how to embrace and articulate his gender identity.
This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ Kid Lit” project. I’m working on a book, The Transformative Potential of LGBTQ+ Children’s Picture Books, which is forthcoming 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!
Learn more about author Maddox Lyons: https://us.macmillan.com/author/maddoxlyons