Jennifer Carr’s Be Who You Are (2010)

Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr (2010-11-23)Be Who You Are (2010), written by Jennifer Carr and illustrated by Ben Rumback, explores a young transgender girl’s transition. Although Hope’s sex assignment was male, she always felt like a girl. She tells her very accepting parents while she is quite young, and they support her. However, Hope isn’t comfortable being as open about her gender identity at school, and her gender is repeatedly policed by a teacher who sees her as a boy. This happens when Hope draws a picture of herself as a girl and when she stands in line with other girls. When Hope shares her discomfort at school with her parents, they become advocates. They introduce her to a therapist who encourages her to share her feelings about gender. Hope soon begins to transition; first growing her hair long, and then wearing girl clothes more and more frequently. Like her parents, Hope’s younger brother becomes a supportive ally.

This is one of a small handful of books about transgender children. Carr is a parent-advocate of a transgender child and Be Who You Are is unambiguously trans* affirming throughout. It provides an accessible trans* narrative for young readers.

I prefer Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’ I am Jazz, which delivers the same story but is co-authored by a transgender child and told in the first-person. However, this book predates I am Jazz by several years and depicts its important lesson of transgender acceptance very nicely.

Tommie dePaola’s Oliver Button is a Sissy (1979)

Hardcover Oliver Button Is a Sissy BookTommie dePaola’s Oliver Button is a Sissy (1979) tells the story of a little boy bullied at school and discouraged at home because he doesn’t enjoy typical boy things like playing ball. Oliver would rather be picking flowers and playing with paper dolls.

Realizing their son is not going to take up football anytime soon, Oliver’s parents enroll him in dance. He is so good his teacher recommends he enter a local talent show. Although he doesn’t win, he builds some confidence and his parents learn to be proud of him for the things he is good at, not the things they wish he was good at. In other words, when he takes the stage, they are better able to see him. The kids at school seem to have a change of heart as well.

In 2019, images of gender expansive children are available in several children’s picture books, including Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy and Christine Baldacchino’s Morris and the Tangerine Dress. To a lesser extent, characters who embrace a clear camp aesthetic have also made their way to children’s picture books like Lesléa Newman’s The Boy Who Cried Fabulous and Helga Bansch’s Odd Bird Out. However, in 1979 dePaola’s book provided children with a new way to imagine being a boy, uncoupled from rough-and-tumble masculinity.

Although it’s forty-years-old as of 2019, Oliver Button is a Sissy has aged quite well. Narrow visions of masculinity still shape playground gender policing and parents are still too often slow to embrace effeminate sons.

DePaola tells the story in an accessible style sure to engage young readers. His illustrations pair well with the story, showing what he tells in words.

I highly recommend this as an addition to personal and school libraries. Oliver is more subtly gender nonconforming than the children depicted in more recent books, which provides an important representation for children who might like dolls, but not so much dresses.

Chandra Prasad’s Damselfly

A few kids. A crash landing. An island that may or may not be inhabited (or possessed). It’s the stuff of a story we don’t seem able to stop telling.

William Golding’s 1954 version, Lord of the Flies, lives on in our collective imagination, resurfacing in songs by Iron Maiden and on random television shows like The Simpsons. Golding’s take was inspired by The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean, an 1858 book by R. M. Ballantyne. In Ballantyne’s version the kids who crash on the island are moralistic cherubs with a penchant for converting cannibalistic barbarians (yes, it is racist). Golding wasn’t buying the moral simplicity proffered by Ballantyne and created a dystopian parody emphasizing human nature as well as the relationship between humans and nature.

In 2018, Chandra Prasad took a stab at it. Prasad’s version, Damselfly, introduces gender, race, ability, and class into the basic plot Golding develops in Lord of the Flies, and, like Ballantyne and Golding, Prasad’s book is both a product and critique of its times, albeit in the case of Ballantyne, an unintended critique.

The story is told from the point-of-view of Samantha (Sam) Mishra, a biracial Indian and white teenage girl who lacks self-confidence and doesn’t quite fit in with her wealthy boarding school companions because of her class background. Samantha is best friends with the super smart Mel, a white girl who doesn’t fit in with the boarding school crowd either, but unlike Sam, Mel doesn’t care.

The very wealthy, very beautiful, very assertive Rittika, who is Indian, creates a skin-tone based dichotomy to explain the suitability of her peers for life on the island: “Golds” vs. “Pales”. According to Rittika, Golds are survivors, whereas Pales are not physically capable of adjusting to life under the sweltering sun.

Sam never feels Indian enough because of her mixed heritage, and she clamors for Rittika’s acceptance even when it means betraying her best friend.

Along with race, ability is addressed. First, in Sam’s memories of her sister who has an eating disorder, and second, through the inclusion of a character, Anne Marie, who needs medicine and whose mental health suffers as a result of not being able to access it on the island. Anne Marie is very similar to Golding’s Piggy, who is hyper-vulnerable in Golding’s version of the tale as a result of a visual impairment that requires him to wear glasses.

Other minor characters include: 1) Rittika’s twin brother, who is comfortable living in her shadow, 2) Betty, who is not a big idea person, but executes other people’s plans brilliantly, 3) Pablo, an environmentalist who believes they have been gifted with a pristine island and should be its custodians, and 4) the likable part-Native American Chester, who could be good, but he is depicted as smitten with the book’s beauty and dumb because of it.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because Damselfly is a page turner!

Prasad’s fast-paced plot and engaging depictions of antagonistic human relationships make for an enjoyable read. There is a lot to talk about in the book, and a lot to speculate. It would pair wonderfully with Golding’s text in a high school or college literature classroom. It’s a fascinating parallel or linked text with enough similarities and differences to encourage thoughtful analysis. In fact, there are lots of materials, including discussion questions, available for teachers.

All this isn’t to say the text isn’t without weaknesses. The minor characters are not well developed, this is likely because of the first-person narrative style Prasad uses. A fair amount of action seems unmotivated because the reader doesn’t have access to the motivation. The ending was also a tad disappointing, although it didn’t detract much from the overall book, which is very good. (I won’t get into more detail to avoid spoilers). I recommend the book, minor shortcomings and all!

I received a review copy from the author.

Mosca’s The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes

The Story of Dr. PB Cover_1600px_300DPI_5MB (1).jpgIf I only had two adjectives to describe The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes, written by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley, I would, without hesitation, choose witty and bold. The book’s cover features disembodied eyeballs floating on a purplish background as well as a woman with brown skin and long dark hair holding an ophthalmoscope. It’s a wonderful introduction to a picture book that is a little silly, a little serious, and brilliantly engaging. The book is one of a small handful in Innovation Press’s Amazing Scientists Series, which provides socially relevant biographies of scientists who have overcome structural inequality to become experts in their fields. All the books in the series are written by Mosca and illustrated by Rieley providing a sense of aesthetic and lyrical coherence to the collection. Continue reading

Queer Theory on Gender

In addition to blogging about kids lit I research most things gender/sexuality. Check out my review article of Queer Theory published in 2017 for The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory (Oxford Press). I review influential work that explores aspects of gender (camp, transgender studies, masculinity, and femininity).

Stacy B. Davids’ Annie’s Plaid Shirt

Annie’s Plaid Shirt (2015) is the cleverly crafted tale of a plaid shirt loving girl whose mother doesn’t quite understand how important her shirt is to her identity. Written by Stacy B. Davids, a clinical psychologist, and warmly illustrated by Rachel Balsaitis, this text earns four thumbs up from me and my three-year-old. In fact, he’s made me read it so many times it felt like a betrayal to pick it up on my own to write a review!

Continue reading