Transgender Teens Take Center Stage

by flickr user celesteh

Earlier this year, TIME magazine made history by putting Laverne Cox on its cover, declaring that America is in the midst of a “Transgender Tipping Point.”  While many would argue we’re not quite at that point yet, given the long way we still need to go to achieve the equal rights, protection, and respect transgender people deserve, there is no denying the definite increase in visibility and support of the this community. Indeed, the past year alone has seen Laverne Cox not only on the cover of TIME magazine but also the first openly transgender person nominated for an Emmy, Barney’s unveiled a trail-blazing spring ad campaign featuring 17 transgender models from all walks of life, and Comic Con had its first panel devoted exclusively to transgender issues…and that’s just in popular culture.

On the legal front, Washington state just opted to provide transgender-inclusive healthcare for all public employees, the Department of Labor is now including transgender workers under its non-discrimination policy, and Maryland passed the Fairness for All Marylanders Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Progress indeed and heartening news for anyone who advocates for and supports equal rights and social justice.

As someone who works with youth, it’s equally exciting that this increase in visibility extends to young adult literature. Indeed, YA has been ahead of the curve. Luna, the first YA book to feature a transgender protagonist, was published over a decade ago to wide critical acclaim.  In the ten years since then, the number of novels with transgender characters have been slowly but steadily increasing (for a well researched list of titles, see Talya Sokoll’s booklist published in YALS and Malinda Lo’s list on her tumblr “Diversity in YA”.)  Which leads us to 2014, where in YA as well as larger society, there is a noticeable shift in terms of sheer visibility and volume.  That said, I’ll focus the rest of my post on recently published and soon-to-be-published books that feature characters of all genders.

Recent Titles

I was lucky enough to attend the Stonewall Awards Brunch this year at the ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas and saw Kristin Cronn-Mills BeautifulMusicforUglyChildrenaccept her award for Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults). She spoke passionately about the need for allies, about the power of music to transcend differences, and the need for cisgendered people to take the initiative to educate themselves about the transgender experience. (Interestingly, hers was the not the only book focused on gender identity issues to win a Stonewall Award this year, Lori Duron also won for her memoir Raising My Rainbow.)

If you haven’t read Beautiful Music for Ugly Children yet, the book tells the story of Gabe, who is in the early stages of transitioning, much to the dismay of his family. He finds solace in his passion for music and with the help of his close friend and elderly neighbor, John, becomes a DJ on the local radio station. His sudden rise to local fame as a DJ results in a number of confrontations that result in both tragedy and redemption. What I enjoyed most about Cronn-Mills’ novel is the fact that it does not solely revolve around Gabe’s gender identity. It’s obviously at the heart of the novel but, equally so, is his passion for music. In that sense, he felt more fully developed as a character–lending the novel a depth often lacking in other books about trans teens.  Continue reading Transgender Teens Take Center Stage

Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults 2014: Remembering Ned Vizzini

yalsa logoYALSA’s 2014 Popular Paperbacks For Young Adults  committee created three themed lists of paperbacks: “Conflicted: Life During Wartime,” “GLBTQ: Books with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer-questioning, Intersex, Asexual Individuals, and Their Allies,” and “Humor Me: Funny, Fantastic and Witty Reads.” Nominations for PPYA must fit one of the selected themes, and they must be popular. Literary quality is not a consideration, just an added bonus.

Committee members read widely, searching for a diversity of formats, ethnic representation, and character experience. The “Conflicted” subcommittee worked from a grim spreadsheet of wars, making sure to cover as many locations and time periods as possible. In the graphic novel War Brothers by Sharon E. McKay and Daniel Lafrance, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army abducts Jacob and his friends from their Ugandan boarding school. Based on interviews with child soldiers, this brutal story’s bold, expressive illustrations make it all the more harrowing.

The “GLBTQ” subcommittee was delighted to find a large pool of recently published titles to choose from. One of the PPYA Top Ten titles (and a 2014 Stonewall Award winner) is Beautiful Music For Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills. Elizabeth becomes Gabe when he DJ’s a community radio show, an inspired way of illustrating a transitioning teen’s gradual steps into a fuller identity.

teen_angst_vizziniCreating the “Humor” list got serious fast. Members honed their evaluation skills by subsuming their personal preferences to a rather mechanical rubric of humor, which led to existential debates about many of the titles: did they exist to be funny?

The tortured discussions ended with Ned Vizzini’s Teen Angst? Naaah… A young adult humor list almost requires a book by Vizzini, and these essays about his high school adventures as a domino player, a Magic: The Gathering fanatic, and a Stuyvesant student are a perfect fit.

This is Vizzini at the beginning of his career, before the full-fledged novels and the film adaptation; before he became a husband and a father; before we lost him to suicide. This is Vizzini as a teen, noting, “Destruction can really cheer up a thirteen-year-old,” realizing that to be happy “all you really needed was to feel superior,” and reminding himself “not to be such a cynical eff.” Vizzini rounded out his humor with a great deal of vulnerability and warmth. Remembering this, you may laugh until you cry.

-Lisa Goldstein, currently re-reading Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini