Today we are happy to share this post from author M.G. Hennessey as part of our Social Justice in YA Lit Project. Her book, The Other Boy, came out in 2016 and is about 12-year-old Shane, who is transgender. You can find out more about the #SJYALit Project here or by searching the hashtag here at TLT.
This dire warning was part of a review for Kody Keplinger’s book Run. Bad language aside, the implication in the review is that the mere presence of a bisexual character is reason enough to steer clear. On Tumblr, author Tristina Wright summarized it nicely by saying, “When you tell children that mentions of bisexuality in a YA book require[s] a content warning, you tell them they are something Other. That their orientation is something to be ashamed of, to warn others about, that they’re not good. That they’re wrong and unacceptable.”
I read a wide range of young adult literature, and never once have I been warned off a book because of heterosexual characters behaving in a heterosexual manner. This disparity exists because of the mistaken perception that LGBTQ themed books are really about sex, not personal identity. There seems to be a double standard when it comes to LGBTQ themed literature. Consider this: Wonder was not specifically marketed toward kids with mandibulofacial dysostosis, and The Crossover wasn’t simply intended for African-American children. So why are stories about LGBTQ children often treated differently?
Books like Run aspire to achieve the sort of mainstream acceptance that Wonder and The Crossover have. Yet all too frequently, they end up on the LGBTQ shelf in libraries and bookstores. That’s not to say that they don’t belong there, but they should also be shelved with other new releases. And that’s still rarely the case. After all, you don’t see many “People of Color” or “Differently-Abled Character” themed tables in the same stores. And the sad truth is that many cisgender, heterosexual children do not gravitate toward the LGBTQ table, because they simply don’t think it applies to them. So essentially, these books are being held back from most of the population.
While in the past couple of years there has been a positive move toward publishing more diverse books for kids, on a wider range of themes, this type of ghettoization remains a problem. The “We Need Diverse Books” movement has nudged the industry in the right direction, but until reviewers and other gatekeepers catch up, it remains a partial victory.
I experienced something similar with The Other Boy, the story of a transgender boy who gets outed after living stealth. Kirkus concluded their review with, “This is the story with a triumphant-but-realistic ending that trans kids haven’t had enough of.” Frankly, I cringed. It was exactly what I’d been afraid of; that a book about a transgender boy’s struggles would be regarded as only appropriate for kids exactly like him. While I’m delighted that transgender and gender expansive kids can see themselves reflected in my main character, that’s not the primary reason I wrote the book. My larger hope was that it would provide a window into the life of a transgender boy for all kids; after all, the bullying he suffers as a result is something most of them can relate to. And being transgender is not the only challenge he confronts over the course of the story; he also has to navigate divorced parents, his first crush, and issues with his best friend. These are all struggles that should speak to the vast majority of tweens.
The assumption seems to be that the mainstream population isn’t interested in these types of stories; that despite the merits of a book, it doesn’t deserve a widespread audience sheerly because of its content.
I’d hoped we’d be past this by now, but the Run incident and my own personal experience have proven otherwise. I’d recommend that book reviewers take a moment to replace “bisexual” or “transgender” with “hetero” or “African American,” and see if it reads as offensive. If our goal is to open kids’ eyes to the wider world, to help them to understand and empathize with characters whose lives and experiences might differ from their own, then books that deal thoughtfully with those themes should be accorded the same level of respect and treatment as Wonder. “Try kindness” is not something that’s limited to one particular group; it’s something we should all aspire to. And until books with LGBTQ characters receive the same treatment as the Dork Diaries, we will not have achieved full equality.
Meet M.G. Hennessey
M.G. Hennessey is the author of The Other Boy, an upper middle grade debut about a 12 yo transgender boy who is living stealth after his transition. Described by Transparent creator Jill Soloway as, “A terrific read for all ages,” The Other Boy won a spot on the Rainbow List as one of the best LGBTQ-themed novels of 2017. M.G. is an ally and supporter of the Transgender Law Center, Gender Spectrum, and the Human Rights Campaign; she also volunteers at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. She lives in Los Angeles. (She/Her)