A tale of two trans teen books… OK, these books don’t have too much in common, but I read them back to back and can’t help comparing. They’re both by authors who are not transgender, and I approached them both with trepidation. One did a better job winning me over than the other. Here are my thoughts:
Freakboy by Kristen Elizabeth Clark is a novel in verse told from the point of view of three characters: Brendan, who is struggling with depression and dysphoria; Vanessa, Brendan’s tough but sensitive girlfriend; and Angel, an adult trans woman who extends a lifeline to Brendan. The title of this one kept me away for a while (and honestly, I still kind of hate it - what young person questioning their gender wants to pick up a book with this insult on the cover?), but I decided to give it a chance because of the author’s preface. Clark emphasizes that she is writing a transgender narrative, not the transgender narrative. This book does have its problems - Angel (a character of color) employs slang that sometimes feels like Clark (who is white) trying too hard, and like I said, that title continues to rub me wrong.
Generally, though? I am glad this is a YA narrative that’s out there. Its multiple first-person point of views offer an access point for trans, cis and not-sure-I’m-either readers. It’s a refreshing change from books like Almost Perfect and Luna that only view trans girls through cisgender characters’ eyes. The expressive verse style might be a hook for readers who wouldn’t otherwise read a story like this. And overall, I think Clark does a good job achieving her stated goal - creating a narrative that is self-evidently just one perspective in a vast world of trans experiences.
Beyond Mangenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin is a collection of first-person-style essays gleaned from interviews with transgender people in their late teens and early twenties. I’m not going to beat around the bush: this book made me really uncomfortable. I couldn’t shake the vibe of exploitation - this is an adult cis author putting the childhoods and coming out stories of young trans people on display. Yes, I gave Freakboy's cis author a bit more leeway, but this is a non-fiction book that involves young, often vulnerable participants. Is a cis woman who admittedly didn’t know much about trans people when she decided to make a book about them the right person to handle this project? She edited these stories down into narratives - how did she decide what made the cut? For example, why did a bunch of casual sexism and fatphobia make it in? I don’t necessarily blame the young folks profiled in the book for that stuff - that’s sort of the point, that they’re just “typical teens”. But how are these young people going to feel about this book in ten years, or heck, in two?
Among my least favorite elements are talkshow-trope “before” photos included in two of the profiles. The author also interjects an “XX chromosomes mean your body does this, XY means your body does that” into one chapter - first, my body disagrees, second, this doesn’t come up again or get complicated further despite the inclusion of an intersex teen in a later chapter. While I’m glad the book has a “Further Resources” section, it’s a mixed bag - the non-fiction list is pretty good, but the only fiction mentioned is Middlesex and Luna, two books I would probably not hand to a trans teen. The movies list is also not inspiring - early 90s films like The Crying Game, M. Butterfly and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert probably should have been passed over for more recent, relevant movies like Gun Hill Road and My Prairie Home.
This book might be OK as a Trans 101 - I was glad that it included trans women, trans men, and non-binary trans people, and that half of the interviewees are people of color. But there’s not much new here. If you’re looking for non-fiction trans books for teens, I would instead recommend one of the many out there that were conceived and authored by trans people: Revolutionary Voices, The Gender Book, Kicked Out, Hello Cruel World or Gender Outlaws.
I have nothing but respect for you queerbookclub, but there’s something about your review of Beyond Magenta that just doesn’t sit right with me as a person who works with teens in my professional life. Where you see exploitation in this book, I see so much strength. And I see a lot of ageism in your review.
Now would this project have been done better if Kuklin was trans? Absolutely, but I think that you’re really selling these teens short if you assume that 16-19 year-olds are inherently incapable of consenting to a project like this just because of their age.
What I liked best about Beyond Magenta was that it wasn’t made FOR teens, it was made in collaboration WITH them. That is so rare for teen media. If you read the notes in the back, the author approved everything with these teens before publication, so she did not “decide what made the cut” as you put it. She’s said in interviews that “While actually writing I tried to choose statements that told their story but were not voyeuristic. To be sure that everything was accurate, the teens were invited to read their chapters throughout the editing process.” She did not approach these teens. Teens were informed that someone was doing this project, and it was up to them if they wanted to reach out to her. Several of them are teens in the technical sense not the cultural sense since they are over 18; as adults it is entirely their choice to participate or not.
But I’m also uncomfortable with your criticism of these teens for making the choice to share photographs of themselves pre-transition. It sounds like you’re saying they shouldn’t do that, or that Kuklin must have roped them into it. But if these teens are comfortable with it, then that is their choice and one that I think deserves support, not criticism. It’s a trope when talkshows, media, and cis people demand those kinds of photos not when trans people freely share them. It seems to skirt into respectability politics to say that those trans teens shouldn’t have shared those photos. It implies there is a right or real or proper way to tell a trans story and these teens are somehow failing at doing it right because they are too young and foolish to know better.
I also feel like raising the specter of “how are these young people going to feel about this book in ten years, or heck, in two?” is ageist and insulting to teens. Teens do embarrassing stuff ALL THE TIME. If they are anything like the teens I work with every day, they are hyperaware of how something can be embarrassing. Maybe they will look back on this book and cringe. Maybe they will not. Maybe years later an adult will look back on a book they were in and cringe. They deserve respect and praise for taking that risk in order to give much-needed representation to trans teens like themselves. I think it’s condescending to assume that they don’t understand the concept of consequences because they are young.
No one is telling these stories and if they are, it’s in novels like Freakboy not in non-fiction work. Mainstream media does not take the stories of trans teens seriously. I have seen my trans teens at work pour over this book like it is the second coming because they’ve never seen people that look so much like themselves before. It is not a perfect book and I agree that there are problematic elements — the fatphobia made me wince, it was intermittently cissexist, and the Resources section was shitty. But I think you’re selling these teens way to short because of their age.