Exploring gender identity in two middle-grade novels
by Shuyler Clark
March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day devoted to recognizing and spreading awareness about transgender people. As a vastly underrepresented group, the transgender community has only recently seen more positive representation in media.
Middle grade novels in particular have experienced an increase in transgender coming-of-age tales, which are vital in helping such youths find affirmation and acceptance. These two novels depict transgender children coming to terms with their identity and gradually coming out to their peers.
In Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson, Grayson Sender has long had fantasies of wearing skirts instead of pants, but she hides these thoughts from her family and classmates. When she is given the chance to play the Greek goddess Persephone in her school’s play, Grayson learns to navigate harassment from her classmates while finding support and encouragement from others.
Polonsky is cisgender but has a child under the transgender umbrella. Despite not being a member of the transgender community, Polonsky approaches Grayson’s character and her struggles with tenderness. Grayson encounters an unfortunate amount of homophobia and transphobia following her casting in the play, but Polonsky balances this with the euphoria Grayson experiences as she gradually owns her identity. Ultimately, this novel is a hopeful, affirming tale in staunch support of youths who may be facing similar adversity.
Following a similar plot is Lexie Bean’s The Ship We Built, an epistolary novel chronicling Rowan Beck’s experiences with loneliness and ostracization as he slowly presents himself as a boy. In addition to gender dysphoria, this book addresses incarceration, childhood sexual abuse, and domestic violence in ways that are approachable for younger audiences by relying on Rowan’s interpretation of events instead of graphic depictions.
The use of letters as a narrative device helps bring out Rowan’s voice and his innocence. This tactic also cleverly shows Rowan’s dysphoria through the letters’ signatures, in which he alternates between his deadname (the name he was given at birth) and several alternate names before settling on Rowan. Even then, he occasionally reverts to his deadname when feeling confused or ashamed because of his family’s or classmates’ reactions.
As a nonbinary author who suffered from similar struggles, Lexie Bean channels many of their own experiences into Rowan’s story, further solidifying its authenticity. As a result, The Ship We Built provides an alternative to Gracefully Grayson for readers looking for narratives from transgender authors specifically.
Although marginalized communities are gradually seeing more representation, seeking out and appreciating these stories is critical in ensuring writers continue having these opportunities. Opening children to these communities can also pave the way to understanding and provide safer environments for these marginalized communities. Gracefully Grayson and The Ship We Built are excellent starting points for readers exploring their identities or coming to understand the identities of others.