2 new books by trans youth offer important perspectives
In this time of unconscionable attacks on transgender youth, two new middle-grade books — one by a trans girl and one by a trans boy — are both timely and vital.
Joy, to the World by Kai Shappley and Lisa Bunker (Clarion), is a fictional story heavily shaped by Kai’s real life as a transgender girl and activist growing up in Texas. The protagonist, 12-year-old Joy, has just moved to Texas with her divorced mother. Her family supports her identity, and she’s beginning to make friends and practice her newfound love of cheerleading with her “Sparkle Squad.”
When her school principal says she can’t be on the school cheerleading team because she’s not a girl, however, she decides to challenge him, and later to speak out against anti-trans legislation in the state, inspired by her hero, Kai Shappley, who has done the same. In fact, she even ends up meeting Kai and her mother, who help Joy and her family in their fight.
Joy is “just a kid” whose life (like Kai’s) is full of friends and fun and bolstered by her Christian faith, and whose only exposure to “perversion” and “indoctrination” is when those words (which she must look up to understand) are used by those speaking against her.
Joy’s mother, though supportive, wants to protect her daughter from the inevitable hateful comments that Joy’s activism will trigger online and in the media. As Joy and her mother navigate this together (as I imagine Kai and her mom have, too), they provide a model for readers and their families who may be going through something similar.
Details from Kai’s real life are woven into the tale — but a fictional protagonist gives the narrative a greater flexibility. Kai’s appearance in the story as herself, however, reminds us of the tale’s real-life roots, and her interaction with Joy and her family underscores how real trans youth and their families are building networks of information and support. And co-author Lisa Bunker, both a published novelist and one of the first two trans women to serve in the New Hampshire legislature, has clearly brought to bear her writing skills, her knowledge of the trans community and her knowledge of state legislative processes.
Kai and her family left Texas in 2022 because of the state’s increasingly harsh anti-trans laws, but her deep familiarity with life there for trans youth makes this a resonant, empowering book that trans youth in anti-trans states may particularly appreciate. The book’s storyline of a determined young person fighting for her rights with the help of her family and friends, however, should have an even wider appeal.
Dotson: My Journey Growing Up Transgender is a memoir more directly following the life of its young author, Grayson Lee White. When Grayson was two years old, he asked his mother, “Why did God make me a girl?” insisting, “I am supposed to be a boy.” The book takes us with engaging candor on his journey from then to the present.
As a preschooler, he started calling himself “Dotson,” a combination of “daughter” and “son.” That name stuck until he and his family learned the correct term, “transgender.” With his parents’ support, he chose a new name and began using he/him pronouns.
He came out to his class (with support from his identical twin sister), ran into obstacles over which bathroom to use, legally changed his name and began seeing an endocrinologist at age seven — not to start puberty blockers, but to begin the careful preliminary monitoring that could someday lead to that.
This depiction of the lengthy process is important because of the many accusations from proponents of anti-trans legislation that such gender-affirming care is initiated too quickly.
As Grayson got older, he also came out to new friends (with varied reactions) and started having to deal with sometimes intrusive questions. At age 12, he got his first puberty blocking shot (which he was excited about despite his fear of needles). The story ends (for now) with him at age 13, thriving and happy, a young man who plays video games, rides his bike and snowboards, though he admits to sometimes being socially awkward. He is careful to convey that not every trans person has an identical experience.
Although his supportive family and friends have clearly made his journey easier, he’s also upfront about the questions, concerns, and worries he’s had — and some he still has. Still, he says, all the challenges have been worth it in order to be himself.
Dotson, with short chapters illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson, feels like the perfect next book for kids who have moved beyond picture books, though older middle-grade readers should enjoy it as well. While it came out last year in a version exclusive to Target, it is being re-released for wider distribution by West Margin Press. Through a trans youth’s own words, it shows how trans youth can thrive when they have support and affirmation.
Both books above will likely face bans — and are already blocked by the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” laws in eight states — but now you know they exist. Recommend or buy them for anyone you know who may appreciate them: trans youth, their families, allies and those who could become allies. And perhaps someone will airdrop copies of them at the state houses of every legislature considering anti-trans bills.
These are voices that need to be heard.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, plus a searchable database of 1200+ LGBTQ family books.