Young adult literature is obviously having a moment right now, which means that there’s finally room for lesser-heard perspectives within the genre to grow. One of those perspectives is that of the trans experience, which, until the early 2000s, had never been featured in a young adult work. Fortunately, that changed with Julie Ann Peter’s Luna, the first novel to feature an explicitly trans character, and other YA novels have followed suit.
The books on the list below all capture perfectly what novelist Chris Beams writes in I Am J: “Being trans wasn’t special, and yet it was. It was just good and bad and interesting and fucked-up and very human, like anything else.” Part of what’s so important about YA literature with trans characters is that it incorporates an often unheard and potentially unfamiliar narrative, one that will hopefully educate readers. But because they’re aimed at young adults, these books (and others like them) also contain experiences that anyone who’s been a teenager is familiar with. They’re about discovering a new favorite band, figuring out what to do with your hands during your first kiss and how parents really just don’t get it.
Luna by Julie Anne Peters
The first YA novel with a trans character, Luna tells the story of 16-year-old Reagan and her older brother Liam, who begins transitioning from male to female. The transition, however, must be kept secret, and Reagan finds herself avoiding friends (and high school love interests) in fear of exposing her brother. Things get even more difficult when the siblings’ father begins to notice Liam becoming Luna. The story is as much about Reagan as it is Luna and depicts the struggle both characters face when coming to terms with their identities.
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
When Angela begins transitioning to Grady, nothing has ever felt more right — but not everyone sees it that way. Grady must deal with his family and friends’ feelings, while also figuring out which locker room to use. Fortunately, he finds some unexpected allies along the way. Parrotfish’s first-person perspective ensures that readers simultaneously relate to the challenges Grady faces but also understand what makes them so unique.
One in Every Crowd by Ivan E. Coyote
In her collection of short reflections, Canadian author Coyote paints a portrait of her youth in the Yukon, discusses her family and shares stories of encounters with kids who have inspired her, like a boy at the camp where she teaches whose performance in a fashion show makes her feel like “the homosexual version of a hockey dad whose son has just scored in overtime.” Coyote both humorously and tenderly depicts gender fluidity in a way that makes it relatable to all readers.
Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher
Logan is dealing with typical small-town angst. He just found out his girlfriend of three years cheated on him, when a new student shows up and changes everything. Logan quickly becomes close to the previously homeschooled Sage, but his new friend won’t tell him why her parents won’t let her go on dates. After realizing that he has feelings for Sage, Logan finally learns her secret: She is trans. Although Logan initially distances himself from Sage, the two slowly travel a long, complicated path towards reconciliation and, for Logan, understanding.
Nevada by Imogen Binnie
Binnie’s novel begins with punk trans woman Maria, who’s like your best friend from college: She meditates on identity politics, brainstorms potential knuckle tattoos and has just been cheated on by her long-term girlfriend. In the second part of her novel, Binnie introduces small-town Nevada resident James, who secretly looks up pictures of male-to-female transitions online and buys dresses off eBay. Each character’s narrative is well-rounded and complex, but where the novel really gets interesting is when the two come together: “As soon as Maria Griffiths sees James Hanson in the Star City, Nevada Wal-Mart, she’s like, that kid is trans and he doesn’t even know it yet.”
Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers
After a difficult family life that provokes a drug and alcohol habit followed by a stint in rehab, Johnny is sent by his mother to live with his uncle in South Carolina where he finds a nice vice: Debbie Harry. Johnny goes from dancing to Harry to longing to be as “tough and beautiful” as she is. Along the way, he encounters the homophobia and transphobia of his classmates and the support of his new girlfriend, who teaches him to walk in heels. Brothers’ work explores the complexity of gender identity through the lens of a teenager (one with really great taste in music).
Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis
Teenage twin siblings Ysabel and Justin lead what they think is the perfect life, until they receive some startling news: Their father is transitioning to womanhood and will now go by Christine. But Christine’s gender identity isn’t the only thing about the situation that isn’t uncertain; Will Ysabel and Justin’s parents get a divorce? Will Christine ever move back home? Is everything else about their parent-child relationship still the same? Davis takes a fresh look at the trans narrative through the lens of family, and her work also includes often under-represented characters of color.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Gabe seems like he has everything going for him: He’s spending the summer working as a radio station DJ and concocting plans to escape his hometown following graduation (and to make his best friend Paige fall in love with him). There’s just one problem: Everyone else has thought of him as Elizabeth for most of his life. Over the course of the summer after his senior year, Gabe faces serious challenges, like being outed and attacked, but some good things happen, too, like the support he receives from fans. Along the way, Gabe sheds his old identity, leaving Elizabeth behind.
I Am J by Cris Beam
J has a lot going on. He’s living in Washington Heights with his Puerto Rican mother and Jewish father, he’s teased at school, he’s misunderstood by his best friend, and he’s still called “m’ija” by his mom — and all because no one can understand what’s so clear to J: He is a boy. After deciding to take testosterone but anticipating a lack of support, J runs away from home, encountering a whole new cast of characters in his quest to finally feel accepted for who he is.
Morgan in the Mirror by C. C. Saint-Clair
Morgan is a 23-year-old who, having already had “top” surgery, is now making plans to go forward with a full male-to-female transition. Meanwhile, he’s also juggling a relationship with Christen, Morgan’s mostly supportive girlfriend who’s still struggling with her boyfriend’s decisions. Saint-Clair’s work is a great read once you’ve finished one of the YA novels on this list and are looking for a perspective that’s older.
Literature with trans characters still has progress to be made. While stories about transitioning are important, it also might be time for the world to read about a trans protagonist whose story isn’t just about gender identity, like a female wizard in a dystopian future who happens to be trans. The overwhelming whiteness of this list also highlights the need for more characters — and authors — of color when it comes to trans literature (an issue that’s definitely not unique to the genre). Still, it’s encouraging to see that young adult books are slowly becoming more diverse. These perspectives haven’t always been heard, but they need to be.
Do you have a favorite YA book that incorporates the trans perspective that isn’t on this list? Any thoughts on trans characters in young adult literature in general? Let us know in the comments below!
Adina Applebaum is Michigan native studying English and creative writing at Barnard College. Her crowning achievements in life are memorizing all the lyrics on The Slim Shady LP and eating an entire gallon of chocolate-covered raisins during orientation week of college.
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