On Saturday I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the Southern Festival of Books here in Nashville. The panel’s topic was transgender characters in books for teens, and the panelists were Ellen Wittlinger, author of Parrotfish (2007), and Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Jumpstart the World (which goes on sale today!).
Ellen Wittlinger first became interested in the topic when her daughter (full disclosure: that’s me!) became good friends with a transman: someone who was born with a female body, but always felt he was really male. Although the story in Parrotfish is not Toby’s story, Wittlinger interviewed him extensively and drew heavily on his experiences to write the book, which tells the story of teenage Grady (formerly Angela) McNair, who comes out as transgender and begins to live as a boy.
Catherine Ryan Hyde spoke movingly of growing up with a transgender sibling as well as a current friend who is also transgender, and talked about the many different ways people express their own gender identities. In Jumpstart the World, Hyde includes not only a transgender character, Frank (with whom the narrator, a teenage girl, falls in love), but also one whose gender identity is more fluid. When asked if he is trans, Wilbur (a gentle, soft-spoken boy who wears impeccable makeup) replies: “Not really. . . . I mean, I don’t want to have surgery. I don’t need to be a girl. I’m just this.”
Hyde also revealed that her original ending for the book was much bleaker, but she came to realize that it would be important for readers that the story end on a hopeful note. Still, she did not shy away from portraying some of the difficulties in the life of a transgender person, such as the fears that arise when Frank must go to the hospital.
The questions from the audience were insightful and the ensuing discussion was fascinating and thought-provoking. Both authors spoke passionately about their belief that writing books with transgender characters will help teens to have more compassion and understanding for people who may be different from them in some way, and maybe even to realize that they are not alone in their own struggles.
Have you ever read a book with a transgender character, or one whose gender identity was not so easily defined (like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex)? Will you check out Parrotfish or Jumpstart the World?