“We’re all in the same boat, paddling through the chaos of seventh grade. Except everyone else’s oar is pink or blue and mine’s purple with glittery flecks of angsty confusion on it,” says Ash, who isn’t like most kids in their suburban Ohio middle school. Some days Ash dresses like and feels like a boy. Other days, they dress like and feel like a girl. Some people know them as Ashley, others as Asher. It’s all a little confusing, especially for Ash. Lately, they feel a lot of pressure to choose a single permanent name and gender identity.
Throughout Jules Machias’ debut middle grade novel, Both Can Be True, Ash explores their gender fluidity and what it means to be nonbinary in a culture that often demands people choose between pink or blue. Although Ash’s mom and best friend are supportive, a traumatic assault at Ash’s previous school has made them fearful of what might happen if they came out to their new classmates. Plus, they’re afraid of scaring away their crush, Daniel. Both dog lovers, Ash and Daniel grow close as they work together to save an old dog named Chewbarka from being put down.
Machias alternates between Ash’s and Daniel’s perspectives as both kids take tentative steps toward being fully themselves. Each serves as a gentle and appealing conduit for readers to discover issues that LGBTQ tweens face, as well as the right and wrong ways parents can support them. Machias highlights how Daniel is also bound by masculine gender norms, such as false notions that boys shouldn’t be emotional and definitely shouldn’t cry.
Both Can Be True illustrates how the many existing anxieties common during middle school multiply when one’s gender identity is in question and when gender norms are socially enforced. It’s a heart-wrenching but hopeful look at what everyone has to gain by embracing a more expansive understanding of gender.