At BEA this year, all the buzz was about GEORGE, a middle-grade novel by Alex Gino with a transgendered protagonist. But GEORGE isn’t the only recent middle-grade fiction with a transgender theme. There’s also GRACEFULLY GRAYSON by Ami Polonsky, a sweet and poignant story about a boy who knows he’s a girl. And next spring, Donna Gephart, well-known author of popular middle-grade titles (DEATH BY TOILET PAPER; OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN) is coming out with LILY AND DUNKIN (Delacorte, May 2016).
Even five years ago, such books would never have been published by traditional publishing houses. But it seems that as our culture rapidly becomes more accepting of LGBT people and issues, there’s been an implicit acknowledgement that kidlit fiction–and not just books shelved in the YA section–should reflect this reality. When a book like Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER can become a mega-bestseller, I think it suggests that we’ve underestimated kids’ interest in, and need for, middle-grade books dealing with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity.
I’m currently writing STAR-CROSSED (S&S/Aladdin, Fall 2017), a middle-grade novel about a girl who develops a crush on another girl as they rehearse a middle school production of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a departure for me; in my books I’ve always been careful not to push any boundaries. But I think that what GEORGE and NATE and GRAYSON have showed us is that middle-grade (or “tween”) fiction can explore themes of gender and sexuality in a way that feels authentic–and yet still remains age-appropriate.
So it’s been a great treat for me to chat with Donna Gephart, as she looks forward to next spring’s publication of LILY AND DUNKIN.
Why did you write this book now?
LILY AND DUNKIN is a dual narrative of a big-hearted, nature-loving, word nerd transgender 13-year-old, Lily, and Dunkin, also 13, who has just moved to Lily’s neighborhood. Dunkin is dealing with the move, an impossible secret and managing his bipolar disorder. Somehow, this duo finds a way to help each other be their best, most authentic selves despite the obstacles they face.
When I began this book several years ago, it was a very different atmosphere when it came to talking about transgender issues as well as mental health issues. Both were more taboo than they are today. I decided to write the book despite that fact. And because it takes a long time for a traditionally published book to come out, the tides have turned dramatically and thankfully, we’re having a more open national conversation about issues that must be addressed sensitively and compassionately.
Do you think standards for what’s “safe” in MG fiction are changing?
I think the national conversation is changing. When I wrote LILY AND DUNKIN, I needed to explain how Dunkin would have heard of the term “transgender.” By the time I was revising it, I deleted that part. Kids now have heard of the term “transgender.” It’s my hope that with movies, TV shows and books featuring fully-realized transgender characters, everyone will understand more and fear less. This tide of more exposure and more information can lead to much greater understanding and compassion. And what safer way to share these characters than in the pages of a book? It can be the starting point of meaningful discussions. If a child has bonded with a transgender character or a character dealing with a mental illness in a novel, then when s/he meets a person like this in real life, s/he experiences recognition and a deeper understanding, instead of fear born from ignorance.
Do you expect resistance from adults who think of you as a “safe” MG author?
I write with great respect for my young readers and I always tackle difficult subjects in my books — divorce, death of a parent, loneliness, bullying, etc. Each of my novels has both the difficult and lighthearted, just like in life. The topics in my upcoming novel are handled sensitively, accurately and with great love. I’d be delighted to see it in the hands of many, many young readers because I think this book will make a difference in creating a climate of kindness.
How do we assure the gatekeepers that just because an MG book addresses certain topics, it’s still “wholesome”–and appropriate for all MG kids, even those who aren’t dealing with those particular issues?
Librarians and teachers are incredibly smart. They want books in the hands of their students that will expand their minds and hearts and promote love and acceptance. These are important kinds of books for all kids to read because we are all different in some way; it’s great to also notice the ways in which we’re similar: We all need a feeling of belonging, of mattering and of being valued and loved. That’s what my book is about. And I can’t wait for it to make its way into the hands and minds and hearts of young readers.
Barbara Dee’s sixth middle-grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published by S&S/Aladdin in Fall, 2016. fall. STAR-CROSSED will be published by S&S/Aladdin in Fall, 2017.