(Cover photo curtesy of Penguin.com.au)
I originally wrote this review a few days ago. At the time of writing, I hadn’t read anything online, I had just picked up a book in a bookstore and thought it would be interesting to read.
After I initially posted it, I went on twitter to search for maybe an official page or something. What I found instead was sufficiently worse.
Here are two threads by Jay Hulme who talks about the book. I highly recommend looking through the two of them, as they are relatively short, but provide a lot of information, and shed a lot of light into how problematic the foundation of the story is.
Here’s another little something I found:
I found a lot of trans people on twitter were talking about why this book is bad, including normalising transphobia through the protagonist, the parents, and the general community.
As a cisgender person, while I do my best to be an ally to my trans siblings, I am aware that my experiences mean I have a bias, and like many cispeople (such as the publishers/editors of this book), I missed a lot of transphobia in the book.
In the afterword, John says:
“…I became interested in exploring how a child would deal with complicated issues of gender and sexuality, not when it’s a struggle that they’re facing, but when the srtuggle belongs to someone they love… I don’t know what it’s like to be transgender… Talking to young transgender people while writing this novel, I was struck by their bravery but, more than that, by their honesty.”
There was a certain section, although now I can’t see it at all, but I thought, ‘Oh, great, he actually talked to trans people and consulted people who are in the community about how to properly represent them.’ Seeing as he Inclusive Minds haven’t heard much at all from him ever, it’s a bit difficult to take what he says seriously.
Of course, we can analyse everything with the perspective of death of the author, in which the author is removed from book. That’s my general go to, as I don’t have the time or effort to research and look at what every author has done in the past. However when it comes to representation, and the author even admitting to not consulting trans people, you have to take this things into consideration when looking at the book.
That said, here is the original review, where death of the author was a heavy factor.
Yesterday I bought and read My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne (2019), who wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006).
As I write for LGBTQIA+ young adults, seeing this book at my local bookshop, with its beautiful rainbow pattern, was pretty exciting. I haven’t seen a lot of young adult literature that is so open with having a transgender character, and I was looking forward to seeing how the character was represented.
I had concerns, prompted by the title, as it seemed to be misgendering. How this would translate in the rest of the book was a bit of a mystery. I was worried about the protagonist deadnaming his sibling and how this would be done.
In Australia as of late, there has been an increase in articles against trans youth. I was both excited and a bit scared to see how this book would go. It’s so important to have great representation for minorities, and with the growing acceptance of transgender people, but also the vocal transphobia, it’s certainly important for young people to see positive representation.
The blurb didn’t give away a lot, and my bookstore is a bit disorganised (YA, middle school fiction, children’s fiction all in one area. This was in the same bookshelf as Twilight), so I had initially come into it expecting YA, around 15/16+. I was pleasantly surprised to find the protagonist 13 years old, and his sibling only four years older.
The protagonist, Sam, is a 13 year old boy whose parents both work high up in the British government. He doesn’t have a lot of friends and is teased for being dyslexic. His brother, Jason, has adored him since day dot, is the captain of the football/soccer team, is very popular, and the reason why Sam is only teased and not bullied.
Lately, Jason has been growing his hair out a bit, and it’s staring to look quite feminine. He’s been a bit distant lately, and Sam misses how close they were.
One day, Jason comes out to his family and tells them he’s a girl. This is a disaster and a half for them, as they haven’t dealt with this before. Their mum is hoping to become Prime Minister, and this is just not something she or their dad want to deal with right now.
As I discuss the book, I will alternate between Jason and Jessica, and changing pronouns. I do this to maintain coherency with the book. Sam tells the story as though it is happening as it happens. Jason/Jessica’s gender changes depending on what is happening, so with their aunt they’re Jessica (she/her), but with the rest of the family, they’re Jason (he/him) until the final scenes of the book.
The book follows the family’s journey from denial to acceptance, the heartache they all endure, and finally the positive’s that come from it all, bringing them closer together.
I found the book very well done. Not only was the writing excellent, as to be expected, but the choice of protagonist, point of view, and characters were well executed. The story felt strong, and the message, and effectiveness could have been defeated if not for these choices.
Honestly, I feel like I can rave about all of these points forever if I have the chance.
There were a few moments of transphobia that made me cry. The first and main one was when Sam snuck into Jason’s room in the middle of the night and cut off his ponytail. Sam saw this as a good thing, something that would help Jason to realise he’s actually a boy, but it further alienated Jason from the family, and ultimately resulted in him leaving him and staying with his aunt.
Aunt Rose is a blessing and one of my favourite characters, along with the coach. She accepts Jason into her home, and creates a safe environment where she can use her pronouns freely, and call herself Jessica. While it takes a while for Sam and their parents to start calling Jason ‘Jessica’, and for pronouns to start, it was heartwarming to see the love from Rose toward Jessica, especially compared to what some trans youth face.
I mean, trans people in general have the highest suicide, murder, and rape statistics. It’s horrifying, and throughout the book I was worried for her.
This is addressed slightly by Sam towards he end. He says, “If her own family will cut off her ponytail, think of what a stranger would do.”
Fortunately, the worst that happens is alienation from her family, rumours and alienation at school, and in one of the final scenes, she returns home with stubble, dressed in men’s clothes, and with a buzz cut, ready to pretend for the sake of her mothers career that she is a boy. This is quickly shut down by Sam who announces, “This is my brother and his name is Jessica.”
One of the positive moments that made me tear up was when the coach came around to the house. At this stage, it’s early in the book, and Sam hadn’t cut off Jason’s hair.
Unannounced, the soccer coach arrives to discuss rumours regarding Jason to his parents. Everyone is on edge to hear what the coach will say.
He’s worried that Jason will quit the team. But what about the other rumours? He doesn’t care about his gender, because Jason is so good, that she – he – whatever, must keep playing. Genders dumb, football is where it’s at – it’s what’s important.
The interaction is set up to be awkward, uncomfortable, a scary experience. Of all people to come forward with transphobia and deny Jason the opportunity to participate in sport, it would make sense that it be the coach. But he doesn’t care about letters from parents, he accepts Jason as he is.
Again, having such a positive person is amazing to see. We’ve witnessed recently an American athlete being banned from competing as a woman because of the hormones she takes.
Another hot topic at the moment is what bathroom trans people use. This was also addressed by Jason saying he uses the disabled bathroom because he can’t use the girls and he doesn’t feel comfortable going to the men’s. He brings up his first memory – being forced to use the boys toilets and denied entrance to the girls.
This book was excellent as a way to speak to people of all ages. The topic of gender was broached well for young people, young adults, and adults. It talked about the complex issues surrounding it, acceptance, and difficulties, while also being an easy, upbeat read.
I would recommend this book for anyone, literally anyone. It provides a unique perspective and story, while being informative to people of all ages and genders. I can easily see this book being stocked in all libraries, being recommended to students facing similar situations, and ultimately being a book talked about for years to come.
Before I knew what had been going on behind the scenes, I would say absolutely read this book. Now, I would say consider it, but be aware of the transphobia. Don’t use this as a source of what it’s like to be transgender, and take what you read with a grain of salt.
This is a novel to be analytical about.