When Aidan Became a Brother

Cover of When Aidan Became a BrotherCould it be? A book with a trans character whose queer identity is not the sole storyline? Well, almost. But still, here it is — and a possible contender for the Caldecott Medal to boot.

When Aidan Became a Brother is the story of a soon-to-be older sibling and his anxieties regarding his family’s new addition. Rather than worrying about having to share his parents' affections and his toys, however, Aidan is afraid that this new baby will feel out of place in the world chosen for them, just as he did when he was born.

Any children’s librarian can tell you that books about getting a new sibling are among the most highly requested, right up there with potty-training books and anything related to Frozen. It’s only recently that books about gender have really made their way into the library and have gained readers’ attention. When Aidan Became a Brother is a story we didn’t know we needed but one that is important. Kyle Lukoff’s thoughtful, personal text (Lukoff himself is trans) tells a heartwarming and original story, while Kaylani Juanita uses her bright, wistful, digital illustrations to bring this family to life.

On the cover, we’re introduced to Aidan’s family, including pregnant Mom, bearded Dad, and fluffy cat. Mom and Aidan share a similar nose, while Aidan has Dad’s freckles. All three have the same soft-brown skin. Mom’s dress is washed in watercolor, as is the space behind where the family is posed. The rest of the cover is speckled with bright drops of color, confetti-like, that can be found on every page. This effect, along with the book’s title displayed on a banner stretching across the top of the cover, gives the story its air of celebration.

The book’s first pages tell Aidan’s story of discovery, as he realizes early on that he is not the little girl his parents thought him to be. In the first double-page spread, we see Aidan and family in his bedroom. The room is filled with various decorations and toys in bright pink, green, and yellow, yet the room still feels empty and blank. A broken tiara lies on the floor, and the edge of a sad, self-drawn portrait can be seen taped to a mirror. Aidan sits at a small table set for a tea party, frowning. We feel something’s not right. After coming out to his parents (after a few page-turns), we see that Aidan’s room has transformed into a landscape much more fitting for him. What’s more, we see that Aidan has also transformed. “Aidan explored different ways of being a boy,” the text reads. Both author and illustrator are committed to telling a new story about gender. Aidan is never portrayed as being more “masculine” or “feminine.” He is shown in his warm, colorful, new room, donning a cape made of his old dresses, wielding a staff, and wearing pink bunny slippers. Aidan has a style all his own that cannot be assigned to any one gender.

What may be my favorite page also occurs early on in the book. Young Aidan sits atop his dresser, smiling at himself in the mirror after having chopped off his two long braids with scissors. I’m reminded of the first time I saw myself with short hair after keeping my eyes closed while a hair stylist clipped off the long straight hair I’d had (and hated) my entire life. It felt like the first time I’d truly seen myself, and though Aidan’s first pass at his new look certainly requires a professional’s intervention, the look on his face is one of joyful recognition. Artist Juanita captures this moment perfectly.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of When Aidan Became a Brother and our Five Questions interview with Kyle Lukoff.]

Aidan’s worries for the new baby are put to rest when a sleepless night leads Mom to his bedside. Both Aidan and Mom are dressed in their colorful hair wraps and pajamas, Aidan’s sporting dinosaurs and Mom’s dotted with strawberries. On the next page we watch as Mom holds Aidan’s face gently in her hands; they look at each other, each reflecting back their similar smiles. Mom’s comforting words save the day: “You taught us how important it is to love someone for exactly who they are. This baby is so lucky to have you, and so are we.” The text is what Aidan needs to hear, but the love depicted on their faces is really what says it all.

Each and every spread carries the same tenderness, whether crowded with books, pencil shavings, and flowers, as Aidan explores nature-themed, gender-neutral baby names, or much simpler, as we watch Aidan and Dad paint clouds on the new baby’s sky-blue walls. Juanita’s soft colors and playful details, such as Aidan’s donut socks and Dad’s pineapple shirt, keep the feel of the story optimistic and celebratory. This perspective is a breath of fresh air. So often books with gender-related issues center on conflict and a need to fight for one’s place in the world. With this book there’s no fight — just a whole lot of love.

Whether or not this book has a place on the Caldecott table, it brings home all the awards for its contribution to the queer children’s book world.

 

Hillary Saxton

Hillary Saxton is a Youth Services Librarian at the Cambridge Public Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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