Transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary characters

The following YA titles star trans, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary characters whose identities are central to their stories without telling their whole stories. See also reviews of The Passing Playbook and Between Perfect and RealFive Questions for Aiden Thomas about Cemetery Boys; and find additional books, articles, interviews, and more. Transgender Awareness Week, a week of awareness-raising and action, culminates on November 20 with the Transgender Day of Remembrance memorializing victims of transphobic violence.

Sasha Masha
by Agnes Borinsky
High School    Farrar    240 pp.    g
11/20    978-0-374-31080-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-31081-3    $9.99

Before Sasha Masha, there was Alex; a soon-to-be-junior struggling to make sense of who he is and where he belongs. The only person who seems to understand him is his best friend, Mabel. She was there the day Alex put on the green velvet dress and became Sasha Masha, the elegant and unafraid. When Mabel moves away, Alex worries he’ll return to school more misunderstood than ever. But this year holds many surprises for Alex, some of which he accepts reluctantly (such as his first girlfriend) and others he leans into with an excitement and openness he never expected. It doesn’t take long for Alex to realize something doesn’t feel right in his new relationship, and soon his confusion brings him to a queer teen group where he meets the gender-bending, ever-confident Andre. Andre introduces Alex to the world he’s been looking for: a world full of drag, dancing, and the freedom to be yourself. Borinsky walks the reader slowly and thoughtfully through Alex’s transformation without rushing past the uncomfortable and often painful parts of his journey. The tone of the book shifts alongside Alex, moving from quiet and morose with his discomfort to one of excitement and hopefulness as Sasha Masha is further revealed. The book’s conclusion is satisfying in its open-endedness, leaving both protagonist and reader with a great curiosity and optimism for what comes next. HILL SAXTON

by E. K. Johnston
High School    Dutton    256 pp.    g
5/21    978-0-7352-3185-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-7352-3186-3    $10.99

On her family’s long-haul space freighter, the Harland, Pendt knows that she is useless. Without “star-sense” or other valued skills, Pendt is left waiting until she can legally enter a contract at age eighteen to begin earning back the calories and oxygen she consumes. Watching her cousin forced into a pregnancy, however, Pendt begins to guess what sort of contract awaits her. She escapes at Brannick Station, where twin brothers Ned and Fisher Brannick suggest a deal: in exchange for a male heir, they’ll protect her in the event that the Harland returns. (Fisher can’t operate the Y ­chromosome–locked Net like his brother, and while the reason is treated discreetly, it makes the eventual Pendt/Fisher romance that much sweeter.) The world-building is compelling, offering up: the claustrophobic (and loveless) Harland; the station where Pendt is finally given the calories she needs to work her “gene-sense” magic; a galaxy-wide ruling body, the Hegemony, which holds the twins’ parents hostage; and the rebellion that Ned would join if he weren’t tied to the station. This engrossing, triumphal sci-fi tale is a gritty space-wizard drama in the tradition of Anne McCaffrey. ANITA L. BURKAM

All Our Hidden Gifts
by Caroline O’Donoghue
High School    Walker US/Candlewick    384 pp.    g
6/21    978-1-5362-1394-2    $19.99

When Maeve finds a tarot deck in the basement of her Kilbeg, Ireland, school, she immediately feels a connection to the cards and begins telling fortunes for the girls in her class. Lily, Maeve’s ex-best friend, is peer-pressured into getting a reading, and when the pair’s conflicts come out into the open, Maeve tells Lily that she wishes she’d just disappear. The next school day, Lily is nowhere to be found. Maeve teams up with Lily’s musically talented, gender-nonconforming sibling to solve the mystery of the girl’s disappearance, which they believe has some connection to the sinister “Housekeeper” card that exists in Maeve’s deck but isn’t part of traditional tarot decks. They encounter a conservative cult and must sort out major misunderstandings to discover Lily’s whereabouts and uncover other truths, including some they’re hiding from themselves. This atmospheric, witty, disarming tale is a page-turning dive into occult forces portrayed alongside teenage concerns. Both modern Irish politics and the meanings of tarot cards are incorporated into the story without becoming burdensome. Impeccable dialogue and true-to-life characters make this a great choice for YA readers with a mystical bent. SARAH BERMAN

Both Sides Now
by Peyton Thomas
High School    Dial    304 pp.    g
8/21    978-0-593-32281-9    $17.99

“Brilliant” debate team star Finch is a young trans man who is months away from transition surgery. The high school senior’s parents struggle financially, which makes debating success and the potential scholarship especially important to Finch’s hopes for college and a political career. His friend and debate partner Jonah is a similarly talented debater (and, as Finch observes, strikingly handsome). The two friends are tested when a debate topic requires them to argue against trans rights and everything they believe in. As the teens develop clearer understandings of themselves and their relationships, they are confronted with unconscious bias, including from generally supportive loved ones. Jonah, who is Filipino American, also faces racism. A cast of characters who are wise beyond their years and embrace their nerdiness exemplifies the diversity and spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation. Debut author Thomas’s conversational writing style is highly engaging and should draw readers in with a compelling story of self-realization and a bit of youthful romance. NICHOLAS A. BROWN

From the November 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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