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MOMBIAN Two new books show ways to include LGBTQ characters
by Dana Rudolph
2018-04-04

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Two new books—one for middle grades and one for young adults—show two different ways of incorporating LGBTQ characters and themes into a story.

In Erica Perl's middle-grade novel All Three Stooges ( Alfred A. Knopf ), seventh-graders Noah and his friend Dash share a love of comedy and a somewhat reluctant commitment to their bar mitzvah preparations. Noah has a sister and two moms, and the latter are introduced without fanfare—this isn't a book "about" having two moms.

When Dash's father Gil dies unexpectedly, however, Dash withdraws from Noah and finds comfort with others, leaving Noah wondering why he was abandoned, how to help his friend, and how to deal with his own grief at losing a significant adult in his life. He and Dash had spent many a sleepover at Dash's house horsing around with his single dad, who cooked them breakfast in the mornings.

While Perl makes no big deal of Noah's two moms, she is nevertheless sensitive to how having two moms might affect Noah in certain situations. Noah explains, "I love my moms. They are the awesomest. With them, I have exactly no need for a dad. But want is different. I always felt like, if I had a dad, I'd want him to be like Gil."

As the lesbian mom of a teen son, I thought hard about that passage before realizing that Dash is expressing something I've heard other sons of queer moms say, and which is often hard for us moms to hear. It's natural for them to wonder what it's like to have a dad, I believe, in the same way they might wonder what it's like to have anything a friend has that they don't. Gil had helped satisfy that curiosity for Noah, even as Noah was perfectly happy with his moms. That's a lesson we single or same-sex parents should keep in mind if our children ever express a similar interest in having a parent of another gender. It doesn't mean they love us any less, that they really want to get rid of one or both of us, or that they are less well-adjusted than peers with different-sex parents.

To dwell on that here, however, is to emphasize it more than Perl does. It is part of Noah's story, but far from the bulk of it, which centers on broader themes of friendship, growth, living through grief, and the awkward social interactions of middle school. Despite dealing with somber issues like suicide and mental illness, though, the tale has copious doses of humor, conveyed through Noah's love of comedy, that keep it from gloom. Jewish families in particular will appreciate how Noah's bar mitzvah preparations and his relationship with the rabbi are woven into the narrative—but this is a coming-of-age tale with wide appeal.

In contrast, Jessica Verdi's And She Was ( Scholastic ) is a young adult novel that makes one character's LGBTQ identity and another character's response to it the center of the tale. Dara Baker is 18, just out of high school and still living with her single mom, Mellie, with whom she has a close relationship. She is considering a career in professional tennis, but struggling to pay for lessons and tournament fees. When she needs a passport to go to an international tournament and searches for her birth certificate, she discovers that Mellie was assigned male at birth. Dara's birth mother, Mellie's wife, died in an accident shortly after Dara was born, and Dara has no memory of her or that side of the family.

Dara is upset with Mellie not because she is trans per se, but because, as Dara sees it, Mellie's desire not to disclose that she is trans has led to Dara growing up without knowing her relatives and to unnecessary financial insecurity—the relatives are rich. Dara, who is White, sets off on a journey to discover the rest of her birth family, accompanied by her Indian American best friend Sam. What she discovers, however ( which I won't spoil here ), forces her to rethink many of her assumptions and goals.

The story is told mostly from Dara's first-person perspective—but includes an ongoing e-mail correspondence between Dara and Mellie. Mellie's messages enable her to tell her own story and explain to Dara why she made the choices she did, which were not always for the reasons Dara guessed. The emails show Mellie's strength and resiliency, while also conveying the harms of anti-LGBTQ bias, not only on LGBTQ people, but also on their children.

Dara's discovery of Mellie being trans may in some ways echo the trope of trans identity being a big plot surprise, with the trans person painted as a deceiver. But Verdi clearly shows that Mellie hid her identity only out of fear imposed by others, and from her desire to protect her child, not because of anything inherent about trans people. In the end, Mellie comes across as the most stable, understanding ( though not perfect ) character in the book, and we question more of Dara's choices and behaviors than hers.

Verdi has written a book that should be welcomed by teens with trans parents and by anyone seeking a tale about the relationships between parents and children and the sometimes difficult choices we make for love.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian ( Mombian.com ), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.


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