The publisher of my favorite trans YA book The Unintentional Time Traveler recently collapsed. This book means so much to me. It’s about to go out of print – like, in the next couple of days. The author, Everett Maroon is looking at other publishing options, but that might take awhile. In the meantime, I want every person ever to read this book, and if you have the ability, I’d love it if you bought it now. It’s only $2.99 as an e-book! And if you buy the paperback (for $14) you get a free e-book version.
Why is this book so important? Why do I want every single person ever to read it? The other day I tweeted “at a certain point, I’ve read all trans YA, even if I haven’t read every book.” And it’s really true. I’ve read so many trans YA books that tell the exact. same. story. Ten pages into a new trans YA book, I can tell you all of the main plot points, when they’ll happen, and which characters will do what. Call it a useless superpower.
When I was just starting to question my identity, those cookie cutter trans YA books were helpful and affirming. But after reading the same book in many different covers, it started to feel like I wasn’t supposed to be anything aside from that one narrative. I felt like I was the problem, like the “heroic” cisgender authors were trying to advocate for people like me were wondering why I was over here being difficult and different. Books that were meant to affirm me and my existence instead began undercutting it, forcing an experience on me that wasn’t my own, saying this was my story, I wasn’t allowed to have anything other than it or after it. These books told me I needed to bare this intensely personal, traumatic, difficult experience and craft it into something palatable and understandable and inspiring to cisgender readers if I wanted to have my identity respected.
The cookie cutter narrative I’m talking about is one that simplifies transness to make it understandable and palatable for cisgender readers. The narrative attempts to make transness itself– not trans characters, but transness itself– into something cisgender characters can relate to. It says the “trans experience” (whatever that means) is about finding yourself and being true to yourself and being brave enough to show yourself. And sure, that’s often part of coming to terms with your transness and coming out as trans. But it’s so much more complex and nuanced than that. I’m sick of seeing books (mostly written by cisgender people) that perpetuate the idea that all transness is is heroism. I’m sick of seeing books that attempt to promote “acceptance” by saying that trans people are “inspiring” and “brave” and “can’t we all learn from them?” How “inspiring” trans people are to cis people should not be used as the basis for acceptance or respect.
The thing is, there is no “transgender experience” to relate to– it doesn’t exist! Trans people are varied and diverse and have so many different experiences with their transness. It’s insulting when people try and relate to this made up journey that all trans people supposedly undertake, rather than relating to us as, yanno, fellow humans.
I didn’t know I needed The Unintentional Time Traveler until I read it. This book softened the parts of me that had been hardened by the “trans experience™” narrative. It told me it was okay to be confused and more importantly it was okay to be confusing. The Unintentional Time Traveler doesn’t even attempt to make Jack/Jacqueline’s experiences with gender understandable; it dares to present them in all their glorious enigmaticness and nuance. By the end, you have no idea what name to call the main character, how they identify, or even what pronouns to use. The Unintentional Time Traveler assured me that trans people’s experiences do not have to be understood by cis people to be valid, that they don’t have to be inspiring for them to be respected. And that’s why I want everybody in the world to read this book.
In addition to The Unintentional Time Traveler being important in terms of representation, it’s also a fantastic read. Here’s the blurb:
Fifteen-year-old Jack Bishop has mad skills with cars and engines, but knows he’ll never get a driver’s license because of his epilepsy. Agreeing to participate in an experimental clinical trial to find new treatments for his disease, he finds himself in a completely different body—that of a girl his age, Jacqueline, who defies the expectations of her era. Since his seizures usually give him spazzed out visions, Jack presumes this is a hallucination. Feeling fearless, he steals a horse, expecting that at any moment he’ll wake back up in the clinical trial lab. When that doesn’t happen, Jacqueline falls unexpectedly in love, even as the town in the past becomes swallowed in a fight for its survival. Jack/Jacqueline is caught between two lives and epochs, and must find a way to save everyone around him as well as himself. And all the while, he is losing time, even if he is getting out of algebra class.
Everett Maroon is also incredibly smart, and has been saying many of the things that I’ve just started saying about trans YA for years. He was one of GayYA’s first contributors back in 2011, which means that he’s been a formative part of my life since I was 12. I didn’t know I was trans then, but I’m so glad I got to read posts like this before I figured out that I was. In any case.