My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne

A book reviewer has a difficult job, not every book will be suited to your tastes, and you will not be the intended audience of every book. This is especially important to remember when reading children’s or young adult fiction. If I had a pound for every review I’d read from an adult saying “this teen character isn’t very mature” I’d be a very rich but still very tired human.

I approached reading My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, by John Boyne, as I would any book, asking the question “who is this book for? Who is the intended audience?”

This is a children’s book, it is not intended for adults. While adults may read and enjoy children’s books – and many do – they are not the intended audience. The book has to be read through the lens of a child reader. It is also clear, having read the book that it is not intended for a trans child.

 

Writers can write what they want

There has been a lot of online discussion about this book, and it would be remiss of me not to address some of that. One of the arguments I have seen from many is that those speaking out against the book are applying censorship, that they are saying writers cannot write anything outside their narrow life experience. Give me strength. Okay, some people might be saying that, and they are wrong. Most people are not saying that, so let’s unpick it a bit.

There is a great difference between writing a story with a trans character, writing a story about a trans character, and writing a story about being trans. It’s the kind of nuance that gets lost in the brevity of Twitter arguments.

Every writer is entitled to write about whatever they want, but should every story be published? Does the responsibility to be mindful lie with the author or the publisher?

Stories are best when they reflect the world that we live in. You do not need to be trans to write a story with a trans character. The fact they are trans does not need to be the focus of the story, because (and I know this may come as a surprise to many) trans people are just normal people. So please, by all means, write a story with a trans character in, even if you’re not trans. No one rational is going to stop you or police what you write. We might call you out for writing a two dimensional stereotype, but I’m sure you can do some research and make a real person out of all your characters.

I would argue that it is fine for a writer to write a story about a trans character. Make a trans character your main character, make your story all about how they fought in the trenches of WWI, or how they learnt to communicate with shape shifting aliens in order to negotiate a new era of cooperation between earth and a distant alien planet. I, and many trans and non-binary people, would love to read these stories that centre trans characters without making the entire story about being trans.

I will happily agree to disagree with people who don’t think non-trans writers should be writing stories that have trans-characters in them. This is censorship, and people should be allowed to write whatever they want, provided they don’t write cliched, offensive, shite. I’m not a fan of shite, and all readers should be able to demand better.

So how about being? Is it okay for a non-trans writer to write about what it is like being trans? Well, this is a difficult one.

People do, at this point, like to trot out the “No human currently alive knows what it’s like to be an alien. So what, Jen, you’re saying no one can write a book with an alien in it?”

Obviously I am not, and you know that, and you’re just being a facetious little troublemaker looking for a fight. What I am saying is, there aren’t (and I’m sure someone will disagree with me on this) aliens living among us on earth. There aren’t aliens who we, as a society, have spent centuries silencing, castrating, murdering, imprisoning, and abusing.

We have done this to trans people throughout the world for centuries, and can you – as someone who does not identify as trans – know what it is like to live with the constant threat that someone might murder you for just being trans? No you can’t know this. You may be a member of a minority that has similar experiences, but you cannot speak for a minority that you are not a member of. Can you research, interview people, and learn enough to write a story that really conveys what this experience is like? Yes, probably. But should you? And will you do it well?

 

Should you tell another person’s story?

There are numerous accounts from writers who have tried to publish their stories, ones that are about being only to be told “we already have a story about that”. Except the publisher doesn’t. They have a story that is with or about not being. Or, it is about being but it’s by someone who did not live that life, and it is not their story. It is a fallacy to say there is a unlimited amount of space on the shelves for writers, because publishing has to make money in order to survive, and publishers do not want to publish two identical books. If a non-trans writer is already published, telling the story that a trans writer wants to tell, then they are taking the place of another writer.

I would argue that a writer should think twice, as should publishers, before they put out into the world yet another book that tells the story of a minority community that the writer is not a part of. Instead, publishers should be doing more to seek out the stories that come direct from these communities first.

This is about more than just the limited publishing spaces available for writers, this is also about who will read your book, and what they will get from it. Which brings me right back to the start and to the other question I left unanswered, will you do it well?

I find it a laughable idea that people think a writer from outside a minority, can tell the story of what it is like to be member of a minority better than someone who is actually from that minority. They can’t. Maybe one individual can be a better writer than another, but that is a different argument, and let’s not pretend it isn’t.

My Brother’s Name is Jessica is not written by a trans writer, but that should not stop John Boyne being allowed to write this story, he is perfectly entitled to do so.

My Brother’s Name is Jessica is it not about being trans. Jessica is not the main character, and everything in her life is seen through the lens of her younger brother.

My Brother’s Name is Jessica is a story with a trans character – so far so okay – but it is also about a trans character.

Trans children are not the intended audience for this book, it is intended for those who are like Jessica’s younger brother.

The first chapter introduces us to the idea that Jessica is her brother Sam’s hero – the person he admires more than anything or anyone in the world. Sam loves Jessica so much he is the only one who notices that something is bothering her. This is not a book about Jessica, it’s a book about Sam.

 

It’s not about you

I hate to have to break it to you, but if your child is trans, if your sibling is trans, if your friend is trans, it has nothing to do with you. It is not about you, about your pain, or about how difficult your life is or how traumatic it is for you. This story is entirely about that, it is not about a trans character, it is about how their “choices” affect their family, specifically their brother Sam. As this is not a story whose intended audience is trans children, having a story that focuses on the brother is not in itself a bad thing. Children will have to meet trans school friends, they will have trans people in their family, and for a lot of children this might be confusing for them, especially if they have awful parents like the parents in this book.

A great book I would love to read would be exploring how a sibling develops an understanding of their sister’s gender identity, working out how they can support their sister. It would be great to see a trans child supported, and transphobia called out. It is very disappointing that none of that happens in this book. John Boyne is a great writer, and this book will get a lot of publicity, so it’s deeply regrettable that it does not do what I think was clearly the intention with the book.

If you want to read the book yourself, and therefore want to avoid spoilers, I would recommend you stop reading now.

As, by the end of the book, Sam has accepted that Jessica is his sister, it is curious that he spends the entire book saying “my brother Jason”. And not just occasionally, but every single time Sam mentions Jessica he says that phrase. Even in conversation it’s “said my brother Jason”. A very odd way of speaking that seems to have been written specifically to remind us who Jessica is, and exactly what Sam thinks of this. The repetitive use of Jessica’s dead name would be understandable perhaps if it was written in present tense, but being in past tense just made it seem like it wasn’t the result of Sam’s emotions at the time, but a deliberate attempt to remind the reader that Jessica is different, Jessica is other, Jessica isn’t really Jessica at all.

Throughout the book people are demanding that Jessica provide evidence of her transness, asking for specific moments when bad things happened to her that caused her to reflect on her gender identity. This is something that trans people have to face a lot, people asking them to prove who they are and why they feel the way they do – demanding they must suffer in order to have come to a particular understanding of their gender identity. It’s a shame that this is included in the book with no counter argument from Jessica or those who support her.

The adults in the book are almost overwhelmingly transphobic, and perhaps this does reflect the society we live in, which is a depressing thought. With the exception of Jessica’s football coach, and her Aunt, everyone else is deeply transphobic. Again, it is disappointing that this occurs time and again in the book with no one calling the adults up on this, no one stopping them, and no counter-argument given for this behaviour. It is left unchecked and not adequately responded to. There are so many ways in which supportive adult role-models could have been brought into the story. I would have loved to see more of Aunt Rose earlier in the book – and not just as Jessica’s knight in shining armour at the end, but a constant source of support who also kicks back at the other adults.

Jessica’s parents decide to seek the help of a psychologist, and rather than book an appointment for her, they force her and Sam, and both of them, to attend together. This felt like an unfortunate plot point to get the narrator Sam into the room, and once again makes the parents and Sam the focus of Jessica’s story, centering the narrative around them.

It is in this counselling session that we start to see just how abusive Jessica’s parents are to her. I would call it bullying for certain. They want credit from her for “trying” to understand, and they make her feel bad for not giving them credit – it has all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship. But no one points out their bullying, no one tells them to give Jessica some credit for the strength she is showing, not a single character at this point is backing Jessica up. At one point the psychologist says Jessica has to “hear them out too”, but does not chastise the parents for their bullying behaviour.

The focus is never on Jessica, and I would have liked to see more conversations between Sam and Jessica that moved the shift over to her. There are attempts at this, but they often ended in arguments, or transphobic comments left unchecked.

I want to stop here to say that yes, I know this is probably a realistic portrayal of what many young trans children have to go through, but let’s think again about who this book is for. This is for young children who aren’t trans, so think about the message this is sending them at this point in the book – adults are transphobic, you can be too, there are no arguments against being so.

And then there is the hair incident. Jessica’s long “feminine” hair is mentioned repeatedly, and is clearly something that distresses her parents and Sam – which is why Sam eventually sneaks into Jessica’s room in the middle of the night and cuts off her ponytail. This manipulative bullying is never called out, but is seen as a sign of Sam’s distress and trauma at what Jessica is putting him through. Is this book telling children it’s okay to be shitty to people as long as they’re trans? You can bully people if you perceive they’re making life worse for you? I understand Sam’s action – it’s the action of a confused, angry, child – but the fact that it is an action that is never learnt from, that is seen as a reasonable reaction, is concerning.

Jessica’s mum does eventually realise the damage she’s done to her daughter, but she realises it because of how it affects her career – how it ruins her chance to be prime minister. That is the only reason she regrets how she bullied Jessica. This is one of the most concerning aspects of the book for me, how Jessica’s mum does such a swift about turn, and it is presented as her learning from her mistakes, but she does so because of the impact it is having on her career – not because of how Jessica has been affected by her abuse.

Jessica’s mum abuses her so much, in fact, that Jessica returns to the family, have shaved all her hair off, grown facial hair, and dressing masculine, because it will help her family and help her mum get the job she wants. This is a depressing moment in the book, where Jessica feels that she cannot be who she is, and must conform to her parent’s expectations of what she should look like, and who she is, in order to save her mum’s job and prevent a split in the family. But it’s okay, Jessica doesn’t have to actually go through with this, because Sam saves the day. He yells in front of the press that Jessica does exist and uses the line “My Brother’s Name is Jessica”. This, once again, removes all agency from Jessica and makes her entire story about other people, everything she does is for them.

This is a disappointing end to the book, Jessica has been bullied and abused by her own family, and forced into a situation where she feels she has to lie to them again. While this isn’t the end of the book – there is a short chapter set two years in the future – the actual end is very short and unsatisfying. It reads very much as if “everything is fine now” and that the way Jessica has been treated by her family had no repercussions for her or them.

There are some aspects of the book that I thought were bad simply because of the way they were handled, and I would have appreciated them if more detail was given, or more time spent on time.

The transphobic language, while very uncomfortable for many, is representative of what trans people have to endure. It does not benefit children to pretend this language doesn’t exist, or pretend that no one talks like this. I have no problem with this kind of language being used in a book, it is realistic – however, I am concerned about the damage it will do to children to read such language in a book, and to have it go unchallenged. As an adult reading this I can read between the lines and see problems with the language, see how people speak from a place of fear and misunderstanding of those different to them, but let’s go right back to what I was saying at the start, I am not the intended audience of this book. Would a ten year old pick up this book and understand the complex nuances behind such abuse when it remains unchallenged on the page?

Another aspect I thought was not handled well was the focus on the way Jessica looks (including the obsession with genitals – although Jessica does finally address this herself later in the book). It is true that some trans and non-binary people come to start expressing their identities through the way they look (hair, make-up, clothing) and it can be the focus of discomfort – but it is more than just about the way you dress. I was disappointed that the book focused so much on looks without seeing beyond this. Complexity can be brought into children’s books if it is handled well, so it’s a shame that didn’t happen in this case.

It is clear to me that John Boyne, and his publishers, had the best of intentions with what they were trying to do with the book, but for me it fails to achieve almost every one of its aims. So is there anything good about the book?

I liked how it addressed the conflation of gender identity and sexuality. This is a complex area (as Jessica says herself in the story) and can be difficult for many to understand, so I appreciated that it was addressed.

I was also thankful that there were some characters who fully supported Jessica, her football coach and her Aunt Rose, I just wish we’d had more of these adults intervening in her life.

One of the things I think the book did really well is convey what it is like to be a transphobe. It brilliantly portrays how it can be easy (when you’re being bullied because your sister is trans) to blame her, and wish she’d just kept quiet and not told anyone.

Unfortunately there is little else that would encourage me to recommend this book to a young person. I wish it had been just a little bit longer, that Sam had spent more time focussing on his sister and less time with the intricacies of their parent’s lives, and the mum’s ambition to be prime minister. The parental storyline didn’t add anything significant to it and really detracted from the book, I don’t really know why it was relevant to include.

It is unfortunate that the book ends with Sam still not getting it, still talking about how Jessica looks, how she has boobs now, how she looks less like a boy now.

Ultimately I found myself, having finished the book, not as angry as many people I have seen comment on it. I was just disappointed that the opportunity for a thoughtful, complex, story had been wasted. The book is not about what being trans is like. It is not about how difficult life can be when you’re trans. It’s about how difficult life is made for other people.

Reading a book that contains so much transphobia and abuse can be harrowing for anyone, but to have a resolution that sees people learn the error of their actions, see the damage they have done to someone, atone for their actions, and be a better person, is a book I would love to see written for children. This is unfortunately not that book.

 

George by Alex Gino

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George and her class have been reading Charlotte’s Web and when the teachers decide they should perform it as a play, George knows that she wants to play the part of Charlotte. The story follows George’s attempts to convince her teacher that she should be allowed to play Charlotte, even though everyone thinks she’s a boy. We also go on the journey George takes in telling her best friend, mom and brother the thing that seems obvious to her, but not to them. That she’s not a boy.

There is a line that made me stop, take a moment to breath, and realise why this is a perfect book for adults as well as children to read. When George says that trying to be a boy is really hard. The representation of what it is like to be trans is the best I have ever read and I think it was conveyed in a way that will make sense to younger readers.

I’ve read some interesting reviews of George online, and once you get past the blatant transphobic ones, there seems to be a lot of criticism that I think needs addressing. One strand of complaint is that the constant gendered language used towards George is excessive. That people don’t use phrases or words all the time that mention to children what gender they are. This is, of course, blatantly untrue and what Alex Gino is doing in this story is pointing out how often this does happen, and how this makes someone like George feel when she is constantly reminded how other people see her.

Another criticism I read frequently is how the story is too simplistic. Yes, the plot is quite simple but the subtle nuance that Alex Gino draws through it, and the way in which they demonstrate the realities of life for a transgender child, adds a depth that is subtle but profound.

The most depressing criticism I have read, other than the obvious ones that are just fuelled by hate, are those expressing that children shouldn’t read this book, that they wouldn’t understand it, and that they would be confused by the content. It depresses me that adults don’t give children more credit. I think you’d be surprised by what they do understand and by the depths of their empathy for each other. This is absolutely a book children should read and every school library should have a copy or two.

Whilst George’s experience of talking to people about being a girl is one of optimism and happiness in the end, this is not the typical situation for many trans children and adults. That is why this book is so important. It is vital to present the idea that yes, many trans children do have happy outcomes when they speak about their identity, and many adults deal well and are understanding. There can be a happy ending, and I’m so glad this book exists to prove that.