Wednesday, November 19, 2014

2015 Contenders: Gracefully Grayson, by Ami Polonsky

Twice within the last year or two, while attending a library conference, I attended a presentation about children's books that deal with LGBTQ themes. In both cases, after discussions about picture books and YA novels, someone asked about middle-grade novels. Both times, the presenters -- experts in their field -- didn't have much to say. There's Tim Federle's first and second books about Nate Foster, Jennifer Gennari's My Mixed-Up, Berry Blue Summer, and...probably some others? The list of titles was vanishingly brief; authors and publishers have largely shied away from including the topic.

There are signs, however, that this taboo is beginning to be less powerful. This year alone, we've seen the second Nate book, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, and Ami Polonsky's debut novel, Gracefully Grayson, whose main character is a twelve-year-old struggling to carry the secret that, though biologically male, she internally identifies as female.

Although children's books have included plot-driven instances of cross-dressing at least since Huck Finn was skulking around in girls' clothing, I'm at a loss to think of another middle-grade novel featuring a main character who is transgender. Tellingly, Wikipedia's "List of books featuring transgender persons" only has four titles on it; three YA novels, and a 2012 picture book called The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy. I could be forgetting or overlooking something -- and if I am, please let me know in the comments! -- but in large part, Gracefully Grayson is sailing in uncharted waters.

It does my heart good, then, to note that Polonsky's novel handles its material so well. Its main characters are vibrant and clearly drawn, its prose spare and often elegant, and its sense of place -- the Chicago area as fall creeps into the dark Midwestern winter -- is highly evocative. Although it's true that this is a story of a transgender "boy" taking a chance by trying out for the female lead role in the school play, and in the process, coming to terms with her own identity, it felt less to me like that sterile description, and more just like Grayson's personal story. I found the text refreshingly engaged with telling a particular narrative that belonged to a specific character, rather than some kind of quasi-political or archetypal myth. 

That's not to say that the book is without flaws. The plot uses some extremely familiar tropes: the school play as a key event, the orphaned protagonist, the letters from the dead mother, the death of a grandmother. Although I feel like these elements are sometimes used in a subversive manner, sometimes they're just cliches. Some of the secondary characters don't have a lot of depth, and some of the dialogue that the adults in particular have comes across as a tad soap-operaesque. However, I didn't find these flaws overwhelming, and I enjoyed spending time in this book's world.

I think the chances of Gracefully Grayson winning the Newbery are remote, given the strength of competition this year. However, I'm more than a little curious to see what the Stonewall committee thinks of it, and I'll be eagerly following Ami Polonsky's career from here on out.

Publication in November by Disney/Hyperion 

**Note:  Given the evolution of Grayson's sense of identity within the novel itself, figuring out which pronouns &c. to use while writing this review was really challenging for me. I tried my very best, and used the book jacket description for help, but I'm not an expert, and I apologize in advance if I didn't get it right.


  1. You used the right pronouns! If the person identifies as she, then the proper pronoun is "she"!

    Nice review, good overview of the book's strengths and weaknesses. Thanks!

    1. That makes me feel better!

      Thanks for the kind words about the review too :)

  2. Another middle-grade book with LGBTQ elements to add to your list (not a new one): My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park, by Steve Kluger. Highly enjoyable book. Of the multiple subplots, one is about a theater-obsessed boy coming out as gay (to his friends and family who aren't in the least surprised and are very accepting), and having his first relationship. Takes place in 9th grade, and the descriptions of the relationship are romantic rather than sexual so it seems middle-grade appropriate (there are a couple very mild mentions of how someone looks in a swimsuit being distracting, and the like, but I don't think anything that would give pause to most parents of kids 6th grade and up).

    1. I hadn't heard of that one! I'll have to have a look for it.