A few years ago, one of my son’s best friends began transitioning into the gender he knew in his heart he was meant to be. Alex began the journey to Ali, and all of those who knew and loved Ali went on that journey, too. We watched from a distance, and learned about the difficulty of her journey through the stories our son shared. It took bravery and fortitude on Ali’s part, and though we cheered her on, we were also terrified for her; the world is changing its ideas about gender and identity slowly, and it is still a dangerous place for its transgendered citizens. We know this from following the news, learning about such journeys from friends and relatives, and (for those of us who teach) having to open our hearts and minds to students who have begun this journey at especially vulnerable times in their lives – in middle school, for instance.
That is the story and setting of Donna Gephart’s wise and brave new book, Lily and Duncan.
Lily was born Timothy McGrother, but deep down Lily has always known that she was born in the wrong body. Her beloved Grandpop, her mother and sister, and her best friend know, too, and they love and support Lily even though they know that it will not be easy for her to finally claim the identity she knows to be real and true. But Lily’s father fights every step she must take, especially the hormone treatment Lily must have before it is too late. And, this being middle school, there are the usual cast of bullies to face, the “Neanderthals”, who call her names and torment her at every turn.
Then, Norbert Dorfman moves into town, and runs into Lily twice: once as Lily, once as Tim. Norbert would like to figure out this puzzle, but he has problem of his own: a bipolar disorder that he is taking medication for, and the mystery of his father’s disappearance.
Once school begins, Norbert (who Lily nicknames Dunkin due to his love of their coffee and doughnuts) finds himself befriended by the Neanderthals on account of his great height and their hopes for a winning basketball team. But this leads to many conflicts and moments of soul searching for both Lily and Dunkin. Middle school, it turns out, is the toughest time to discover who you really are and what kind of person you really want to be.
I loved the way Donna Gephart deals with the issues of gender identity and bipolar disorder in this fearless and compassionate book. She writes as kids their age think and feel: there is heartbreak and humor, insight and delusion, kindness and cruelty, bravery and cowardice. Lily and Dunkin have so much to figure out, and most of it cannot be done on their own. They need their family’s support, they need their community’s support. It really does take a village to raise a child.
Lily and Dunkin is one of those important books we bring into our classrooms and thoughtfully share with our kids so that we can all work towards making our world a better place for all our children.