Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What we're reading: First-time author

Gracefully Grayson, by Ami Polonsky, is a young adult book about a 12-year-old boy--an orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle and two cousins--who longs for something that he can't quite admit even to himself, let alone to his family. He's had this feeling for most of his life, and although his parents seemed to understand, he is afraid to share it with anyone else. Then an insightful and caring adult gives him an opportunity to break through and become who he is. And who he is inside, who he believes he should be, is a girl.

This book is so delicately and sweetly done. It's written from the viewpoint of a sixth grader, but not in the way many adult writers do--slightly wry, with too much knowledge and self possession to have been written by a child of 11 or 12. This really feels like the mind of a child who is struggling with his image of who he is. He's largely inarticulate about it, because that's how many children are--they can't express things, but they certainly feel them. He comes to realizations through a combination of cues of self-awareness, flashes of insight handed to him from the reactions of others, and a little guidance, both voluntary and involuntary, from the adults in his life. The evolution is wonderful to watch, and the outcome is so satisfying.

In addition, the theme of the book will make it important to those children and parents struggling with the same awareness that how a child looks on the surface is not always who the child is inside, and that letting what's inside be what's important is both difficult and essential.

Reading this book sparked a memory of an interview I read with writer Ursula Le Guin when she was talking about her science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. In it, the inhabitants of the planet Gethen are androgynous. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children. Le Guin said she developed this idea out of a desire to explore what remained basic to human nature when biological gender was no longer a factor. The comment from the book itself that always stuck with me was when Genly Ai, the (male) envoy from an interplanetary empire seeking to know whether to welcome Gethen to its ranks, says (and I'm paraphrasing), "What is the first question people ask when they hear of the birth of a child? Boy or girl. Now imagine the loneliness of being the only person with a defined gender on a planet where everyone has the potential to be either, and no one is identified in that manner."

Sort of like living on this planet, being identified by everyone as one thing while feeling in your heart like something quite different. Bravo to Ami Polonsky for making this issue so palpable, while also couching it as compelling story! I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

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