How to Review a Trans Book as a Cis Person

I have seen countless reviews written by cisgender people that as a trans person make my stomach turn. In the majority of reviews written by cisgender readers, the trans characters are misgendered, transness itself is sensationalized, and the cisgender author is commonly called “brave” for writing about “such a controversial issue.” To top it off, most of these reviews contain the phrase: “this book opened my eyes so much!” It hurts to see these. It makes me feel so helpless to see people who care about trans people accidentally spread harmful misconceptions that contribute to transphobia.

Most of these harmful reviewing methods come from confusion and misinformation, not ill intent. The layers of complexity around transness can be incredibly difficult to understand. Learning about and understanding transness is a process—I’m trans, and I’m still confused about some things, and learning lots of stuff! So I am not here to point fingers or blame anyone. My intention is only to educate.

I think that a major source of misinformation for readers can come from the book’s blurb and marketing material. Whichever way the blurb/marketing material describes transness is often (understandably) seen by many readers as an appropriate way to talk about it. Unfortunately, most blurbs of trans books are written by cis people and are often transphobic (for an extreme example, a transphobic slur is used in one of the recs on the jacket copy of I Am J). So the fact that problematic reviews have become commonplace is understandable.

Why is it important that reviews get better? Because trans books do not exist in a vacuum and neither do reviews. If a cis person reads a book with a trans character and it opens their eyes—great. But that’s not enough. That newfound inner understanding and empathy needs to be translated into outward actions. A really big part of treating trans people right has to do with the language you use. If you don’t do things as simple as referring to trans people by the correct pronouns, and by their chosen name, you are not treating trans people with respect.

It’s also about changing the culture of the YA community, and ensuring that it is a respectful and safe place for trans people. Because, right now, it’s not. I and so many other trans people can barely stomach reading the reviews of trans books by cis readers, and don’t even want to touch discussions of trans representation that are led by cis people. Transphobic reviews and language make us uncomfortable in a place that should first and foremost be for us. That just shouldn’t be the case, not in an area that’s full of people claiming to understand and support us.

So, this is my guide to reviewing trans books as a cis person. I’m not the only trans person out there, obviously, and there are for sure many other trans people whose opinions differ from my own. So I offer this guide as a starting point to shifting the conversation to a trans person’s perspective, and encourage you to listen to the perspectives of other trans people as well.  

1) Use the right pronouns. Even if it is never explicitly discussed in the book. For example, in Gracefully Grayson, Grayson never specifically she says that she wants she/her pronouns. But it is clear that she is a trans girl, and while there are certainly cases of trans people not wanting to change pronouns until they’ve transitioned, that is a personal choice and not an OK method of referring to trans people as a whole.

I cannot overstate the importance of this. Using “he” for someone whose pronoun is “she” or vice versa is saying that you don’t see them as the gender they are, which is one of the major catalysts of transphobia.

If the character is genderfluid, genderqueer, nonbinary, or a similar identity and hasn’t stated a pronoun preference, use they/them, other gender neutral pronouns, or simply the character’s name.

2) Use the right name. This is as important as using the right pronouns. Never use a character’s birth name (often referred to by trans people as their dead name) to refer to them, unless they have not picked a different name. So, for example, it’s okay to refer to the trans girl in Gracefully Grayson as Grayson— she never talks about a different name that she’d like to use. But referring to Gabe in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children as Elizabeth, or Luna in Luna as Liam is not ok: those characters have stated a new name for themselves.  

3) How do you describe a character being trans?

Here’s a brief guide from GLAAD that should help. After you read that (and seriously—read it. Especially the “Terms To Avoid” section. It’s short, yet very very important) here are my own additions:

My general thoughts on language—the simpler the better. It’s not necessary to be flowery when explaining that a character is trans. You can simply say “This character is [a trans girl/a trans boy/nonbinary]” or “she is a girl that the rest of the world sees as a boy.” Trans people are trans people—it’s not necessary to use flowery language to describe them being trans, like “when Grayson looks in the mirror and spins around, he sees a girl looking back at him.” Simply say that the character is trans!

In particular, please stay away from phrases like these (in the case of describing a trans girl): “Believed he was meant to be a girl,” “he wants to be a girl,” “a boy who is transgender”. These are not appropriate ways to explain that someone is trans. When someone is trans, it means they are the gender they feel they are. Grayson (from Gracefully Grayson) does not want to be a girl—she is a girl!

The phrase “born in the wrong body” is a highly contested phrase in the trans community. Some feel that it’s a completely inappropriate way to characterize being trans, some identify heavily with it. It’s fine for trans people to define themselves that way. I don’t think, however, that it’s an OK way to characterize transness in whole, and I think it’s inappropriate for cis reviewers to describe transness in that way.

4) Lots of reviewers will talk about how “brave” the cis author is for writing about “such a controversial issue.” (I just love being called a “controversial issue”!) Why is it brave for a cis author to write about a trans character? Being trans is not something they’ve experienced. When I see this in reviews, it makes me feel like the reviewer sees trans people as an issue, a topic, a taboo, and not as real people. It dehumanizes trans people, positions them as something to be talked around. It assumes that trans people won’t be reading the review. And it positions the cis person as doing trans people a favor, of somehow finding it in themselves to write about these freakish people.

5) Put a “cisclaimer” at the beginning of your review! Something along the lines of “Cisclaimer: I am cis! I know/don’t know [x amount] about trans issues.” This doesn’t alleviate your responsibility to refer to the character respectfully, but I believe it is an important step to show that your opinion on the book, as a cis person, is not the most important one.

6) Try to find a review of the trans YA book you’re reviewing from a trans person. Even if you don’t agree with all of it, or understand it, having the perspective is vitally important. (If you can’t find one, it doesn’t mean you can’t review the book! But please remain aware that your perspective on a trans book is not as important as a trans person’s. :))

Please, leave me a comment or tweet me @findmereading if you have any questions! Also, if any trans readers have thoughts to add, or disagree with something I said, let me know! I want to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for listening! :)

(originally posted on my blog)

I keep wanting to read ‘Adult’ books, but Young Adult lit is constantly stepping up their game, with diverse characters, lush world building, intriguing and complex plots and genre experiments, and adult lit is all ‘Feeling unfulfilled with nice job better go back home and get to the bottom of a small town scandal from 20 years ago and maybe get in a love triangle?’ Also we’re all white and attractive and don’t listen to music.

“Not everyone has to be the Chosen One. Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but trying to find a way to be happy anyway.”

― Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

YA Fairy Tale Retellings

I’ve had several people ask for some YA retelling book recommendations, so here are a few of each! I marked my favorites with an asterisk:


Snow White

Beauty & the Beast

Sleeping Beauty


The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Peter Pan

Aladdin/1,001 Nights

Red Riding Hood

Hansel & Gretel: Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

The Little Mermaid: Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

The Frog Prince: 

Rumpelstiltskin: A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

The Snow Queen


Harry Potter Aesthetics: (Hogwarts Houses) -> Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw

Sunday Shelfie! // Here is my bookshelf that holds the majority of my YA books. 

I’m thinking about getting some Ikea Billy bookshelves to replace this one (even though I really do like it) because a lot of these cubbies are double stacked. Do any of you have the Ikea Billy bookshelves? What do you think of them if you do? 

“Women built this castle”: An in-depth look at sexism in YA.

On November 24, Publisher’s Weekly posted an article on Scott Bergstrom and The Cruelty. The article highlighted the monetary success of Bergstrom – who landed a six-figure deal with Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint after selling in 16 foreign territories; the movie rights to The Cruelty also sold to Paramount, with Jerry Bruckheimer attached to the film – and subtlety nudged at the idea that Bergstrom and The Cruelty would be the next big thing.

Initially self-published in 2014, The Cruelty follows Gwendolyn Bloom, who sets off to rescue her kidnapped diplomat father. With the U.S. refusing to help, she follows the name of a Palestinian informer living in France and discovers that, to save her father, she must become as cruel as the men who took him.

But the article in Publisher’s Weekly highlighted not the descent of teenage girl into a creature as cruel as her enemies, but the transformation of a “slightly overweight 17-year-old” into, in a quote from Bergstrom, a “lean warrior with hair dyed fire-engine red.”

The choice to self-publish wasn’t described by Bergstrom – who writes not under Scott, but under S. Bergstrom, claiming to face the “precisely the same” problems that J.K. Rowling and S.E. Hinton did when they chose to use initials – as an excuse for creative control, but a way to avoid being confined by the “walled garden” of YA publishing. While YA publishes books that look at the moral complexities of killing and murders (The Hunger Games, Violent Ends, This Is Where It Ends), of the choices teenage girls face in their day-to-day lives (a topic Nova Ren Suma and Courtney Summers cover in all of their works), Bergstrom felt that his heroine was “more complicated than a lot of YA,” dismissing the category he was writing in – and the teenagers he was writing for – as doing no more than trying to escape places “set up by outside adult forces” in a story that acted as “a metaphor for high school.”

But the opening chapter, available to read online for free, showcases that Bergstrom fell into his own trap. It begins with his protagonist Gwendolyn in her high school, that “walled garden” “set up by outside adult forces” he dismissed in other stories – a high school Gwendolyn eventually abandons to go rescue her father.

All, of course, while becoming a “lean warrior” stereotype of modern beauty ideals while rescuing her father – not that she didn’t get attention from men at the beginning of the book, and not that she wasn’t initially pretty, if “poor as a church mouse.”

“I’m … a little chubby,” thinks Gwendolyn in the opening chapter, adding “My dad and my doctor say I’m not really that overweight – that it’s mostly muscle from my years of gymnastics – and that everyone’s built differently, so don’t accept anyone else’s definition of beauty. But then again, it’s their job to say that.”

Bergstrom also writes, in his opening chapter, that “guys out on the sidewalk in front of the shops whistle after [his protagonist]. They love this – the school uniform, the flash of seventeen-year-old legs.”

His protagonist sees nothing wrong with this, makes no further comment about how it bothers her or how it’s wrong to catcall after women. Instead, the protagonist sees the behavior as almost romantic, the unwanted attention of men’s eyes on her as something to be desired. It is, as Tristina Wright described, a subtle form of grooming behavior. It is something that a man would want a woman – want a seventeen-year-old-girl – to think of his behavior.

In the same opening chapter, Bergstrom’s character attempts to read a “novel with a teenage heroine set in a dystopian future” on the Subway. “Which novel in particular,” wrote Bergstrom, in an uncanny reflection of his own quote to Publisher’s Weekly, “doesn’t matter because they’re all the same. Poor teenage heroine, having to go to war when all you really want is to write in your diary about how you’re in love with two different guys and can’t decide between them. These novels are cheesy, I know, and I suck them down as easily as milk.”

Subtle jabs at books like Red Queen and The Hunger Games and Divergent – dystopian fiction that features teenage girls who deal with the emotional realities of relationships and the emotional realities of war simultaneously, things that resonate with teenage girls in high school – weren’t saved for Bergstrom or for the Publisher’s Weekly article.

“Kicking butt to save your dad is actually a lot easier for me to swallow than kids killing kids in The Hunger Games,” said Bergstrom’s agent Tracey Adams to Publisher’s Weekly – missing, of course, that The Hunger Games doesn’t kill for sport or gratuity, but to highlight the actual atrocities of kids killing kids and the powerful bond between Katniss Everdeen and her sister Primrose.

And Bergstrom has made jabs at genre fiction before; in an interview with The Pen and Muse, he wrote that “what troubles [him]about so much of today’s fiction aimed at young adults is that it is set in an imaginary time and place… you’ll see that dystopian future is really the dystopian present,” as if unwilling to acknowledge that fictionalizing ongoing problems can give readers another way to digest the issues at hand.

“This is a very welcoming community, as I’ve learned firsthand during the last year, and Mr. Bergstrom basically walked in the door and sneered at us,” wrote Red Queen author Victoria Aveyard in a blog post.

In his interview at The Pen and Muse, Bergstrom also discussed the appearance of his protagonist and the appearance of women in media. “As the father of two daughters, I became pretty appalled at the image of women they received from the culture,” Bergstrom told The Pen and Muse. “It was all princess-this, Barbie-that. It was almost a satire of femininity. … What century were we living in if the feminine ideal little girls learned about was still a woman in a pink dress and a nineteen inch waist?”

As if there is something inherently wrong with pink dresses.

As if there is something wrong with Barbie, who has had careers in every field and inspires young girls around the world.

As if Bergstrom’s protagonist did not transform from a “slightly chubby” girl to a “lean warrior,” reinforcing that a feminine ideal – even for a warrior – was a skinny, toned girl, with maybe a slightly wider waistline than Barbie’s nineteen-inches.

The Cruelty features a chubby girl who becomes a “lean warrior,” who has no problem with men catcalling her, and who dismisses the category of fiction meant for teens; whose author is blissfully oblivious to YA as a whole, who dismisses it as lacking moral complications and who sneers at genre fiction, and who sees no problem in slimming down his leading lady while making derisive comments about Barbie.

This is what Feiwel and Friends paid six figures for; this is what Paramount wants to make a movie out of.

This is “the next big thing” in YA.

If you don’t see a problem with that, you won’t like the rest of this article.

Let’s look at the history of YA + discuss what we can do to combat sexism in YA now.