The young adult genre — one that explores coming-of-age and dealing with an adult identity — is an excellent vehicle for challenging traditional gender norms that can often feel constricting to young people.
Many young adult books work to dismantle these rigid structures and roles by having the protagonists carve out a space where a new kind of identity can exist. In a world in which children are growing up with more gender identities available to them (Facebook users have 56 options for gender identity now), young adult literature is reflecting these exciting changes to the ways society categorizes people beyond the binary of male/female.
Here are some books your preteen or teen can use to dive into this topic. As always, young adult novels may deal with sensitive subject material, like sexual assault, bullying, violence, abuse, and other challenging topics that could upset some readers. The books on this list may discuss such issues, and in some cases may build plots around them.
1. The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine
This novel follows Faten as she negotiates the role girls play in her Lebanese society. She wants to earn an education, but must find a secret path to her dream. As the collective expectations of those around her attempt to hold her back, she works against them in the quest to realize her aspirations.
2. Wandering Son (series) by Shimura Takako
This manga, or Japanese comic book, series follows two teenagers who realize they are not cisgender: Shuichi, born as a boy, identifies as a girl; Yoshino, a girl, wishes people would recognize her as a boy. The eighth book in the series was recently published, so readers who enjoy following the evolution of characters in a collection of titles will be able to get to know Shuichi and Yoshino as they live out their middle school years.
3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This cult classic accompanies Charlie through his tumultuous high school years as he navigates dealing with his past, finding new friends, and feeling like an outsider. “Wallflower” is filled with accounts from all kinds of characters who clash against expectations, including ones involving their gender, in poignant and real ways; and Charlie represents a nuanced male protagonist who doesn’t fall into typical tropes of masculinity.
4. I Am J by Cris Beam
Born Jennifer, J does all he can to hide his female sex in order to live life as the boy he wishes to be. Once J turns 18, he can begin rounds of testosterone shots despite his parents’ lack of acceptance. Placed on the state-recommended reading lists for public high schools and on several lists of noted books, “I Am J” is a captivating title for young adults.
5. Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews
This memoir tells the story of Andrews's transition and gender reassignment surgery during his teenage years. Facing a challenging relationship with his mother, Andrews shares a story of managing family expectations, feeling teenage frustration, and creating his identity through perseverance.
6. Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
The word "girl" is loaded. What does it mean to be a "good girl" or a "bad girl"? In high school, those terms can determine a girl's social fate — more so than we would like to imagine. This novel shows how tenuous those titles are and how silly and scary social mores are when it comes to pigeonholing girls into categories. In an era of institutionalized slut-shaming, this novel comes as a refreshing take on teenage life.
7. The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams
Meant for a bit of a younger audience than some of the other texts on this list, this novel traces the journey of Dennis, a protagonist who really wants to wear dresses and loves playing soccer. With an humorous and illustrated approach, this novel plays with the silliness of gender norms for clothing and fashion.
8. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
I teach this trilogy because Katniss undoes so many constraining ideas about femininity: she provides for her family by hunting; she takes up the call to arms for a revolution; she does not care what she looks like and hates being primped. Even though there are some ways these novels support traditional gender norms, the trilogy still does interesting work when it comes to offering a female protagonist.
9. Luna by Julie Anne Peters
Liam knows he is really Luna, and at night when the moon rises, she can feel free to express her authentic gender identity and help her sister at the same time. Using a sibling relationship to add even more tenderness to a novel about coming-of-age, “Luna” finds itself on the top of many must-read lists about gender and identity.
10. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Published in 1967, this classic deserves a second look. It serves as a warning about what could happen to boys when they are forced into a guise of toughness, especially if they are hurting emotionally and feel hindered from expressing their inner turmoil. Depending upon the perspective of the reader, this book has the ability to relate to cultural contexts in complex and different ways. In the 1980s, when gang violence was on the rise, critics saw this novel as a critique of gang culture. In the 21st century, as constricting gender norms are slowly being dismantled, we can read this book as a critique of inflexible gender binaries and the harm they do to young men.
There are so many more great titles out there. If you are interested in trans titles, here is a great list. As a whole, recent young adult releases have been doing excellent and admirable work in giving readers access to deeply human and personal voices struggling through a social problem that deserves more attention.
Looking for other books about gender for younger readers? Check out this list of recommendations, 14 Picture Books that Counteract Gender Stereotypes, and other book reviews on Noodle.