Author Donna Gephart crafts a dual narrative about two remarkable young people: Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy dealing with bipolar disorder.
Sometimes our hearts see things our eyes can’t.
Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. But being a girl is not so easy when you look like a boy. Especially when you’re in the eighth grade.
Dunkin Dorfman, birth name Norbert Dorfman, is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved from the New Jersey town he’s called home for the past thirteen years. This would be hard enough, but the fact that he is also hiding from a painful secret makes it even worse.
One summer morning, Lily Jo McGrother meets Dunkin Dorfman, and their lives forever change.
karen wrote a superb review for If I Was Your Girl, a YA romance featuring a trans teenager. In said review, karen states that the reader's enjoyment of the book in question should come after the acknowledgement of how important the work is because it's filling a gap that desperately needs representation (to grossly and ineloquently paraphrase)
I've been sitting on this review for months because of that very conundrum. I understand this is an important work because it addresses topics generally not discussed in middle grade/juvenile books. But that very fact is what kept me from appreciating the story. This book addresses several topics which then keeps any single issue from being discussed in depth and, to me, that undermined the importance of this book.
There are two main big topics in this tale. The first centers on Lily who wants to start hormone therapy before puberty kicks up the testosterone, making hair grow on her face, making her testicles drop, changing her voice, etc. Her mother and sister are trying to get Lily the help she needs but her father is an obstacle. He's worried his son is going to be teased and bullied for wanting to be a girl, which I will discuss further later on. The other main topic centers on Norbert, coined "Dunkin'" by Lily when they first meet, and his tribulations with moving to a new school while simultaneously dealing with his bipolar disorder.
Those are pretty intense things to examine and this isn’t a YA novel so the language is simpler and the ideas are more encompassing, yet concrete, because there’s not a lot of room for the nuance you might find in books for older readers. The focus should have remained on these two big issues being experienced by these two kids in order to give each topic as in-depth an examination as possible. However, in an effort to make said kids seem more developed, to round ‘em out, there are several sub-issues thrown in. Lily is trying to save an old tree that reminds her of her grandfather; it’s scheduled to be cut down to make room for a park. Also, she’s noticing all the pink flamingos that have been popping up on lawns throughout her gated community. Mystery! Meanwhile, new-kid-Norbert is ignoring the undisclosed thing that happened to his father and watching his mother slowly heal from said undisclosed thing. His grandmother is a health nut who wants to help her family be healthier. Norbert wants to be a basketball star in order to be part of something but doing so means he has to make some poor decisions. Bullying is addressed, the meaning of friendship is addressed (and, by the way, I did not buy Lily's and Norbert's friendship at all. It rang horribly false), support, compassion, and grief are addressed. This is a short book and that’s a lot to have going on. These side issues, while real-to-life, distract from the two main issues, downplaying them not only for the characters but for the reader, as well.
It’s been a quarter of a year since I finished this book and I know I read the notes at the end of the story but I’m not sure I remember them correctly. To the best of my recollection, the author is not trans nor is she the parent or guardian of a trans child. I believe she immersed herself in research regarding trans children in order to get a base from which to write Lily’s story. I am also not transgender nor am I the parent or guardian of a trans child. I don’t even know if I know any trans youth. I can’t speak for that community. I can speak, broadly (ha!) and in general, for women, though, as I am one and have deep relationships with many others. The thing about Lily being a girl is that she defines herself in terms of stereotypical girl behavior in that she knows she’s a girl because she likes pretty things, she wants to wear dresses, and she doesn’t like the thought of growing hair “down there.” (Is that to say a grown woman doesn't have hair "down there"? Because guess what? Pubic hair grows on adults, no matter their sex. Why doesn't this kid know that?) There’s a whole discussionhappening that goes: some transgender women may potentially be working against the progress of feminism because, especially in the media, transgender women choose to espouse stereotypical feminine attributes - the makeup and hair, the heels and feminine dress, the hip sway and smiles - and are, thus, retro-defining womanhood because they’re showing that to be accepted as a woman, you check those boxes and then you’re recognizable as a woman, which, yeah, it makes sense. Only, people have been trying to get rid of those boxes for so long, to make them into options rather than defaults, to be women as people, not women because of expectations, and it sucks that people who formerly had male privilege are showing us how women should look and act. Yes, this argument reaches into TERF turf and, no, of course this is not an across-the-board thing that is happening in everyday life in every county across the nation. There are plenty of everyday transwomen who wear jeans and t-shirts or hipster-wear or the same kinds of things I wear, who don’t giggle and wiggle when they walk, who don’t wear look-at-my-feminineness makeup, who aren’t working in traditional female occupations, who aren’t advancing the stereotype but the problem is that’s not the example we see in this book. Readers get the former example, the girly example, the message that says if you are a girl, you manifest that identity in a certain and specific way, namely dresses and lipstick, crying a lot, backing down from fights, demure behavior brought about by the stifling of emotions, and thinking boys might be cute. It's not a personal choice, it's an evolutionary mandate and it's the only way to be a girl. So what does that say to transgender kids who don’t fit a stereotype? That they’re doing it wrong? And what does it say to kids who don’t or won't conform to gender standards? That they’re wrong, too? And what about Lily’s best friend who is less girly than Lily? There is also the financial consideration. As I mentioned before, Lily lives in a gated community. Her posh neighborhood is mentioned several times and she’s embarrassed to be so well-off. But the thing is, because she’s well-off, she has the opportunity to get her hormone blockers. Her family can afford the therapy she needs to transition her body from male puberty to female puberty. This isn’t something every trans pre-teen can do, I doubt many families could afford this for their children. So what then? Those not-rich kids get to re-experience just how unfair it is that well-off white kids get to be who they are while everyone else has to fumble through best they can? And then there’s Lily’s dad. He’s worried his son, Timothy, as he calls her, will be cruelly mocked and bullied in school because kids prey on those who are different. Most of us went to school, we know how this works. Maybe because this isn’t a YA novel, the father couldn’t have been more specific in his worries, couldn’t bring up any of the news stories in which transteens are killed by classmates, couldn’t vocalize why he was so concerned that his kid might be treated poorly by peers. Now, again, I don’t have kids so maybe it doesn’t really work this way, but I was surprised that neither of the parents seemed interested in giving their child tools to combat potential bullying situations. I mean, I suppose no parent tells their kid “Don’t hit unless someone else hits you first” anymore and that’s probably backward thinking anyway. Whatever the case, in this story, the parents did very little to prepare their kid for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, choosing to leave that up to future therapists, I suppose. And that’s a shame because Lily is bullied anyhow, even before she starts to transition and she handles it by ignoring it and hoping it will eventually stop. What other option does she have? It’s not like she’s been shown how to fight back or to protect herself. The reader isn't shown that, either, and, again, if this were for older kids, that would be fine because, hopefully, older kids would already have some coping mechanisms in place. Middle grade, though? I had hoped to see better support for Lily which could translate into support for readers who are trying to find the help they don't have in their own lives.
While the author does not seem to have first-hand experience with trans children, she does have a child with bipolar disorder and has experienced the effects of medications, the many doctors visits, the frustrations, and the moments of triumph that come with parenting a child with a mood disorder and she used that knowledge as the base for Norbert’s story. I am nowhere near as versed in the disorder, especially not in how it manifests in children, but I do have some familiarity, in general. The author is relying heavily on her own experience with her child and that’s great. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly specific. Dunkin exhibits symptoms that are not common in the bipolar spectrum. The author actually accounts for this. In her notes, she says she has studied mental illness and admits: While there are commonalities and patterns in behaviors, the illness presents uniquely in each individual...While his behaviors and symptoms may not be typical of people with bipolar disorder, it is possible for the illness to manifest this way. That's true. It's also true that this is a book for a middle-grade audience and it's doing them a disservice to make a disability mostly unrelatable by making it so extreme. How are kids supposed to identify with someone like them if they don't recognize what that character is going through?
Oh, this book. It's important in that it features voices that aren't normally heard but is it helpful? To some, of course it will be. Of course! But to many others, it could be even more alienating. I appreciate that this story and others like it are opening doors but, in this case, I feel that the message is “The door is open but you have to be this tall to go through” and that kind of exclusion is exactly what we’re trying to move away from. I can't say I would recommend this, especially not to its intended audience.
This is a book about a transgendered kid and another kid afflicted with bipolar disorder. That is an awful lot to take on in one middle grade novel and, as a result, both characters suffered. Neither character was fully realized, but the friendship between the two major characters was especially weak. For most of the book, Lily pines over Dunkin while Dunkin snubs Lily in favor of more cool and popular, albeit demanding and mean, friends at school.
My biggest concern about this book is the way bipolar disorder is portrayed, because it is erroneous. Bipolar disorder does not cause psychosis. The author says she based the character of Dunkin on her son, and that his bipolar disorder manifested in this way. There are a couple issues with that. First, since bipolar disorder does not cause psychosis, there would be a secondary diagnosis to account for the symptoms of psychosis seen in the character of Dunkin. Just as it is possible for a person to have two physical illnesses exist simultaneously, it is also possible to have two mental illnesses manifest simultaneously. But there is no mention in the book of Dunkin having any mental illness other than bipolar disorder, so readers will incorrectly assume that Dunkin's psychotic symptoms are caused by his bipolar disorder.
Second, it is rare to see symptoms of psychosis in a person with bipolar disorder. Since mental illness is rarely covered in middle grade novels, this rare manifestation of bipolar disorder will be seen by most readers, who will lack the knowledge to question this, as the typical course of bipolar disorder when it is not.
There are also problems with the portrayal of Dunkin's psychotropic medication. It is correct that Dunkin would be on a "mood stabilizer" for his bipolar disorder and on an anti-psychotic drug for his symptoms of psychosis. It is also true that the anti-psychotic drug could likely cause some sluggishness as a side effect. When Dunkin decides to discontinue his anti-psychotic medicine but continues taking his "mood stabilizer," he becomes increasingly manic as well as psychotic; but the "mood stabilizer" alone would continue to control his bipolar symptoms.
Also, it takes weeks (not days) for psychotropic medications to build up, and to release, from the blood stream, meaning that discontinuation of a psychotropic medication would cause symptoms to return gradually over the course of a few weeks, often as many as six weeks or even more; psychiatric patients rarely deteriorate so completely in just a few days. Finally, medication compliance is a common issue among psychiatric patients (due to all the unpleasant side effects) and no psychiatrist would be so easily fooled as the one in this book. Nor would the mom be so easily duped, especially having been through something similar with her husband already.
Not all people with mental illness hear voices or talk to themselves; only a small percentage of psychiatric patients experience psychotic symptoms. Many psychotropic medications have serious side effects, which is the main reason for medication noncompliance - not just because someone decides he needs to score more points in a basketball game. I'm not sure why the author chose to have the police drag Dunkin off the basketball court, rather than have a nurse and his mother escort him to the school nurse's office and then call an ambulance to take him to the hospital. The author's choices in this book do more to perpetuate negative stereotypes of mental illness, which is especially unfortunate in a book for children.
Lily and Dunkin is a thoughtful and heartwarming story of two teenagers going through transgender and bipolar disorder. Tim/Lily has to deal with his unmatched physyial body while Norbert/Dunkin has to deal with his mood swing and his gigantic body. They're new to each other and don't always picture together because they have their own lives and their own close people. But in the end they're helping each other out and be best friend forever.
This book shows me the meaning of a family, friendship, of being different and most of all, acceptance. I could feel how sincere this book is written since the author also has a son with bipolar disorder. It's not easy. I can see it. But I'm glad that both Lily and Dunkin is surrounded by people who love them just the way they are and they are so supportive. Well, there is always a bump in the road. And that's what mostly happened to Lily and Dunkin at school.
I really enjoyed reading this book since the very first page. It was easy to read and to digest. Plus, it also has its funny moment and amazing plot twist. And it broke my heart. The author didn't really tell about the therapy session and all that related to what Lily and Dunkin suffers, but she tells more about the emotional side of Lily and Dunkin. It's still great. And unless you don't own tear duct, you’ll definitely shed tears. I do recommend this book to everyone.
Content warning: some spoilers, reference to author’s weird obsession with young trans girls’ genitalia and to sexual assault committed against main character
Basic boring and bad things about this book include:
⁃ all dialogue scenes are long and bland; there is no banter that is funny ⁃ The same points are hammered on again and again for hundreds of pages : again, Lily’s dad thinks hormone blockers are too expensive and she should be a boy. Again, Dunkin is afraid of his mental health issues. Again, Lily is called a slur and is upset. Again, Dunkin wishes he were braver than he is. There isn’t a lot of dynamic action. ⁃ Lily gets deadnamed in the cover flap of the book and in the family tree in the front of the book ⁃ Parents are one dimensional, either harmful or benevolent ⁃ Tween children never have violent or angry thoughts unless they are bullies, and politely respect adult rules ⁃ There isn’t any payoff to Lily standing up for what she believes in re: her tree, not even solidarity from other activists, sending kids the message that it is meaningless to protest things that are wrong ⁃ Dare, Lily’s best friend, is one dimensional and never emerges as an independent character, which sucks more because Dare is black . Dare only acts as an emotional support for Lily. Her own motivations and passions never fully emerge. She uses spurts of AAVE once in a while but her lived experiences as a black kid in south Florida do not come up. ⁃ Something that annoys me all the time in melodramatic kids’ books like this is where characters say something and then repeat the same thing with more emphasis on a separate line in a punchier way, such as : “(line break)I don’t say anything. (Line break) I never say anything.” This happens what seems like once every two to four pages. It disrupts the flow of the narrative ⁃ Kids lack agency and their resolutions come from adults changing their behavior , which doesn’t leave young readers much to go on in dealing with similar struggles
Aside from all that :
There are many things about this book that do more harm than good in terms of impact to the groups the book is supposed to advocate for. These can be roughly sorted into Trans Stuff and Mental Health stuff. First, let me get into the trans stuff.
First , technically speaking: a thirteen year old seeking hormone blockers will typically need to suffer through several quite arduous conversations with parents and psychologists and psychiatrists before accessing them. With the dawn of informed consent practices, this has changed a little, but the questions that Lily’s kind psychologist ask her barely touch the basics of what trans kids typically are asked to talk about in therapy. Additionally, we never see Lily or her parents learning any more details about her hormone blockers at the endocrinologist—essential details, such as the fact that their effects are reversible, that their side effects aren’t known to be substantially negative , that there aren’t yet many studies on their long term use. Even if Lily didn’t understand all that info, as a trans kid she would absorb at least a little of it. Additionally, I feel like her parents would talk to her more about their understanding of what trans people are or go through, with articles about detransition, etc —and Lily would counter with her own knowledge. The absence of any of this simplifies trans experience down far beyond even the most basic Oprah special and makes accessing hormones and blockers seem both easier and less involved /reflective a process than it actually is.
Another really major issue I have with this novel about an eighth grader is that Gephart seems obsessed with Lily’s body and specifically her genitalia. I cannot even count how many times the word “penis” appears in this book in reference to Lily, in what is otherwise quite a G rated book. Cis adults often fixate constantly on trans kids and their bodies and genitals and fertility in a way I find really creepy, and Gephart has continued this trend with an exuberance that makes me want to keep all young trans girls faaaar away from her. The fact that she has Lily undergo a demeaning public sexual assault from bullies in her class in a way that doesn’t at all serve the plot underscores how much Gephart is obsessed with young trans women’s bodies. While Dunkin also has issues with puberty, experiencing insecurity about his height and weight and hairiness, his sexual privacy is respected and we get no hint he even has sexual organs at all—I assume the cis characters in Gephart’s other stories get the same treatment. Meanwhile, we hear over and over again about Lily’s pubic hair, genitals, and fears concerning what will happen to them if she doesn’t get on puberty blockers. It is her main personal arc (seeing as the save-the-tree arc doesn’t start until a good 100+ pages into the text). While real young trans girls have a number of fears and passions having to do with school, hobbies, friends, etc , lily is almost completely absorbed by the author’s fetish for her body. She talks constantly about her “stupid boy chest”, her narrow hips, and a range of other body parts she hates and wants to alter. In a cis girl puberty book, this would lead to a conclusion where Lily realizes she maybe looks kinda cool as is, in the liminal state that is adolescence, but not here. Which brings me to another point —most trans kids never go on hormone blockers. They’re really expensive ! Parents who support their kids can’t necessarily afford this care, and many trans kids also come out after their first puberty. This book communicates, via Lily’s attitude and her mom’s attitude and everyone’s panic about Lily’s body, that non-puberty-blocked trans kids will have transitioned “too late” and be forever marred by hair, height, bone structure, etc. This perspective is a really ugly cis-normative one. It is based in the idea that trans people and especially trans women must look as much like cis people as possible, must know their intent from childhood, and must commit themselves to expressing hatred of their bodies and (violent) intent to alter them into something more socially pretty and socially acceptable.
What really makes trans kids safe is acceptance and support and emotional connections regardless of appearance and hormone desire/hormone access. Hormone blockers are Not bad, and I support kids getting them, but neither are they universal or necessary to live as a happy trans person.
Lily never experiences anyone telling her that in this book, and doesn’t meet trans women older than her who have had different experiences with transition trajectory who could advocate for her while also clarifying that Lily’s path isn’t the only one. This book is a cis mom’s vision of perfect medical transition —syrupy and gender-conforming and girlie and with a stamp of medical approval that ignores and disdains the experiences of trans kids and adults unable or unwilling to access early medical transition. It’s unnecessary and directly harmful. Trans people usually experience dysphoria, but many of us learn through practice and community that the ways we are special and unique are beautiful, that our medically altered adult bodies are cool, and that we don’t need to obsessively conceal our differences in order to be gorgeous and lovable. Gephart is determined to undermine such efforts, which sucks for cis readers too. I think we should all realize by now that standards of bodily appearance that oppress trans people also oppress gender nonconforming cis women and girls and nonconforming boys (at one point lily thinks : “I am not a fag, I am a girl!” What does that say to gay boys and butch girls?)
Second : mental health stuff.
Just as Gephart wishes to do away with the complicated other-ness of being trans, she also skips over the factual realities of being a young teenager with bipolar disorder. For one, diagnosis of bipolar in a thirteen year old is pretty rare. Having bipolar that young is also usually traumatic, in addition to being precipitated by stressful events—such as a death. Dunkin’s freakouts are understandable, but the narrative treats them as a major problem without explaining why and treats Dunkin’s bipolar as a frightening and slowly encroaching monster rather than a set of symptoms rising out of genetic predisposition plus life circumstances and maladaptive coping mechanisms. It dehumanizes him to treat his bipolar like this. Dunkin naturally resists the heavy level of control exerted over him by doctors —scenes of him skipping medications out of a sense that they hold him back are among the most realistic in the book. Similarly, the lack of communication and punitive attitude of doctors is also something many teens encounter when seeking care for mental health issues. These things could be addressed in text by Dunkin having a conversation with his mom and seeking a psych that makes him feel more comfortable or working on his own level of trust in her and her affirmations of what reality is. But they don’t talk. Gephart would rather teens blithely submit to treatment from doctors who call them the wrong name and be adequately sedated for the comfort of the adults around them —even though many antipsychotics and mood stabilizers don’t work well or work long term for large portions of the population and can cause negative side effects, and finding the right drugs requires hearing feedback from patients and often several trials of different drugs plus behavioral therapy etc.
A major issue for me is that Dunkin’s father —a man who also has bipolar—is cast as almost wholly incompetent and crazy and Bad with a capital B as a parent. Likewise, Dunkin’s mental illness is treated like a dark mystery for most of the book, and its slow reveal becomes an exhibitionist sort of revelry in how crazy he is acting —which isn’t how books about bipolar teens should treat this issue. Mental illness being the bogeyman makes people more afraid to get diagnoses or deal with symptoms and makes it easier for people to deny that there is a problem if they have less extreme symptoms.
While bipolar and other illnesses can ruin lives and cause families to hurt, it sucks that Gephart chooses to frame mentally ill adults as both totally irresponsible and totally doomed with no nuance and frames the medical industrial complex as a stern but ultimately benevolent force in Dunkin’s life that protects him from himself. Psychiatrists can help people access needed care, but just like Dunkin’s psych, they can also alienate and scare people. Especially for teens, psych facilities can cause trauma on their own, especially for kids of color or kids dealing with other issues like grief. They are sometimes the least of all evils, but Gephart treats doctors like saviors. Kids growing up with bipolar need to know adults who struggle with the same symptoms and to practice self reflection and engagement with communities of mutual advocacy and need to understand the various factors that can exacerbate symptoms and interrupt their lives. They don’t need to be told to shut up and take the pills doctors give them and to trust people in high places. They get that from other people.
Basically, Gephart has stuck her nose into two issues that do need representation but which she doesn’t adequately understand, and the result is patronizing hogwash in book form . Skip !
I originally picked this book up because I had heard that it was a middle grade with a trans girl MC and my interest was piqued because we really don't see enough of that in children's literature. However, I was wary going into it because this is a book written by a cis author. And to me, this book really solidified why we shouldn't let cis people write trans PoVs.
But let me start at the beginning. What is this book about? Lily and Dunkin follows... Lily, a trans girl, and Dunkin, a boy with bipolar disorder. It's supposed to be a story about friendship and finding your place in the world and relying on other people. And maybe to some people it is one of those things, but to me it just... wasn't.
Starting with the technical elements, I found the plot to be disjointed and haphazardly thrown together at best. It felt like the author was trying to weave 50 different storylines throughout the book and none of them were fully established or all that interesting. And half of them were never resolved. The writing also didn't help, as it was very bland and the characters' voices were not developed at all?? Lily and Dunkin literally read like the same person. Also this is a way smaller thing and I will talk about trans rep later on in the story but uhh having a male narrator narrate your trans girl character certainly is,,, a choice,,, that was made. I don't know by whom, but I still take issue with it. Obviously this is a smaller thing, but it still made me uncomfortable.
I also thought the characters were very boring and one-dimensional. And I know this is a middle grade, so obviously some things are going to be simpler than they are in YA or adult. But I have read middle grade with exquisitely developed and multi-dimensional characters and this one just,,, didn't do it for me. It's like the author tried to fill out a character sheet, got halfway through before she got bored, and then just proceeded to write the book. Our main characters have at most two personality traits each. It wasn't good. And I'm not going to mention the side characters who did not feel like real people at all.
I'm gonna talk about the trans rep, but before that I just want to note! One of the main characters in this book does have bipolar disorder and I absolutely cannot comment on how well it was represented, so I will do my best to find and link some ownvoices reviews for that aspect of the book here.
Moving on to the trans rep because o h boy do I have a lot to say about this!!
I'm not even going to mention the fact that this author is taking up space that a trans author, specifically a trans woman author, could have occupied within children's literature, because that's a whole other (very important!!) discussion. The trans rep in this book was, to me, actively harmful. I would never in a million years recommend this to a trans kid.
I'm not a trans woman, I have no idea what that experience is like and I don't presume to know. I have been looking for trans women's reviews of this book and when I do find one I will link it here. I am, however, trans. And the way this book dealt with Lily's being transgender made me deeply deeply uncomfortable.
Cis feelings are constantly centered in Lily's story. In my opinion, this is especially obvious when it comes to Lily's best friend, Dare, who is constantly disappointed in Lily when she doesn't feel comfortable wearing a skirt or going by her name in public places. And then Lily feels bad because her best friend is disappointed in her?? Fuck!! That!! Lily, and any other trans person, should never be made to feel bad because they're not comfortable expressing their gender a certain way. Dare's feelings should never be centered in this case because it's not about her. Period.
Additionally, there are constant references throughout the book to Lily not being ready to "be fully herself" because she isn't comfortable wearing skirts or dresses or going by Lily in public. Let me say, once again, this is bullshit. Especially coming from a cis author. Trans people are complete just the way they are. They don't need to jump through cisnormative hoops in order to be considered "complete" by cis people. Lily isn't trans because she likes wearing dresses or going by Lily. Lily is trans because she is. She doesn't need to wear a dress or skirt in public in order to be a valid trans person. That's not how transness works.
And to me, this particular idea being constantly emphasized throughout the story is what made it so painfully obvious that this book was written by a cis person. Cis people's need to measure trans people by their cis-normative standards is, frankly, complete bullshit. Trans people are trans because we are. Wearing a dress doesn't make Lily trans. Wearing a dress is a way Lily can choose to express her gender, but that's not the thing that makes Lily a girl.
I could go on for hours and hours and nitpick at all the small things that bothered me about the way Lily was written. But I'm not going to. Because, frankly, it's not worth my energy. I will say that if you're planning on picking this up because of the trans rep, skip it. Read an ownvoices trans book instead. There are plenty.
Lily and Dunkin is a brave book. The author takes on the challenge of having her reader walk in the shoes of not one, but two characters whose experiences and true identities are attempting to break the surface.
The story is raw, emotional, funny and at times unforgiving with it's honesty. There were moments when I literally could feel my heart expanding, pushing up against the walls of itself, to grow bigger.
I know that I am a better human because I have experienced Lily and Dunkin. Donna Gephart, "words have the power to change the world. Use them carefully."
I really enjoyed this book because, in addition to dealing with the important topic of transgender teens in a middle grade novel, it also dealt effectively with bipolar disorder. I have two relatives with bipolar disorder (or, rather, one -- my cousin committed suicide at what seemed to be a great point in his life), and as well as a child who is on medication for another condition. It is often frustrating to deal with someone who obviously needs to be on medication yet repeatedly doesn't take it, to their great detriment. With Norbert's character, Donna Gephardt, who has a son with bipolar disorder, really did a great job of explaining Norbert's self-talk and how he justified his decision not to take the meds, even when he was being tested for taking them, even when he was frustrating the heck out of his devoted family. It really made me sympathize, if not agree, and it accurately portrayed the frustration of having to take medication just to be "normal," which others take for granted and even stigmatize people for having to take. While I guessed the secret of Norbert's father early on, a reader the correct age for the book probably wouldn't. I also thought that, and the family's journey, was sensitively portrayed.
Alright ladies and gents, buckle up because this is going to be a wild ride of me professing my undying love for this book and probably making no sense.
Before I dive into the review, I just want to say I didn't expect to love this book so much. I never thought it would resonate so deep into me, and that it would shake me to this extent. Thing is, it's almost everything I usually don't reach for: character driven, contemporary middle grade with young narrators. But since it dealt with some serious issues, I thought I would give it a try. Now that I read it, I can't imagine my world without it, and here is why:
Let me be crystal clear: Lily and Dunkin are now my children. They are my everything. They're the sweetest, most adorable and beautiful people ever, and they deserve the world. Let me explain. First of all, they are really, really interesting characters to follow. You get both their points of view in a book that has neither chapters nor mentions of who's speaking at the moment. Yet, you can immediately tell who's speaking, because they are so different. They are similar yes, that's why they become friends, but they're not bland, dull characters who are difficult to dicern. They're three dimensional, realistic people and I personally couldn't help myself from getting attached to them from the very first pages. Another thing that made me love the book is the parents. I usually either hate or don't care for them in middle grade/YA books, but there, they were incredibly interesting. For once, they discuss with their children, and the children actually reach out to them when they have problems. Even if they do keep secrets because they think it's the best for them, they always end up seeking the help of someone! Literally AMEN! I loved, loved, loved Lily's mom and her sister, they both try their best to understand and care for her; and I shall not forget Lily's best friend who supports her at every moment! Even his dad, who begins the story by being reluctant and skeptical slowly grows and learns to love his daughter for who she is. It's the same with Dunkin's mother and grandmother, they care immensely for him and try their best to protect and love him! Thing is, none of the characters are either white or black, good or bad. They all have nuances, and some of them (like Lily's dad) have the best character growth I've ever seen! You see "good" characters making bad choices and mistakes and you see "bad" characters suffering or feeling really deep, human emotions. This books really shows that human nature is not so easy to understand!
2) The representation
Here is the good stuff! I had already read a few books with transgender characters, even if they are very few. Now, it's definitely not the same for mental illness. I have no memory of ever reading a book portraying a mentally ill main character. And that makes that book very, very important. Not only does it portray so many aspects of life that are often so invisible in media, it does it WELL. The way the author wrote this story about two characters from minorities with such respect is just astonishing. I knew quite a lot about transgender people, but my knowledge of bipolar disorder was pretty much inexistant. And this book just makes you want to know and care more, because you get so invested in the characters' lives and fears and joys. I made quite a lot of research to see if the portrayal of bipolar disorder was realitstic, and I can definitely assure you it is. Just like with Lily's story, it's respectful but it's not sugar-coated: it shows the truth, the really truth without diminishing the character's pain or painting them into nothing but their condition. They're much more than that.
Before I say anything, I have to tell I'm a very sensitive person and reader. I often react out loud or tear up when a book gets emotional. But I only ever really cried for two books in my entire life. Yet, it was nothing compared to what happened when I finished Lily and Dunkin. The book itself was already a wild roller-coaster of emotion: I found myself smiling and laughing out loud because it was so sweet and adorable, but I also found myself tearing up hundreds of times because it was sad, or because it was just so, so beautiful. But what really broke me in a thousands pieces was the ending. My eyes were already blurry at that point and I had wailed like a maniac several times before, but at that moment I literally BURST into tears and when I closed the book, I couldn't stop sobbing uncontrollably for five minutes. As I said, I had already cried for books, but it was silent tears, not huge, gross crying followed by an hour of sniffing and staring into space, thinking of how much this book changed me. Because it did. It literally changed me as a reader and a person, and I don't think I will let go of it so soon.
So yeah, you get the picture. This is not just a good book, it's a masterpiece in my opinion. It's both really interesting unlike many books that deals with serious topic, and are just depressing for the sake of being depressing (but don't actually make you think or feel); and beautiful. It's well-written, the characters are realistic and lovable, and it's packed with emotion in a way I've never seen before! And again, the portrayal of transgender people and mental illness is so, so respectful! The fact that this book is meant for children just warms my heart with hope. That's what the world needs, diverse and important stories spreading everywhere and reaching people of all ages.
On one hand, kudos for representation. On the other... I can't speak for the transgender side of the story, but the bipolar one? As a bipolar person, it kind of bothered me. The author was supposedly writing about her son's experiences -- and everyone's experience is different -- but it didn't ring true for me, in what could potentially be a damaging way. The symptoms Dunkin experiences are more in line with schizophrenia than classic bipolar. So to define bipolar as hearing voices and blocking out substantial parts of your life...
This is where my issue lies. When I was the age these characters are -- the age I would have likely been reading this book, had it come out at that time -- the story would have reaffirmed my misconceptions about bipolar disorder: that it was functionally the same as schizophrenia. And a large number of the problems I suffered were rooted in those misconceptions. I didn't hear voices or hallucinate, therefore, I wasn't *really* mentally ill and didn't need treatment. I just needed to quit whining and snap out of it. (Spoiler alert: that didn't work.) So I worry about the kids who will read this book, kids who *are* sick and *do* need treatment, but will take this description of bipolar as confirmation that there's nothing really wrong with them.
Still, like I said, there's something to be said for representation. Guardedly recommended.
Audiobook narrated by Ryan Gesell and Michael Crouch (along with an author's note), who do an excellent job of portraying Lily and Dunkin. This is a pretty straightforward story; it's kind of cute at first, and transgender rep is definitely very much needed, particularly in MG. (I'm also curious about how some of the bipolar symptoms manifest, which I wasn't familiar with before.)
But neither kid's story ended up being as insightful or emotional or compelling as I'd hoped, and somehow the voice never struck me as sounding hugely authentic. Sometimes the voice sounded true, particularly in Dunkin's humor, but I was very conscious of the adult writing the story in other parts. It's not even being spoiled by books like George, which was written by a transgender person; there are plenty of middle grade books written by adults that didn't strike me this way. There was also a bit of a tonal disconnect for me--the kids are in seventh grade, which I think is usually younger YA age? But the language and plot and emotions and characters made it feel like a middle grade book (which also seemed to e how it's marketed). Aside from a couple of different elements that could've been tweaked, it sits firmly in grade school in my mind.
It's a very positive book, and it's a positive thing that it exists and perhaps might be of some help to a child going through similar experiences. I especially appreciated the frank discussion of hormones and other particulars that you don't always see, and any book that might open a kid's heart to empathy and compassion is something I'm all for. But if you've read a fair amount of glbt lit, or even a lot of contemporary fiction for kids, this might not be a book that leaves a huge impact.
An audio review copy was provided by the publisher.
If I could hand one book to every educator and school board member in America and say, “I think you should read this,” it would be Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart. In the early pages, we learn that Lily is a girl trapped in a boy’s body. Named Timothy at birth because of the presence of “boy parts,” Lily wants her gender identification to be accepted by her friends and family, some of whom support her, while others struggle to see her for who she really is. Gephart handles this material masterfully, with humor, insight, and compassion. Dunkin is the new kid in town, and he also has some identity issues (unrelated to his gender), which Gephart reveals more slowly but no less artfully. Lily and Dunkin’s off-and-on friendship as they enter eighth grade is authentically depicted, and the various ways that people in their lives support or torment them convey emotions that many young people bravely carry around with them daily. I know this little review is short on specifics, but you don’t want me to spoil the powerful reading experience that awaits you in this beautiful, important novel.
Bought this for my 11yr old granddaughter and will be interested to discuss it with her after she gets to read it. I thought it was interesting and gave good insight into the transgender girl's feelings. The type of bi-polar disorder they were showing was not your typical one this one included psychosis it doesn't usually so I don't know if I would have chosen that one to present.
What a beautiful, honest, and powerful, yet tough at times, middle grade contemporary novel. I highly recommend giving it a try. If you're looking for a thought-provoking and emotionally captivating middle grade read, I can't say enough good things about this positive story. I need to read more by this author.
If you read one middle grade book this year please make it this one. Lily: transgender formerly Tim thinks her father hates her for who she is just trying to be herself bullied at school
Dunkin: actually named Norbert hears voices bipolar recently lost his father to suicide moved to Beckford Palms with his Mom after his father's death.
Bob: beautiful banyan tree outside Beckford Palms Library Lily's refuge Happy memories of family picnics under this tree Soon to be removed from the park.
Dunkin is new to Beckford Palms, and will soon be starting school at Gator Lake Middle. He sees this beautiful, blue eyed girl while walking home and he is captivated by her. Lily, transgender, is making small steps to embrace her true self, which means defying her father who is refusing to allow Lily to start hormone blockers. This novel is a beautiful and heartbreaking story about not fitting in, having secrets, making true friends, and not being afraid to be yourself even if you are bullied. I truly hope you take the time to read it. You won't be disappointed.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I LOVED Lily and Dunkin’s simultaneous narrations of the same scene and the important struggles each separately went through in this beautiful story. It’s so critical for kids to see themselves reflected in what they read, and this book helps fill a gap in middle grade literature about transgender kids, mental illness, and acceptance. All characters were so rich and well developed, and Lily’s mom and sister ROCK with their immediate acceptance and embrace of her. Her dad’s journey is the one that had me in tears at the end though. Could be read by mature kids as young as 10.
REVIEW: I loved this book! It's a beautifully-written story of an emerging friendship between two eighth graders dealing with some pretty heavy secrets. Author Donna Gephart tackles some serious issues here--transgender identity, bipolar disorder, bullying, abuse, grief, homosexuality--with grace and sensitivity. I cannot imagine that someone could read this book and not come away more sensitive to transgendered and bipolar individuals.
The strong characters feel like real people, and now that I'm finished, I am sad to see them go. I think my favorite character was Lily's Dad, who represents a huge chunk of the American population in proclaiming that "A boy is a boy is a boy." Both Dunkin's and Lily's families are strong and (mostly) supportive, but Lily's dad really struggled. He does try so hard to understand and protect Lily.
Phineas. Loved Phineas.
This book could be an agent for change. I think differently about transgenders because I read this book. While I would never bully someone over their gender identity, I don't really understand it, either. But while I was reading this book, I ran across an article about the transgender bathroom (non)issue. I made the mistake of reading the public comments on the article, and I was upset that so many people could be that awful about where someone pees. It's really disappointing and a sad commentary on where we are as a society. While we have made huge strides in protecting and accepting homosexuality, we still have a long way to go in accepting transgenders.
When you finish the book, don't skip the author's note at the end. Ms. Gephart writes about her different inspirations for Lily and Dunkin. Her story about Dunkin and her own son's bipolar disorder is touching--no wonder she writes so well about this topic.
For me, this is Newbery Award material. This unconventional story has the power to change minds, something desperately needed in today's world.
THE BOTTOM LINE: I worry that more conservative school libraries will be afraid to carry this title. Even the most conservative communities need this book. It's beautifully-written and will help open people's hearts. Do not miss it.
STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: We have two uncataloged copies (one is mine that is being donated; the other just arrived two days ago). I booktalked this title in all my classes last week, and I'm interested to see how it does.
Characters: 5/5--loved the strong characterizations!
Appeal to teens: 4/5--there will be some who just won't read a book about a transgender girl
Appropriate length to tell the story: 5/5
Language: mild; bully repeatedly uses the slur "fag"
Sexuality: mild-medium; homosexuality (nothing beyond hand-holding); transgender; sexual harassment
Violence: medium; reading the sexual harassment scene was painful; abusive parent
Drugs/Alcohol: very mild; prescriptions prescribed by a psychiatrist, self-medicating with coffee/caffeine
I noticed this book a long time ago and put it on my watch list. And I tried to get it, for months. And here we are. I've got it. And man, it was definitely worth the wait and lived up to my (high) expectations. This is one of my favorite middle-grades I've read. It deals with some very, very complex and hard issues that aren't talked about in middle grade--gender identity, mental illness, , but I'd say it's appropriate for the upper bit of middle grade. The content is a bit more mature than other trans girl middle grades (Gracefully Grayson and George) and it straddles the line between MG and YA pretty nicely.
As for the characters - they were so good and endearing and so, so, real. I liked that while Lily's transition and Dunkin's bipolar disorder were definitely large parts of the plot and to an extent these issues were a defining part of them, it wasn't just about those subjects. They're fully fledged characters. Lily is trans, but she's not just trans. Dunkin is bipolar, but he's not just bipolar. It was really nice.
I really couldn't stop reading once I started this book. There's a lot going on, but it's juggled quite well. Lily's subplot with the tree was really nice, I cried happy tears at the end.
Lily and Dunkin is a wonderful book about two middle schoolers who are trying their best to navigate the world and their problems. It is about two teenagers, each with different issues that make them stand out from the crowd. They run into each other outside of the public library one day before school starts, and seem to form a fast friendship. However, bullies, popularity, and middle school pressures make it hard for them to stay friends, at least in school. As the story goes on, the two characters continue to face new hardships and problems. Will they end up being friends to each other or will they hurt each other like everyone else seems to do? I enjoyed reading this book but some parts were difficult to read. I kept imagining my own students and troubles they are facing, which made me really sad. This book is heartbreaking! It reminded me of Eleanor and Park, another story about two unlikely friends. This is a wonderful book for middle schoolers about making friends, fitting in, and being comfortable with yourself.
If there is only one book you read this year, you must read Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart. Dunkin just moved to Florida from New Jersey. While out and about one morning, he runs into Lily, and they instantly become friends. But both are carrying deep secrets: Lily is transgender and Dunkin is bipolar. Will they both be able to survive middle school, and will their friendship last as their secrets are revealed? This is such an emotional, enlightening, and excellent book!
I don't read a lot of middle grade books, not for any reason but I just don't happen to. This one was fantastic though and everyone should read it. The representation, characters and overall storyline is so well done. It's realistic, painful but just such a good and necessary read.
This book made my heart burst. Stealing the following from Gary Anderson's review: "If I could hand one book to every educator and school board member in America and say, “I think you should read this,” it would be Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart."
I'm giving this book five stars partially because I am so happy that a book like this exists, but also because I thought it was a really good story for upper middle grade readers. This is the story of Lily, a transgender girl (who has lived as Tim up to this point) and who is starting her 8th grade year. Lily really wants to start this school year dressing and identifying as a girl. Her mother and sister are supportive of this, but her father has some concerns. Dunkin is a boy who just moved to Lily's city because of something that happened with his father. Dunkin is suffering from some sort of initially unidentified mental illness that is fairly well controlled with medication. These two characters, both feeling isolated, confused and outcast, cross paths in several different ways - as acquaintances, friends, etc. The book does an excellent job addressing both the topics of LGBT issues and mental health issues. Everything is somewhat oversimplified since this is a book for a younger audience, but I feel like it really gets to the heart and humanity of people who are going through these things. It made me really emotional to read this book because I know that books like this could never have existed in my childhood, and I am so glad that they exist in my kids' childhoods. Representation is so important for empathy, and it makes me so happy that kids' books are becoming (albeit slowly) much more diverse. I can still remember when I was probably about 9 years old reading a book where the main character had cerebral palsy. But the book wasn't about her having that condition. It was about her having crushes on boys and struggling with friends. The CP was just another part of who she was. It's not like it was the greatest piece of literature ever written, but I remember it (but not its title!) and I remember thinking, "hm - she's just a normal person." And that one character in that one book has stuck with me for all these years. REPRESENTATION MATTERS! Anyway . . . this review has become something not about this book. Anyway - five stars!