Wandering Son (children's book review) / Boy Toy (YA book review)
As it becomes increasingly apparent that feeling uncomfortable in one's gender begins in childhood, well-written children's books on the topic are increasingly necessary. Shimura Takako's manga Wandering Son is possibly one of the best explorations of this topic.
Nitori Shuichi and Takatsuki Yoshino are two fifth graders who befriend one another when they are assigned to sit together, and discover they have something in common: Nitori was born male but desires to be female, while Takatsuki, born female, desires to be male. The two soon begin experimenting with wearing clothing of the opposite gender, encounter an older trans woman and her boyfriend who serve as adult mentors, and deal with challenges such as puberty, a classmate with a crush on Nitori who becomes increasingly jealous of Takatsuki, and even the beginnings of romance.
Wandering Son's secret weapon is how real it all feels. Nitori, Takatsuki, and their friends falter or become consumed in self-doubt much more often than they confidently are able to assert their desires, which makes when they actually succeed all the more viscerally satisfying. It also makes them seem like real children on the cusp of adolescence, with all the exciting potential and terrifying consequences that implies.
There is very little that is objectionable in the seven volumes that have been published in the US so far. It certainly would be an appropriate selection for fifth and sixth grade readers the same ages as Nitori and Takatsuki, as well as mature readers a grade or so lower.
Josh Mendel is a brilliant high school senior, as well as an unbelievably good hitter on his high school baseball team. However, he is also deeply troubled: prone to violent outbursts, intentionally isolating himself, deeply suspicious of adult authority figures, and experiencing PTSD flashes he refers to as "flickers," due to having been raped by a female teacher while in eighth grade. As his abuser is about to be released on good behavior and an important baseball game approaches, Josh is forced to deal with the issues he has been attempting to ignore for five years
Boy Toy deals with a complicated and fraught subject with an admirable amount of delicacy and tact. Author Barry Lyga is able to bring in elements like the inability of some people to treat female-on-male rape as rape, how abuse can make its victims into abusers themselves, and feelings of guilt at being victimized, and make them work for the story.
Josh is a fascinating character, paranoid and having difficulties engaging with others, but still sympathetic due largely to the story being shown from his perspective. His struggles to deal with what happened and how to react to it make a powerful arc for readers to follow.
While no real sexual content occurs in the book, its heavy subject matter means it's more appropriate for teens sixteen and up. Mature readers below that age might be alright trying it out, but in general this is a book primarily for older teens.
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