Wandering Son: The Joys and Sadnesses of Being a Transgendered 5th Grader
Stories about trans people are rare in and of themselves, but stories about young trans people? Nearly unheard of.
This is part of what makes "Wandering Son" so shocking, because it revolves around two transgendered Japanese 5th graders. Nitori Shuichi is a boy who wants to be a girl, while Takatsuki Yoshino is a girl who wants to be a boy. The two befriend each other when Shuichi transfers to Yoshino's school, and they are assigned to sit together. As their circle of friends gets to know each other, it becomes increasingly apparent that Shuichi can pass as a girl fairly easily, and several of the girls who hang out with him (particularly one named Chiba Saori, who has a bit of a crush on Shuichi) encourage him to crossdress. Meanwhile, Yoshino gets in the habit of dressing in her brother's old middle-school uniform and taking the train to places where she doesn't know anybody so she can act as a boy in public.
It is interesting to see the Japanese reaction to transgenderism, which, if this story is in any way accurate (which from what I understand it is), is markedly different from American/Western attitudes. There are outlets for both male-to-female and female-to-male crossdressing (mostly theatrical performance troupes and the like), and because of them both Shuichi and Yoshino have cultural contexts to fall back on, making it more socially acceptable to do so. Actual transgenderism, however, is not so much weird as it is hard to really comprehend at all to the world around Shuichi and Yoshino. As I've only read the first volume, I haven't reached any major backlash from adults or other students, but it seems inevitable.
The characters are very interesting. It's particularly of interest to compare our two leads: Yoshino seems significantly more confident in her masculine gender expression, so much so that no one really questions her on her masculine appearance. Shuichi, on the other hand, more clearly seems to want to be a girl than Yoshino wants to be a boy but is also significantly less comfortable in his gender expression: he rebuffs direct attempts by both Yoshino and Saori to wear girl's clothing, for example. The two of them serve as interesting foils for one another. I also like how their friendship (at least at this point) is almost entirely platonic: you rarely see that when characters are different genders, so it's refreshing when it does happen.
Saori is in some ways the most fascinating character in the story, as she is entirely female and yet seems enthralled by the concept of boys (or, to be more accurate, Shuichi) dressing up a girls. Her crush on Shuichi makes things more interesting, as making Shuichi crossdress makes it seem that she's got the nucleus of a crossdressing fetish in her future. To create an even more unique story, the author Shimura Takako makes her into a Japanese Christian, who converts in the first volume as a sign of repentance for pressuring Shuichi to crossdress. I certainly wanted to see more of her, and if I get my hands on future volumes, I definitely look forward to learning more about her.
As for downsides, Shimura Takako is not a terrible artist, but he does have flaws. Several characters look alike, for instance Shuichi and his sister Maho, which can make it hard to understand who is saying what to whom . This is also a story where very little is really explained, and you have to infer a lot of information from the behavior and reactions of characters. This is not exactly a flaw, but it may frustrate some readers. Finally, some people who are very into gender identity politics may have some objection to how Shuichi and Yoshino are depicted, as the two (particularly Shuichi) are seen as a boy wanting to be a girl and a girl wanting to be a boy respectively, rather than a girl in a boy's body and a boy in a girl's body, which to my understanding is the more accepted way of thinking about trans people in the West. However, keep in mind that both kids are rather young and that this story is coming from a different culture, so their self-identification may be a little bit different from the expected.
All in all, even though the similarity of the characters can get confusing, I found this to be both an interesting and entertaining read. It's also suitable for children of about Yoshino and Shuichi's age (10-11), so might be a good introduction to gender identity for kids in that age group. If you see it , check it out.