The Strategic Deployment of BasicIn Depth
Call Me Max, my early reader that ignited protests from angry parents in Utah and Texas, is written for a first or second-grade audience. It has a carefully controlled vocabulary and short sentences; it’s divided up into four chapters, despite being very short. It’s a book designed for kids just learning to read, who aren’t ready for more advanced chapter books but want a story they can tackle on their own. And it’s a fairly straightforward plot: We meet Max, learn a lot about him, including that he’s transgender, and then he goes to school. He makes friends, comes out to his parents, and has a happy ending. A Jezebel reporter called it “anodyne” and “frankly pedestrian,” and she’s not wrong.
See, I did that on purpose. The other trans-themed children’s books I’ve written are far more complex. My debut middle-grade novel, Too Bright To See, is a ghost story where the main character is haunted by either dysphoria or a dead gay uncle. My picture book, When Aidan Became A Brother, is about a young trans boy helping his family welcome a new baby. My forthcoming picture book biography, If You’re A Kid Like Gavin, co-written with young activist Gavin Grimm, follows the trans teenager’s legal battle over his right to use the boys’ bathroom.
I came out as trans fifteen-ish years ago, and I have gotten to the point where I find “Once upon a time a person was trans, here’s what that means, isn’t he brave, the end” to be a deeply uninteresting narrative that I never want to read again. I try to write books that display the depth, and breadth, and possibilities of trans lives, depicting trans people as active agents in re-imagining and re-creating the world around us, not just passive objects responding to transphobia, always forced to talk about ourselves using reductive metaphors or an itemized list of medications and surgeries.
But I wanted to try something else with Call Me Max. First, I wanted to write a somewhat basic (okay, extremely basic) trans 101 book that didn’t fall back on stereotypical or tired or misogynistic tropes. This is why Max never talks about having the wrong body, he has a boy friend who likes dresses, a girl friend who’s more butch than he is, and at the end he has a whole social network full of other trans kids instead of being forced to fit into a wholly cis world.
And second, I wanted to write a book that was bulletproof.
I know how censors and -phobes and -ists work. If they want to pull a book about a gay teenager, they won’t say, “It’s because we hate gay people.” They’ll find a workaround: “It’s because of the sex scene, if that wasn’t there we’d be okay with the book, it’s just too graphic.” Angie Thomas’s masterpiece The Hate U Give has gotten criticism for all the f-bombs, when we all know that it’s because racist people are racist. My friend Alex Gino’s book, Melissa’s Story (neé George), a sweet and similarly straightforward narrative about a young trans girl’s coming out, has gotten complaints over a tiny reference to “dirty magazines.” Critics aren’t furious because it’s a book about a trans girl, no, of course not. If it weren’t for that one incredibly brief and inconsequential reference they’d have no problem with the book, nosirree, not at all.
If they want to pull a book about a gay teenager, they won’t say, “It’s because we hate gay people.”
I wanted to write a book where the only possible objection to the story would be blatant, undisguisable transphobia. Where there is not a scene, not a sentence, not a word that someone could pull out to use against it in the flimsiest argument about its appropriateness. If you’re opposed to this book, you are opposed to trans people, period. And I give you no way to weasel out of that.
It turns out that people will still protest a book even when that reveals their unvarnished prejudices. A Utah school district decided to halt a program called “Equity Book Bundles,” mostly resources around racial justice, after a third-grade teacher read aloud a copy of Call Me Max brought in by a student. Not long after, a fourth-grade teacher in Austin read the book to her class, sparking a district-wide response treating my book like a traumatic event.
And I was right: no one is latching onto any little details in the book, no one has suggested that if I just phrased this bit differently, or taken out that part, it would be fine. This simple, anodyne, pedestrian description of one white trans boy, in a plain T-shirt and cuffed jeans, is seen as a direct threat to the wellbeing of any child who comes into contact with it.
As a fairly basic white trans man who mostly wears plain T-shirts and jeans (not cuffed anymore, I get them hemmed, finally), this hurts a lot if I think about it. I spent eight years as an elementary school librarian, only leaving in 2020 to focus on writing full-time, and my students, preschoolers through fifth-graders, mean the world to me. Plenty of them know I’m trans; after my first year on the job it became a generally known fact. Not something that came up all that often, but not a secret. Sometimes kids would ask me questions about it, and once answered they would literally just respond with “Oh, okay,” and go on with whatever they were doing.
In the open letter I wrote the Eanes school board, I asked if they thought that their letter “would encourage talented transgender educators to apply for positions in your schools”; I never stopped being grateful to work in a school where my trans history didn’t detract from my humanity, my expertise, or my right to work in education. My peers elsewhere aren’t so lucky.
Like I said, one of my intentions behind writing “Call Me Max” was strategic, to see if I could remove all possible variables and force people to prove their bigotry. I didn’t stop to think if anything could be gained from that. It’s nice to be right, but I don’t know what to do with that knowledge—especially since it’s not something I ever doubted before.
People keep asking how I’m doing, how I’m feeling, if I’m okay with what’s going on. And for the most part, I’m fine—I’m in Brooklyn, far away from Austin or Utah, mostly just writing books and petting a cat and riding my bike. In my school librarian days, the one formal challenge I received (over a book about puberty) was a far more stressful and upsetting experience.
But it is fascinating to know that a little book I wrote several years ago for a new imprint of an educational press is suddenly the latest conscript into a public debate disingenuously framed: “Trans People: Okay, or No?” As a relatively well-adjusted adult, a gay man, a writer, and a transsexual since the olden days of 2005-ish, that debate is both numbingly boring and a matter of life and death.
Kyle Lukoff is a writer and former elementary school librarian.