I went to a high school with a required uniform: polo shirt, kneesocks or tights, black shoes, skirt. Luckily for me, I’m feminine-of-centre and like skirts.
But they make eleven-year-old Liv “about as comfortable as an octopus in a spacesuit.”
That makes sense, because Liv is a boy. The only problem is, he hasn’t told his parents, his best friend – or his new middle school, which has a strict dress code.
Over the course of The Pants Project, Liv runs the typical “contemporary middle-grade fiction” gamut of bullies, impending puberty, family drama, lies, apologizing for your lies, losing your old friends only to gain new ones, and bad cafeteria food. As anyone who knows me knows, I am a 9-year-old at heart, so I ate it all up.
Even as a mature grown-up book reviewer, though, a couple of things stood out as unique (in a good way).
1) The trans thing, obviously.
As anyone who knows me also knows, I pounce on each new LGBTQ+ related offering that hits my shelves like a queer-identified children’s lit fanatic desperate for relatable content. So I’m excited that this is the fifth middle grade book with a trans main character to be published in the last couple of years (also, ever). The others I know of are The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey, Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, George by Alex Gino and Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky.
However, it’s important to note that of those five, only George is written by a trans person. As author Alex Gino said in an interview on The Yarn podcast, “Almost all of [the books about trans people] were written by cisgender people.
“And so they have a different feel to them.”
That lack of “own voices” in the genre brings my excitement down a notch. As a cisgender person myself, I can’t say for sure whether The Pants Project accurately depicts how someone like Liv would feel or not. At the very least, though, Clarke seems to have avoided what Gino refers to as “the trans acceptance narrative,” and the focus of the book rests much more on Liv’s schemes to change the school’s dress code than the effect his trans identity has on his friends or family.
Which brings us to:
2) The lack of fuss about everything.
My favourite thing about The Pants Project was how surprisingly little fuss was made over the things I thought would take up the majority of the plot. It reads more as a general coming-of-age than a coming-out. Throughout the book, potentially drama-inducing plot points get passed over in favour of more unique, meaningful moments – between Liv and his two moms, for instance.
Another example is when Liv and his new friend Jacob’s first attempts to overturn the skirt policy don’t work, and the two boys hatch a plan (spoiler): Jacob and a couple of other cis boys will flout the dress code rules by wearing skirts to school, while Liv wears his sought-after pants. As the scene approached, I thought there would be some discomfort on the cis boys’ part at wearing skirts, or an awkward moment in which them dressing in drag to support Liv would make his pants be seen as drag. But Clarke mostly glosses over the skirt-wearing boys, and instead focuses on the standing ovation Liv gets when he enters the cafeteria after the protest.
I look forward to reading more #ownvoices queer middle-grade lit. In the mean time, as Liv says,
I’m not going to pretend that everything is wonderful all the time. It’s not entirely a case of ‘and they all lived happily ever after.’
But how about this instead? ‘And they all lived mostly happily ever after…and managed to ignore the occasional idiot saying something stupid.’
That’s good enough for me.