“One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy.”
__ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS, “For Today I Am A Boy”
The above is the epigraph for this book. Here are some words from the first chapter (entitled “Boy”):
“…in the first grade, we did all of our assignments in a slim composition book to be collected at the end of the year. I couldn’t imagine consequences that far away. Maybe I’d be dead by then, or living on the moon.
One of our assignments was What I Want to Be When I Grow Up. Our teacher had written several suggestions on the board : doctor, astronaut, policeman, scientist, businessman, and Mommy. Mommy was the only one with a capital letter.
Working in studious silence, I drew myself as a Mommy.
…Two days later, I found my notebook lying open on my bed. That page was ripped out. I asked Bonnie, my younger sister…The evidence didn’t point to Bonnie: she could hardly have ripped so neatly, right from the staples, making it seem as though the page had never been there to begin with. There was no one else in the family I was willing to confront.”
“The year I became friends with Roger, we were asked again. I said fireman. A picture was optional. I worked furiously on mine. The fireman had an ax in one hand and a woman in the other, and his muscles were as bulbous as snow peas. Flames danced all around. I could imagine only being the woman…I left my notebook open on the coffee table when I went to bed.”
When his father came in to to say goodnight…”He patted me on the foot through the blanket. The door clicked shut. I stayed awake for a long time afterward, wiggling my warm toes.”
The boy’s name is Peter. The setting is Fort Michel, a town of 30,000 people in the province of Ontario. Peter has three sisters, – Adele and Helen who are older and Bonnie who is younger. His father waited eight years for a son and wanted to have a dozen boys but Bonnie was the last child. He had wanted to name Peter Juan Chaun which meant “Powerful King” in Cantonese but Peter’s mother objected saying there were “too many harsh sounds, too severe for a newborn”.
In an interview with Shelagh Rogers, author Kim Fu said that Peter’s father’s journey as an immigrant could be compared to Peter’s journey as a transgendered person. Peter’s journey is, of course, the more complicated one because he must contend with his father’s challenges as they effect him and with his own challenges erected by a world not yet entirely ready to accept who Peter is or will eventually choose to be.
The parents are nicely severed from the story by giving them only “Father” and “Mother” designations and, in some ways, this enables readers to see more clearly how they influence Peter’s search for self. His sisters play more significant roles and their individual issues as well as their relationships and/or interactions with Peter remind us that Peter’s confusion does not exist in isolation. Each of his three sisters experiences difficult coming-of-age journeys. It might have been helpful to Peter to be able to see more of his sisters’ confusion but that would have been a different story so it must suffice that we see them as supportive examples for Peter.
In a discussion with Adele and Helen for instance Adele tells Peter that she doesn’t think Father likes him spending so much time with his sisters because he wants Peter to be like him. Peter, in turn, is able to state that he wants to be like Adele, to have hair like her and be pretty like her etc. When Helen reminds him that he is a boy, he rebels and Adele counters by saying that sometimes she wishes she were a boy. Such exchanges helped to bring forward issues for both Peter and the reader and kept the mood lighter than it might have been.
Each sister played important roles for Peter and one another. Adele took Peter and Bonnie to see black-and-white films and let them wear her clothes. Peter thought that when she left “all beauty would pass from the world”. Helen and Peter had a common bond: neither had any friends. Helen helped Peter throw Adele’s things in the river so that she would not go away. Peter and Bonnie were only fourteen months apart and were more like twins than brother and sister.
This is a remarkable and informative book about issues best understood by a receptive reader who truly wants to understand and/or needs to share similar experiences. I think it could be immensely helpful to young people experiencing confusion regarding gender identity or trying to understand such confusion in a friend as well as parents, teachers, counsellors etc. Aside from all that it is just a well told story reflecting a major issue in our society.