Davis, Tanita S. (2012). Happy Families. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Switching back and forth between two siblings’ points of view, Happy Families has an interesting flow that reveals the inner machinations of family life in a more complex way than a single narrator could offer. The plot is relatively simple: twins Ysabel and Justin discover that their father is transgender and the family has to figure out how to process this revelation and move forward.
I found the character development very satisfying. Ysabel and Justin have distinct voices and move through their emotional processing and day-to-day lives in their own ways. At the same time, they are close; I found it refreshing that teenage siblings and their parents could be so supportive and loving even through such a rough patch. I liked that the twins alternate chapters and tell their own side of the story while also commenting on their perception of the other.
Predictably, both protagonists have to wrestle with some yucky feelings around transgender stereotypes as they are thrust quite suddenly into a new family dynamic. But inaccurate language and confusion is gradually shed as they interact with their father (the title they use), a family therapist, and new friends. By the end of the book, they are comfortable with their father again, are actively learning about transgender identity, and are optimistic about the new family structure.
Although the narrators are both presumably heterosexual and cisgender, I think Happy Families has a lot to offer to young adults of any gender or sexual identity. For youth with a queer or transgender family member, this book will help them navigate their emotional processing, moving from confusion to acceptance. And for queer or transgender youth, I think this book could be useful in terms of reading about a supportive family for whom there is a happy ending. In particular, this book might be most welcomed by youth of color; the family is African American, which is clearly an important part of their identity, but is not made immediately apparent or tokenized.
Be sure to continue turning pages after the story ends. The author has included an excellent resource section, including transgender-specific preferred terminology, terminology to avoid (and why), and information about names and pronouns. This section is helpful and informative without being heavy-handed.
Tanita Davis is an accomplished writer; previous books have won the Coretta Scott King Honor Award, Kirkus Reviews Best Book for Young Adults, and have been lauded by School Library Journal. I have no doubt that this book will enjoy similar praise.