Rosecrans Baldwin: Welcome to week three of Camp ToB 2021! As a reminder for how Camp works: Each week from now through the end of August, we're going to discuss a novel (selected by you, the readers), at a pace of two books a month. At the end of each month, you will vote for one title as your favorite, and at the end of the summer, the community will pick one of the three favorites to advance to a berth in the 2022 Tournament of Books (ToB).
FYI, the five books we read this summer that don't win the pennant may still qualify for the 2022 ToB's long or short lists.
I'm going to be facilitating the conversations this month, with Meave hosting in July, and Andrew in August. Today we're discussing the first half of our second book of the summer, Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, and Chicago's Emily Roth is this week's Activity Leader. Emily, please introduce yourself to everybody.
Emily Roth: Hi! I'm very excited to take part in this. I live in Chicago and I grew up in Michigan, so I'm a lifelong Midwesterner. I'm a children's librarian and I dabble in writing fiction for fun, so I am basically surrounded by books all the time, which is great. I love reading basically everything, but especially character-driven books that focus on relationships. Thanks to my job, I also read tons of children's books.
Rosecrans: And you're a fairly recent participant in the Tournament of Books, is that right?
Emily: My boyfriend first told me about it last fall during the Super Rooster, which was actually shortly before we started dating. He's a librarian too—in fact, we work at the same library—so naturally we are both very invested. Do you know if any other romances have been influenced by the ToB?
Rosecrans: Great question. Nope! (But maybe the Commentariat knows?)
Emily: Also, Rosecrans, before I forget, my boyfriend wanted me to tell you that our library has your new book on order!
Rosecrans: Fantastic! Campers, please know that I did not put Emily up to saying this. But yes, my new nonfiction book, Everything Now, was published yesterday, and I'd love for you all to check it out. (More info—reviews, events—can be found at my website. You can even enter to win an Everything Now-themed skateboard.)
So, Detransition, Baby is the story of three women, trans and cisgender: Reese, a trans woman who wants a child; Ames, Reese's former partner (when Ames was known as Amy), who basically detransitioned to make life easier only to then get their boss pregnant; and Katrina, said boss, a cis woman who knows nothing at first about Ames's history and will be suitably surprised. The story is told in chapters that either address the present moment, as Reese, Ames, and Katrina grapple with the idea of starting a family together, or jump back into the past to explain how they all (though mostly just Reese and Ames/Amy) got here.
Emily, what did you know about Detransition, Baby before starting, and how familiar are you with trans culture generally?
Emily: I follow a lot of book-related news for work, so I first heard about it a few months ago. I read a really great profile of Peters where she talked about her commitment to writing flawed, realistic trans characters, and that made me excited for the book.
As far as my familiarity with trans culture goes, I have quite a few trans friends, and I have read books by trans authors in the past (Little Fish by Casey Plett is a favorite). But I am a cisgender person, so by the nature of my identity, I will always be someone who has more to learn. I was familiar with a lot of concepts in the book, but there were quite a few surprises as well!
Rosecrans: I think it's gotta be true for a lot of readers, if only because this is a book that shares an enormous amount of intimate details about what life is like for its trans women, and it does so with an authority to suggest that such things are true for many trans women generally. Here are two things that surprised me off the bat: I did not expect this book to be nearly so juicy, such a romp, such an old-school comedy of manners. But I also didn't expect it to give us so many particulars about the pains of trans life—i.e., the dirty-laundry sort of details I wouldn't expect anybody to share with me, I guess, as a straight cis dude. Especially the sort of specifics that may not endear automatic sympathy but are extra-human for being shared aloud. How about you?
Emly: Yes, I'm also enjoying how sexy and funny it is!! I'm not sure if it's a surprise, because it's right in the title, but one thing that has stood out to me is the nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of detransition.
Rosecrans: Absolutely—the process of Amy becoming Ames and all of her reasons why.
Emily: I was aware that detransitioning was a thing that happened, in a broad sense, but it wasn't something I had honestly ever spent much time wondering about. In the book, for Ames, detransition doesn't quite feel like the right word, because "de-" implies an undoing, it implies a return to the person he was before his first transition, when really, he has almost become someone else entirely.
Rosecrans: That is a terrific point. And I can picture somebody who's got an anti-trans agenda, so to speak, might think this book on title alone would support their views—they're going to be pretty disappointed after only a few pages into the story.
You mentioned you have several trans friends. The trans people I'm closest to are too young for this book. Can you share if any of your friends, trans or not, have read the book and said what they thought?
Emily: As far as I know, I just have one (cisgender) friend who has read it. She said she very much enjoyed it! If your young trans friends are looking for a recommendation, I just finished Kyle Lukoff's new middle-grade novel Too Bright to See. It's beautifully written and a little spooky. I loved it!
Rosecrans: Good to know! So, for this week, we're discussing the book through chapter four, which means Reese and Katrina are about to meet, mainly because Ames has this idea (early in the book) that the three of them can become a queer family of sorts and raise the baby together. What's working for you so far about their dynamic and/or the book generally? Did you underline any sentences as you went?
Emily: Honestly, I'm not much of a line underliner in my casual reading. Is that bad?
Rosecrans: Of course not. You're a librarian. It's against the rules!
Emily: I did mark this line because it made me laugh: "Many people think a trans woman's deepest desire is to live her true gender, but actually it is to always stand in good lighting."
Rosecrans: Frankly, that's pretty true for some of us cis folks, too.
Emily: So far, I'm really enjoying the book. I find the prose sharp and the dialogue entertaining. In my creative writing classes in college, we always talked about how every book should have a big conflict and a small conflict that each resolve the other in the end. (There were fancier words than "big" and "small," but I can't remember what they were.) In Detransition, Baby, of course, the big conflict is the baby, and at the halfway point I'm not sure what the small conflict is. Rather, there are numerous small conflicts braided together, and I feel like halfway through I am still uncovering new ones. I am excited to see how everything unravels.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Reese had scraped together what previous generations of trans women could only dream of: a life of mundane, bourgeois comforts. The only thing missing was a child. But then her girlfriend, Amy, detransitioned and became Ames, and everything fell apart. Ames isn't happy either. He thought detransitioning would make life easier, but that decision cost him Reese—and losing her meant losing his only family. Even though their romance is over, he longs to find a way back to her. When Ames's boss and lover, Katrina, reveals she's pregnant with his baby—and that she's not sure whether she wants to keep it—Ames wonders if this is the chance he's been waiting for. Could the three of them form some kind of unconventional family—and raise the baby together?
Book description excerpted from publisher's summary and edited for length.
Rosecrans: That's interesting. I actually felt, if I'm going by your schematic, the baby was the smaller conflict compared to the three of them figuring out what they mean to each other. How about things you're struggling with?
Emily: I wouldn't say I'm struggling with this, but I am questioning why so much of the story takes place eight years earlier at the beginning of Reese and Ames's relationship, when the bulk of the conflict happens in the present. So I'm curious to see how the past and the present inform each other in the second half of the book.
Rosecrans: I have similar questions about the structure, kind of as a matter of weight. For me, the pre-conception story—the story prior to Katrina getting pregnant, mostly about Reese and Ames/Amy's backgrounds—is heavy with drama in a good way, so much plot, characters, and concerns. Whereas the Reese-Ames-Katrina negotiations in the present feel smaller, despite the stakes, and pretty repetitive, turning from one fairly predictable set piece—and set of concerns—to the next. I guess I'm pretty much half and half on the novel so far. The contemporariness and voice are super compelling. After a difficult start (I had to take notes just to keep track of characters' names and genders and relations to one another), I was turning pages the same way I felt pulled along by, say, A Little Life. At the same time, that pace didn't help much when the dialogue turned clunky or read turbo-charged, or when a shift in point of view felt forced. Frankly, things felt a little screwy whenever Reese became a mouthpiece for complaints about life in New York City that sound a lot more like the concerns of somebody working in media or publishing (e.g., the author, maybe?) than somebody with the job and background and concerns we're told that Reese possesses. But these are small quibbles, considering how gripping the story goes, no matter the shifts in balance.
Emily: I agree with you about the weight of the structure. There is so much happening in the pre-conception story, and so much of it feels important. I'm not sure where it's going, but I'm enjoying the journey. The present story feels more focused.
I wouldn't say there is anything else about the book that is particularly bothering me; as a whole, I am really enjoying it. I agree with you on the dialogue, though—there are definitely lines that feel a little forced. But I guess I tend to suspend my disbelief with unrealistic dialogue in books, unless it's notably bad (which this isn't, in my opinion!).
Rosecrans: Here's a thought: Does being a Midwesterner, considering some of the Midwestern backgrounds at play, figure into which characters you connect with?
Emily: The chapter set in Chicago was great! Drinking too much at a work dinner and revealing your colleagues' secrets in River North is a quintessential Chicago experience.
Rosecrans: For anybody who hasn't read the book, there's a moment when Katrina and Ames visit Chicago on a business trip and attend a client dinner that gets out of hand.
Emily: I would say I connect best with Ames/Amy. I've struggled a lot with anxiety around how other people perceive me, although I think to a certain degree that's a universal experience.
Rosecrans: I hear that. You know, I was trying to figure out which character I'm connecting with best, and it's tough. Perhaps Katrina, if only because she seems to me the most fully drawn? I deeply sympathize with Reese and Ames, I appreciate reading about their lives and problems, particularly their sexual desires and financial concerns. At the same time, both have been positioned so unsympathetically, in my opinion, it's difficult to get my heart involved. The closest I get with Reese, for example, is when she makes bad decisions in her sex life—I think any person of any gender can appreciate making bad decisions while sleeping around—but then she says or does things to remain a shade too two-dimensional or stock, and I'm shoved away.
So, by the time I reached the middle of the book, which I sincerely have been enjoying, my main takeaway was something like "desire is a motherfucker."
Emily: Haha! That's a perfect takeaway. I would have to second that.
Rosecrans: Here's a question since you're a children's librarian: How often do books about trans people or trans experiences get requested?
Emily: I actually don't think I have ever had a patron specifically ask me for books about trans people, but my library has a great selection that circulates well. I try to make an effort to display and promote LGBTQ+ works by including them in displays and booklists, or making them front-facing on the shelf.
Rosecrans: Does trans culture come up in conversations at work?
Emily: My colleagues and I talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion a lot, although the children's department is a staff of all white cisgender women and we're perpetually learning. We're working on a diversity audit of our collection right now, where we're assessing how much of our collection features diverse characters and/or is written by diverse authors. We have a collection of over 30,000 books, so it's quite a process!
Rosecrans: I can imagine. What are some other LGBTQ+ books you recommend for younger readers?
Emily: There are quite a few! For little ones, the picture book What Riley Wore is one of my favorites. It's a cute, simple story about a gender-nonconforming kid who loves to dress up and wear fun outfits. I also love the picture book When Aidan Became a Brother, which won the Stonewall Book Award last year, about a little trans boy who is preparing to become a big brother. The nonfiction book It Feels Good to Be Yourself is a great introduction to gender identity for young readers, so I'd recommend that one for kids and parents to read together. For middle-grade readers, another new book that I'm excited about is Ana on the Edge, about a nonbinary figure skater, which is getting great reviews.
Rosecrans: Maybe the question behind the question here is, considering the way that books that are labeled LGBTQ+ are frequently challenged or banned around the country, is this a controversial topic for your library?
Emily: Luckily, not really. Prior to the pandemic, I had a parent walk out of storytime while I was reading a story about families that included families with two moms or two dads. It bothered me, but my manager and the library director were very supportive of my choice to read the book. The book was super innocuous—I think all of the families were animals—so it was unfortunate to see someone get worked up over something so harmless!
As far as I know, we haven't encountered any requests to ban titles at my library, although we have a "suggest a purchase" form on our website and a couple months ago we received some requests to purchase Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier, which is extremely transphobic and posits that there is a "trans epidemic" putting children at risk. It was a tricky situation, because we had to question whether not purchasing it would be unnecessary censorship. One of my colleagues spoke to someone at another library who did purchase Irreversible Damage, but they also purchased a pro-trans book to sort of balance it out and represent both sides in an effort to be neutral. I am all for neutrality, but not when one position is hatred toward a marginalized group of people. Ultimately, we did not purchase Irreversible Damage (thank God).
Rosecrans: Something people say when they're pushing to ban such books is that libraries shouldn't put books in front of children that "require discussion." Where do you stand on that?
Emily: I think that's a really unfortunate perspective, but I know it's one a lot of people hold. Whenever kids ask me for book recommendations, my goal is to give them something that they will genuinely enjoy, but I also hope that it will show them a perspective that's different from their own and make them think!
Rosecrans: Cheers to that!
Emily: Earlier today, I watched a kid take a book about Stonewall off the shelf and ask their parent if they could check it out. The parent said, "OK! We will read this together and learn about it." I thought that was an amazing response! It was great to see a parent excited to help their kid learn about a topic that might inspire a lot of questions.
Rosecrans: What a heartening way to close things out for today. Major thanks to Emily, and thanks of course to all of you for participating in Camp ToB. We'll see you in the comments, then back here again next week as we wrap up Detransition, Baby, when we'll also vote to decide which of June's books moves into the final poll.
Our Sustaining Members make this event possible. Please take a moment to find out why TMN and the ToB depend on your support, and consider becoming a Sustaining Member or making a one-time donation. Remember: Sustaining Members get 50 percent off all ToB merch at the TMN Store, including Camp 2021 designs!
The Camp ToB 2021 Calendar
- June 2: No One Is Talking About This through part one
- June 9: No One Is Talking About This to the end
- June 16: Detransition, Baby through chapter four
- June 23: Detransition, Baby to the end
- June 30: Klara and the Sun through part three
- July 7: VACATION
- July 14: Klara and the Sun to the end
- July 21: Whereabouts through "At the Cash Register"
- July 28: Whereabouts to the end
- Aug. 4: Peaces through chapter eight
- Aug. 11: Peaces to the end
- Aug. 18: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch through page 137
- Aug. 25: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch to the end
- Sept. 1: Announce summer champion
You can find all our summer titles at our Camp ToB 2021 Bookshop list.