This post will be continuously updated to track developments in criticism of John Boyne’s My Brother’s Name Is Jessica.
Please drop a comment or send me a message if you know of any news, reviews, or anything else I’m missing. I’m particularly interested in finding reviews from trans readers who have read the book, or any engagement by the author or publisher with the criticism.
“Sam Waver has always idolised his big brother, Jason. Unlike Sam, Jason, seems to have life sorted – he’s kind, popular, amazing at football, and girls are falling over themselves to date him.
But then one evening Jason calls his family together to tell them that he’s been struggling with a secret for a long time. A secret which quickly threatens to tear them all apart. His parents don’t want to know and Sam simply doesn’t understand. Because what do you do when your brother says he’s not your brother at all? That he thinks he’s actually . . . your sister?”
(Publisher synopsis via Goodreads)
According to a brief article in The Bookseller, “My Brother’s Name is Jessica is about Sam’s journey towards acceptance of his sister Jessica, who transitions from male to female.” (1) The article quotes the author:
“I became interested in exploring how a child would deal with complicated issues of gender and sexuality, not when it’s a struggle that he’s facing, but when the struggle belongs to someone he loves. I hope My Brother’s Name is Jessica will enlighten young readers on the bravery of transgender youth and make them understand that this is just another facet of human nature that can be celebrated.”John Boyne, quoted by Charlotte Eyre for The Bookseller
The book first appeared on my radar through this tweet by Elise @ The Bookish Actress:
With a few exceptions, as of 3/31, the replies to this tweet are condemnations of the title and synopsis.
The premise drew a number of comparisons to Julia Anne Peter’s 2006 YA Luna, which also centers on the sibling of a transgender teen and drew some of the same critiques.
My Brother’s Name is Jessica, which is not available on Netgalley or Edelweiss, appears to have been released to reviewers in a very limited number of physical galleys. As of 3/31, Goodreads has 24 reviews of the book, 16 of which are by readers who claim to have read the book itself.
As with the controversies over Blood Heir and A Place For Wolves, several sharply critical reviews come from reviewers who have not read the book itself responding specifically to the premise.
A particularly long review comes from AJ White, who writes in part:
Here’s my honest opinion. I don’t have to read this book to feel the heartbreak I know will go with it. Everything I’ve seen so far has just made me even more exhausted and disheartened than I already was. So unless the title and synopsis are completely and utterly wrong, unless they have literally nothing to do with this book, I don’t even have to look at the first page.
White’s review is referenced by several other reviewers.
Another review by a reader with a physical galley was published on Medium in January. In his review, blogger Ben Creeth focuses on many of the same complaints as the negative Goodreads reviewers. (2)
According to Creeth, advance copies of the book were sent out with a note from the author that included these lines:
One of the worst pieces of advice you can give a writer is to “Write What You Know.” I don’t want to write what I already know! I want to use writing to explore new avenues of the human soul, to take me to places and people I’ve never been before. Never tell a writer to merely write what they know.Ben Creeth quoting John Boyne (I have not verified this quotation) in The Trick Is To Keep Blogging for Medium
Creeth takes issue with this message: “It’s not a problem to be imaginative. It is a problem to tell a story which a real transgender person could tell with more truth, especially when the existence of this book makes it less likely that another one with a trans author will be published.”
Creeth is the only reviewer I’ve seen so far who has mentioned plot details from the latter half of the book. He describes two issues he sees in the climax: The “Capital-E Evil” parents “transform into these understanding, tolerant pillars of wisdom with a speed that’s thoroughly unconvincing,” and the fact that the climax “involves Jessica saving the day by dressing back up as a boy.” [Creeth’s emphasis]
Update: 3-31-19 3pm
I’ve seen a few others weigh in on My Brother’s Name Is Jessica today, which happens to also be “Trans Day of Visibility.”
I’ve been looking for more reviews from readers with proof copies, but haven’t found much apart from this positive review from a blogger.
I also found a comment from Naomi Colthurst (Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House Children’s), who aquired the novel: (3)
John is one of the world’s most beloved writers, and we are enormously proud to be publishing his incredibly exciting new book. JESSICA is not only a wonderful story packed full of John’s signature wit, warmth and emotion, it is also a hugely timely and urgent call to arms for better empathy and understanding about the complexity of gender identity, which is so important, yet still so misunderstood.Naomi Colthurst, quoted by Writing.ie
The Irish Times ran an article today by John Boyne discussing his views on gender and My Brother’s Name Is Jessica.(1) He describes his friendship with a transgender woman (to whom he refers with both male and female pronouns at different points in the article) which he says inspired the story. Boyne writes:
I felt it was important to write the novel from the perspective of the nontrans character as it allowed me to express Sam’s own confusions and misunderstandings and employ some of the inadvertently hurtful remarks that he makes while his family is going through a period of crisis.
He explains that researching the ebook sent him on a “similar journey” to Sam’s, one in which he “asked stupid questions at times, and probably made some ill-informed remarks.”
On the subject of the response by trans readers, Boyne says:
My hope is that My Brother’s Name is Jessica will not just help inform young people but will also allow them to ask questions – stupid questions at times, insensitive questions, just like the awkward questions that I asked when writing it – because this is how we learn. And how we start to understand.
I’m apprehensive about how the book will be received by the trans community but I hope they’ll feel that I’ve treated the subject with care. The problem is that on both sides of the debate, there are so few nuances, so few shades of grey, that it feels like it has to be all or nothing. That you’re either an ally or an antagonist. But I’m not sure that life is quite so simple.
Or, indeed, quite so binary.
Boyne also states that he rejects the label “cis” for himself, considering himself simply “a man:” “…while I will happily employ any term that a person feels best defines them… I reject the notion that someone can force an unwanted term onto another.”
(1) Charlotte Eyre, “John Boyne Writes Novel About Transgender Teen for PRH Children’s,” The Bookseller, Oct 24, 2018, web, 3-31-19
(2) Ben Creeth, “#346: Book Review — My Brother’s Name is Jessica — John Boyne,” The Trick Is To Keep Blogging, Medium, Jan 27, 2019, web, 3-31-19
(3) “New John Boyne Book for Children about a Transgender Teen,” Writing.ie Magazine, Oct 25, 2018, web, 3-31-19
(4) John Boyne, “Why I support trans rights but reject the word ‘cis,'” Irish Times, Apr 13, 2019, web, 4-13-19