This Is How It Always Is (2017) by Laurie Frankel is contemporary fiction that tells the story of the family created by Rosie, an ER doctor, and Penn, a writer, and the five children they have: Roo (Roosevelt), Ben, the twins Rigel and Orion, and baby Claude. At first it seems that all five are boys, but as Claude goes through the year he is three, among the things he wants to be when he grows up is a girl. He is certain, consistent, and insists upon wearing a dress to preschool.
One family tradition is Penn’s telling of made-up fairy tales most nights. Sometimes, all five of the kids huddle together at bedtime to hear the tales of Prince Grumwald and Princess Stephanie, who is also a Night Fairy but has to hide it. Penn’s stories always have thinly-disguised lessons.
Rosie and Penn support Claude unconditionally, and by the time Claude gets to kindergarten, he wears dresses at home but pants at school, and his drawings of himself are getting smaller and smaller. He doesn’t have any friends because the other kindergartners think he’s weird. After Christmas, he goes to school dressed as a girl fairy. His school wants to put a label on him so that they know whether to treat Claude as a boy or as a girl. He chooses a new name, Poppy, after Rosie’s sister who died of childhood cancer. Poppy is gregarious and has many friends when they are on vacation and don’t know her as Claude, and things are going generally well, except for the occasional bigot.
Then one day Rosie treats a gunshot wound and beating victim, a college student who is transgender and doesn’t make it. She realizes that it’s not safe for Poppy in the midwest, and they decide to pack up everything and move to Seattle. She gets a job in a family practice, and all seven of them fly to their new home, although not all of them are happy about it.
Five years later, Poppy is starting 5th grade and is part of a group of four girl friends, including her next door neighbor. No one knows her history, as the first adults Rosie and Penn meet and tell–their next door neighbors–say that they aren’t going to tell their daughters. So all seven in the family maintain the secret–they don’t put up family pictures with baby Claude, and just generally don’t talk about Poppy’s history. When Poppy has a sleepover, she changes in the bathroom.
All is mostly well, except Rosie’s practice has more expectations than just seeing patients like the ER did, and Roo is dealing with adolescent angst. And then somehow Poppy is outed as having a penis. She cuts her hair and decides to never go to school again, and feels like she has to be Claude because Poppy is a lie. So Rosie agrees to meet one of the extra expectations the practice requires–and goes to work in a clinic in Thailand, as long as she can take Poppy/Claude along with her.
Of course, in Thailand everything is different than home, and Claude/Poppy notices something else. Women like her, everywhere. While Rosie does the best she can with a limited menu of treatment options, Claude/Poppy teaches English to small children and they start trading stories. Rosie is assisted by a medic/midwife/mechanic named K, and they eventually talk about K being kathoey, which translates as ladyboy. In Thailand, there is not as much stigma with being transgender as elsewhere, because of the Buddhist tradition that being kathoey is just another way to be, because of karma and the idea that one’s soul will go through many permutations, some male, some female, some both.
When they come home, Poppy is ready to be herself–all of the above. It was a brilliant book, so well done. It made me want to go to Thailand, and affirmed my belief that if supported, kids will tell us who they are and in this way, they have the best chance of growing into happy, healthy people.
And the bonus: no fatphobia or diet culture. Not one word. Bravo!