Word Play: A child's-eye-view of gender

With the battle over California's Proposition 8 in the headlines this week, it's worth taking a look at children's novels that consider the subject of gender and sexual diversity.

The 13-year-old narrator of Jacqueline Woodson's "From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun" (Putnam: $17.99, ages 12 and up) knows about being different. Son of a single mother, Melanin Sun was born with skin of a hue much darker than his mother's. She gave him his unusual name as a banner of distinction, but Mel has always felt like an outsider. He's quiet. Teachers have thought him slow, but he has a lot to say. He can speak his mind, however, only to his mother and in the notebooks where he's been recording his thoughts for years.

Melanin's ideas on being different have revolved only around himself. He has sensed his mother growing less attentive lately, and when she announces that she's in love -- with a white woman, no less -- his childhood world is shattered. How can she do this to him?

Woodson sketches a compelling portrait of the intimacy of this mother-son relationship, characterized as much by silences as by conversation, so she has prepared a perfect canvas on which to layer the complexities of the situation. What will Melanin's homeboys think when they find out about his mother? (One ends up sticking by him; the other decamps.) What will the neighborhood think? With their tendency to keep to themselves, Melanin and his law-student mother are already an anomaly in a poor part of town where life is observed and commented on from the windowsills, and the world of white people is far away. Did Melanin think his mother would always dump men after a few dates -- that he would always keep her to himself?

Mel's mother, for her part, is angry and disappointed that the son she has raised to be compassionate and think for himself has such a stereotypical reaction. She doesn't know that Mel has been working up the courage to call the pretty girl he has a crush on. All she asks is that her son give her girlfriend a chance: one day of hostility suspended. One day of open-mindedness. "From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun" won a Coretta Scott King Honor when it was first published in 1995 but was long out of print before this reissue.

British comedian David Walliams' "The Boy in the Dress," illustrated by Quentin Blake, (Razorbill: $15.99, ages 8-12), is intended for a younger audience (fourth grade and up) and will slyly introduce some questions for boys who like their books to make them laugh.

Dennis' mother has abandoned the family, leaving her truck-driver -- excuse me, lorry-driver -- husband alone with two sons: 14-year-old John and 12-year-old Dennis. The only hugging that occurs in this house these days is when the guys' favorite soccer team scores a goal.

Dennis has certain secrets. He rescued a photo of his mother from the bonfire where his father burned all reminders of her. He watches a daytime talk show called "Trisha," which his father derides: "It's just for girls, that." But when he falls for a copy of Vogue magazine, he knows that this is a treasure he must keep especially secret.

When he accidentally lets slip his fashion knowledge to the school glamour girl, Lisa, they become fast friends. During a cozy afternoon in her room, she persuades him to model the dress she's designing. From here it's a hop, skip and jump to accessories, makeup and "can we fool others into thinking you're a girl?" Hi-jinks ensue with cross-dressing, as any comedian knows, and soon Dennis finds himself tossed from the school soccer team just as the big game approaches.

The uproarious tone of the book, as well as the poignant undertones, are underlined by the illustrations of the fabulous Blake. His pictures, familiar to anyone who has read Roald Dahl, will make the reader feel how wonderful it must be to show off one's gorgeous soccer-player's legs for the first time in a mini-skirt and high heels.

The author goes out of his way to establish that Dennis/Denise is straight and has a crush on Lisa, which will no doubt strike certain readers as a cop-out, since it lets the author avoid many of the hairier issues of middle-school life for a boy who's discovering he's gay. But the book's scope is limited to a smaller lesson of tolerance for younger readers -- a beginner's lesson, let's say. Why are we so hung up on conformity? Perhaps, with this groundwork, the larger lessons can sink in later.

The other intriguing point about Walliams' setting Dennis up as straight is that it will make the story read to adults as a gay boy's fantasy life: You can have the freedom to dress up with the fabulous Lisa and be a hero to your soccer mates! Even in fiction, this would appear to be an impossible scenario for a boy who really does prefer boys. The author David Levithan ("Boy Meets Boy") has experimented with gay characters who grow up confident and unharassed, but then it's the whole world that seems a fantasy constructed by the author, not just the boy's life. Even in fantasy, we haven't managed to create a tolerant world yet.

Gay or straight, adult or child, black or white, male or female, it all comes down to the same questions: Do your assumptions about people color how you see them? Do your expectations blind you to the true nature of people you think you know well? Can you recognize happiness in your friends, even if it comes from a source you don't share?

For further reading, here is a list of books -- totally subjective -- I've admired on these issues:

"Gay America: Struggle for Equality" by Linas Alsenas. Amulet Books, $24.95. Ages 12 and up. A history of American gay life.

"The Arizona Kid" by Ron Koertge. Candlewick, $6.99 paperback. Ages 12 and up.

"Baby Be-Bop" (part of the Weetzie Bat series) by Francesca Lia Block. HarperTeen, various editions.

"Boy Meets Boy" by David Levithan. Knopf, $8.95. Ages 12 and up.

"Empress of the World" by Sara Ryan. Puffin/Speak, $7.99. Ages 12 and up.

"Luna" by Julie Ann Peters. Little, Brown, $7.99. Ages 12 and up.

"My Father's Scar" by Michael Cart (Simon & Schuster). St. Martin's, $15.99. Ages 12 and up.

Sonja Bolle's "Word Play" column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

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