Cat Clarke’s The Pants Project could not be more timely. The novel – which follows the anti-uniform campaign of a transgendered boy forced to wear a skirt – offers a fresh and joyful voice to middle grade literature. Structured around Liv’s fight against the principal’s archaic dress code, the novel explores Liv’s journey towards being himself, including embracing his nontraditional family, finding his voice both in public and at home, and accepting that friends come and go as one’s self and needs change. The novel is a source of hope for transgendered adolescents and the people who love them. While The Pants Project recognizes that there is no perfect ending (Liv never meets his bigoted grandfather, who dies still ostracizing Liv’s two moms) it also assures young readers that it is possible to live fully, happily and, most importantly, truthfully, regardless of who you are.
Liv is an electric character, bubbling with charisma and driven by admirable bravery. Even when he wakes up with a “sick, heavy feeling in his stomach” at the thought of facing school, bullies, and the dreaded skirt, he stubbornly pushes forward on behalf of himself and his cause. Liv’s voice bursts with color and originality on every page; readers will enjoy his take on the simplest of things, such as comparing being transgendered to being a transformer. Readers will root for Liv’s noble anti-skirt cause, will empathize when Liv sacrifices hobbies such as swimming due to dysphoria, and will fall in love with his best friend Jacob, the only person who treats Liv the way his readers know he deserves.
Despite how hopelessly lovable he is, Liv is not a perfect person; when a fellow bully victim offers help, he rejects her out of fear, and a sort of relief that she is treated worse than he is. But these details about Liv’s character make him even more real, someone readers will see mirrored in themselves. And through the moments when Liv reveals his “anger problem,” or slips into the liar or bully he loathes others for being, he strives to recognize his flaws and rise above them. It’s noble and inspiring, and a beautiful, complex representation of not only what it means to be transgendered or pre-pubescent, but to be a human.
The novel is not only a form of representation, but discusses and analyzes the role representation through the course of the plot. Liv finds the word for what he is experiencing – transgendered – because of “sites and blogs and tons of videos on YouTube.” He says “it was just the best thing. I wasn’t alone.” This feeling of community through online representation is what gave Liv the initial courage he needed to understand who he was. By the end of the novel, he is a form of representation for his classmates. A seventh-grader comes up to him and admits “he’d been too embarrassed to tell anyone” his father remarried a man, “but now he wasn’t” because of Liv’s outspoken efforts for gender and LGBT equality. Not all forms of representation are positive, though. Clarke makes sure to recognize problematic portrayals of LGBT peoples in media when Liv’s family watches a movie featuring a lesbian family. Liv says “we hardly ever get to see movies or TV shows with families like ours, and when we do, they’re usually kind of depressing.” Liv’s critique of LGBT representation is even more poignant because of the novel’s ending: a “mostly happily ever after” that acknowledges the bigotry of the “occasional idiot” while still maintaining hope for a future with equality. In this way, not only is the novel itself a way to represent minority youth, but it’s a commentary on current media representation.