Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Jonas & Nicole Maines graduating from Waynflete School

Becoming Nicole is the true story of my daughter's friend Nikki told by a Pulitzer winning journalist. This moving biography of a transgender girl is as much about her dad's psychological evolution toward acceptance as her physical transformation into a woman. A science journalist for The Washington Post, Amy Ellis Nutt does an excellent job of explaining what it means to be transgender biologically and legally, but the personal story of this working class family brings the message home.

Nikki and her identical twin brother, Jonas, grew up in the university town of Orono in Maine. From age two Nikki identified as a girl, preferring traditionally female clothing and toys. Her mother and brother supported her choice, but her conservative Republican father was initially uncomfortable. He feared for the safety of his child and how others would judge them, causing tension at home.

Although Nikki's friends accepted her, a classmate and his grandfather objected to Nikki using the girl's bathroom in their elementary school. Nikki and her family sued the school district, but the legal case took years to resolve. Suffering from bullying and stress, Nikki relocated with her mother and brother to Portland, the biggest city in Maine, but her father had to stay back in Orono (140 miles north) due to work.

Phuc Tran's senior advising group at Waynflete School: Gemma is second from left & Nikki is far right

Unhappy at her new public school, Nikki and her brother transferred to Waynflete, a progressive private school in Portland, Maine. All the bathrooms were switched to gender neutral before Nikki and a transgender boy started freshman year with my daughter; Gemma was in the same advising group with Nikki too. The community welcomed everyone. When Nikki won her court case to use the bathroom of her gender identity, she announced the victory at assembly and the whole school cheered for her. Nikki is now an activist for transgender rights and at college in Maine.

Freshman year pre-prom party at our house. Nikki is second and Gemma is third from the left.

Twins Jonas and Nicole Maines
I met Nikki and Jonas at prom time freshman year. Waynflete is so small that prom includes the entire high school, but like most schools, there are exclusive pre-prom parties. My daughter was upset when not all of her friends were invited to a fancy pre-prom party at a seaside mansion. At my suggestion, Gemma declined the invitation and hosted her own party at our house. Nikki came early with the girls to dress for prom and the boys came later for dinner. Everyone had lots of fun. I also enjoyed meeting Nikki's parents and hearing about their family's hard past and relief to be at Waynflete. Even so, Becoming Nicole taught me stuff I didn't know. I'm grateful for this book and for having Nikki and Jonas in my family's life.

I strongly recommend Becoming Nicole (2015) to everyone. Although the book was written for adults, the focus is on Nikki's childhood so it's a good read for tweens and teens too. Nutt does a fine job of making science, law, and politics easy to understand and fascinating. The writing was excellent and the content is appropriate for classroom use. This gorgeous book will make you cry - especially given Trump's reversal on transgender rights - but it will also leave you with hope.

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@Barrie Summy


Lucy said...

What a wonderful story and how cool it is that you know those involved. Great review.

troutbirder said...

On the cutting edge of social and cultural change. Thank you Sarah for personalizing this book for us. For me a plain spoken real life book like this is attractive because of my lingering ignorance on some of the subject. Silence is acceptance. I'm glad people are speaking out...:)

A Cuban In London said...

Very relevant for the times we live now. I don't know if you heard it on the news but sex education will be made compulsory in the UK. High time I say. Sex is not just about what you between the sheets but how you view the world and the respect you accord others re their decisions on their own sexuality. Great review. Thanks.

Greetings from London.

Linda McLaughlin said...

I agree with Lucy. This is a wonderful, important story, and how cool that you know Nikki and her family.

Unknown said...

I'm always impressed with the personal element in your reviews. This one in particular. Sounds like an excellent read--thanks for the review.


Sarah Laurence said...

Lucy and Linda, thanks!

troutbirder, my mom just went out and bought this book to educate herself.

ACiL, that is great news about the UK teaching Sex Ed! I agree with what you said about respect. Part of the reason I write YA is to address these issues at an age when kids are still forming their sense of what is right or normal.

Linda, thanks! Nikki and her dad thanked me, although the choice to review this book was my own.

Alyssa, thanks so much! The books I like best often touch me on a personal level, this one especially.

Stacy said...

I thought I had commented on this yesterday. Seems not.

It's fun to have the behind-the-scenes photos of Nikki, along with the review. I must confess I know very little about transgender issues and should probably become educated on the matter.

Sarah Laurence said...

Stacy, this book is educational, covering the science and some of the legal history. The personal angle humanizes the facts.

Barrie said...

What a wonderful review about an important book. And I agree with the others...the personal touch adds another layer. Thank you for including photos. I'll definitely read Becoming Nicole. I'd like my daughter to read it, too. She a very accepting person, but I think it's good to know a bit of the science behind things, too. Thanks for reviewing!

Petra Pavlátková said...

Sarah, it must have been an interesting and educating experience to get to know someone like Nicole and her family personally and to be able to read about the struggles and decisions they went through. These stories always make me think about how far we can and should go in our transformation. As open as I try to be, it would be difficult for me too if my kid came home announcing they wanted such a change...

Jenn Jilks said...

The USA is having such a problem with this issue.
It all boils down to reciprocity.
People can be so fearful.

Good work, reviewing this. Good work, doing what you do!

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, I'm looking forward to chatting about this book with you. Thanks for reading, sharing, and hosting!

Petra, it wasn't easy for Nicole's father, but this book is important to read as a parent not only to understand what being transgender means but also as a guide to parenting. As our kids mature, we all encounter differences and struggle to understand their world from their perspective before making parenting decisions. Nicole didn't have surgery until she was 18, which is a legal adult in Maine.

Jenn, especially recently. It's painful seeing the progress in transgender rights in recent years being reversed by the new administration. Luckily, legal precedent still stands.

thecuecard said...

Thanks for the review. Sounds like a great book, also for understanding the issue better. I was at The Post for 15 years so it is great Amy is there now. Sounds like a terrific journalist.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cue, she's a talented writer. It must have been a wonderful experience working at the Post. My friend John Kelly is a columnist there.