Title: Lily and Dunkin
Author: Donna Gephart
Publisher: Delacorte Press, May 2016
Themes: Transgender children, manic depression, bipolarity, mental illness, bullying
Lily Jo is not my name. Yet.
But I am working on that.
That’s why I am in the closet. Literally in my mom’s walk-in closet with Meatball at my heals.
One summer morning, Lily Jo McGrother meets Dunkin Dorfman, a new boy in the neighborhood and their lives forever change.
Lily Jo, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl born in a boy’s body. Being true to your gender identity is not easy matter when you are entering 8th grade and have to daily face a nasty group of Neanderthal bullies, who don’t just stop and mental bullying. Lily has an ultra-supportive Mom, sister and best friend. Her dad loves her to bits but has the natural concerns for the safety of his son/daughter and her desire to be true to herself. He knows how cruel the world can be.
Dunkin Dorfman, born Norbert Dorfman, is dealing with a bipolar disorder, just like his dad, who did not accompany him and his Mom when they moved to Southern Florida from their home in New Jersey. Dunkin is also in denial about what really happened to his dad.
This novel is told from the two points of view, often covering part of the same scene from their different perspectives. Both 8th graders face isolation, bullying and misunderstanding as they face identity challenges. Lily is eager to halt the testosterone surges of puberty with hormone blockers before it is too late, meanwhile, the city is threatening to cut down her favorite park tree and refuge, that she’s named Bob after her beloved grandfather. As the new kid in town and enjoying the unusual ‘positive’ attention from the in-crowd due to his height and basketball potential, Dunkin joins the 8th grade team and hangs with the ‘Neanderthal’ bullies despite knowing this betrayal of his new friend Lily is wrong. However, the only way for Dunkin to have the energy he needs for this activity is to ditch his bipolar meds.
An important basketball game, Halloween and the end of year school party provide perfect scenes for crisis and triumph.
Why I like this book:
This is an issues book, and while not every Middle Grader will face gender identity issues or mental illness, many many will have friends that do and many will face questions about their own identity and sexuality, they will face bullying, they will face pubescent hormones, betrayal and friendship, depression and doubt. While the realities of coming out as a transgender teen and spending time in a psychiatric ward will challenge many young readers, this is a book I would recommend to almost all my middle grade students because of its universality and sensitive and sincere portrayal of these important themes and issues.
There are some very humorous and tender moments of interaction and I was very happy to see that both children had some tremendous home support. We live in days where both gender identity and mental illness are being more openly addressed in homes and schools and books like these are VITAL to these conversations. While weighty topics, the tone was pitch perfect for a MG novel. The authenticity of the bullying and betrayal (and reasons for both) struck me forcibly. From the first page I was invested in the heartache and courage of Lily and Dunkin and their friendship that you know will win through the trials. This is a story about acceptance that I will be highlighting in my school library and buying for some of my middle school friends!
I want to add that the secondary characters are masterfully crafted and fleshed out in Lily and Dunkin’s worlds with panache and color. I especially loved Bob, the tree, and Dunkin’s feisty fitness obsessed Russian grandmother and her healthy snacks!
Telling you the end would be too much of a spoiler, but I haven’t cried like that during a last chapter for a while. Gephart’s ending is a masterpiece.
The author includes several pages of transgender and mental health resources at the back of the book as well as two pages of discussion questions. (and some resources about tree conservation.)
Here are other reviews on Miss Marple’s Musings about books with transgender protagonists.
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