“Words have the power to change the world. Use them carefully.”
– Donna Gephart, Lily and Dunkin
Lily and Dunkin is a YA novel by Donna Gephart that follows two teenagers through their final year of middle school. The novel’s dual narrative creates a heartfelt story that addresses the trials of adolescent friendship, gender identity, bullying, mental health, and the importance of respecting (and being respected by) friends and family.
Before I go on, it’s important to note that I am cisgender and Lily and Dunkin centers on Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a cisgender boy with bipolar disorder. While I am lucky enough to have lovely gender nonconforming friends, as a cisgender person I do not have the same lived experiences, so my firsthand knowledge of Lily’s storyline is limited. Much like Dunkin, however, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager. Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar disorder have high and low moods known as mania and depression.
“Practice. Only six days until school starts.”
The novel begins with Lily sitting in her bedroom closet, draped in the soft fabric of her mother’s clothes, the week before the start of school. She feels alone in her struggles, though she knows from the internet that, statistically, there are many other trans people in her home state of Florida. Lily wants to start her 8th grade year as herself, as Lily, and not as “Tim,” which is the name her parents gave her at birth. Lily’s father doesn’t support her transition, especially not her public transition. In the first chapter Lily ventures to the front yard, wearing a dress, to help her father carry in groceries. He shouts, “Timothy! What the hell are you doing?” And Lily, who deflates like a balloon, thinks to herself, “Practicing, Dad. I’m practicing being me.”
Lily’s father fears for her safety and happiness, albeit not in the most constructive ways. He refuses to let her wear gender-affirming clothes outside of the house, uses incorrect pronouns, and fails to listen to her explain why she needs to transition. However, Lily is supported by her mother (who eventually convinces Lily’s father to visit a doctor to talk about Lily’s transition), sister, and best friend.
“She’s always reminding me about the heat and drinking enough water, even when we lived in New Jersey. Even when it wasn’t that hot outside. Possible dehydration is a risk from of the medications I take—my mood stabilizer.”
We meet Dunkin on the same day, a week before the start of school, walking to his grandmother’s house in the hot summer sun. He had just moved to Florida with his mother to live with her mother, his maternal grandmother. Dunkin, like his father, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As the novel progresses, we see how Dunkin manages his bipolar disorder while simultaneously struggling to find friends at a new school, learn a new sport, and deal with the absence of his father. Dunkin first sees Lily when she is outside her house, wearing a dress and helping her father carry in groceries. He thinks she’s cute and waves at her. The second time they meet, Lily is wearing “boy” clothes and explains to Dunkin that her sister dared her to wear a dress. Lily does not immediately come out to Dunkin as trans and much of the novel focuses on her figuring out how to publicly transition and come out at school.
The novel surprised me with its thoughtful consideration of transgender issues. Gephart did her research, which she acknowledges at the end of the book, and it definitely shows. At the end of the book she writes,“This work stands on the shoulders of the bravely told stories that came before it—the stories of Jazz Jennings, Janet Mock, Jennifer Finney Boylan and, many many others.” The novel is peppered with important statistics and facts like how hormone blockers affect trans adolescents, the importance of using correct names and pronouns, and how trans celebrities have become life-saving role models. And while Lily is only an eighth grader, she is shown as having the most knowledge out of her family, friends, and peers about trans issues and rights. This is incredibly important because it illustrates that trans youth do know what they’re talking about.
Gephart also addresses mental health issues respectfully, something that is unfortunately not always the case in literature. Gephart wrote Dunkin’s character for her son, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, to provide better representation for youth with mental illnesses. The overall representation of the disorder is one of the best I’ve ever read (and one of the only depictions of bipolar disorder I’ve read in a YA novel). Dunkin’s manic and depressive episodes, paired with his aversion to talking about his mental health and purposefully missing doses of medication to induce a manic state, mirror my own experiences. The start of Dunkin’s negligence of his medication is a familiar story–he misses a dose and realizes he feels fine, better even. He thinks, “Oh well, too late now. It probably won’t make a difference anyway.” This is an unfortunately common, and potentially dangerous, trend in treating mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.
One of the most important aspects of the novel for me was that Lily and Dunkin are allowed personalities and problems outside of their marginalized identities. As the novel progresses, Dunkin worries about making the basketball team and living with his fitness-obsessed grandmother. Lily leads a protest to save the tree outside of the public library, worries about attending the school dance, and comes to terms with her best friend bringing a new friend into their group. This is incredibly important because LGBTQ and neurodivergent characters (characters with mental illnesses) are often reduced to one personality trait, one obstacle, one resolution. This, of course, isn’t true to real life. Teenagers everywhere can attest that their lives are full of intersecting identities and issues. Lily and Dunkin does a great job of showing that no one is dealing with a single issue. Both parents and adolescent readers can benefit from reading YA novels full of complex characters and problems.
One shortfall of the novel is its tendency to lean towards extremes. Dunkin’s bipolar disorder is characterized by some uncommon symptoms, especially near the end, that were most likely included to demonstrate the severity of mental illness. This particularly irks me because I remember being a teenager and thinking that I didn’t need to see a doctor because my symptoms weren’t “bad enough.” While the symptoms of bipolar disorder vary widely, I would have liked there to be a larger focus on how bipolar disorder affects people on a day-to-day basis, and that your struggles don’t have to be at outwardly extreme levels to seek help.
We live in a scary time, especially after the most recent election in the United States. Representation, knowledge, and empathy are more important than ever. I urge you to seek out books by trans and gender nonconforming authors, or stories that center on complex queer and trans characters like Lily and Dunkin. Diversity is essential and we have to support diverse books by diverse authors. Check out We Need Diverse Books, a grassroots organization that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. I also highly recommend checking out The Gay YA, a website dedicated to reviewing LGBTQ YA books and supporting LGBTQ authors. It’s a great resource for finding new LGBTQ YA novels
If you’re interested in reading a novel that is both insightful and fun, I’d definitely recommend Lily and Dunkin!
Amanda lives in Indiana with her growing family of felines and books. She recently earned her BA in Women’s Studies and English and hopes to use her knowledge and skills to destroy the patriarchy, or at the very least create more spaces for communication and engaged activism. Amanda’s hobbies include infrequently blogging, working with nonprofit organizations, rereading Harry Potter, and caring about things. Follow on Twitter @amandandwords