Labelle, Sophie. Ciel. Translated by David Homel. Second Story Press. 2020. $10.95. 192p. PB. 9781772601367.
It’s the start of Grade 7 and Ciel’s personal life is in crisis. Their boyfriend moved to Reykjavik, leaving them with only their best friend Sophie to spend time with. Now even that time is fraught, since Sophie wants to start high school without anyone knowing she’s trans. What does that mean for Ciel?
This is a pleasantly low stakes middle grade novel about a gender-nonconforming trans 12-year-old. It’s a slice-of-life story about a kid who starts high school, worries about friendships, and wants to earn enough money to buy a nice camera to post better videos online. While Ciel does get teased by classmates, verbally harassed in the street, and bullied by strangers online, neither Ciel nor the story focus on any of that. In fact, this is one of the most unsentimentally uplifting and positive representations of a trans kid I have read. This is probably due in no small part to Labelle being a trans woman with ample experience writing trans stories for her online comic, Assigned Male.
In Ciel, Labelle has written something that cis kids can relate to and learn from, and that trans kids can also see themselves in without being demoralized. I’m not going to lie: I thought Ciel would be difficult to get into. A translated book with a nonbinary main character and a trans girl best friend written in first person present tense could have been a didactic slog. But a few sentences in, I was hooked. Ciel feels simultaneously like a mirror and an instant friend. I may have even forgotten I was reading something that was translated, except that the text still captures something of the essence of Francophone Montreal culture. Brilliant work by Labelle and Homel both.
Highly recommended for kids ages 9-12 who like realistic fiction about friendship, starting high school, trans kids, gender nonconforming kids, and stories set outside of the USA.
Reviewed by Ashley Dunne