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WERE I NOT A GIRL by Lisa Robinson


The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry

by Lisa Robinson ; illustrated by Lauren Simkin Berke

Pub Date: Oct. 20th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-9848-4905-2
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade/Random

A children’s biography of a complex figure.

The much-interpreted facts, not to mention meaning, of Dr. James Barry’s life are squarely presented in this quiet picture book. After opening with “Imagine living at a time when you couldn’t be the person you felt you were inside,” the story provides some scant information about Dr. Barry’s early life: his female-assigned birth and feminine name in 18th-century Ireland, the restrictive roles for women in that time and place, and Barry’s decision to pass as a man in order to enroll in medical school. At this point the story shifts from she/her pronouns to he/him, as the story dutifully but calmly follows Barry on his travels as a military doctor. The illustrations are subdued and old-fashioned, with background scenes often depicted in smudged black and gray scribbles and the White protagonist surrounded by an almost all-White cast. An early question asks, “Why did Margaret become James? She never said. Nor did he.” Despite the interesting character at its center, this story comes across as somewhat dull, the subject matter proving much more lively than the telling. It ends with the claim that “James was living his truth” without making clear what truth, precisely, Barry was living. An author’s note tries to clarify a position that isn’t as clear in the text, with final notes fleshing out Barry’s biography and discussing gender-neutral pronouns and nonbinary identities. (This book was reviewed digitally with 10-by-20-inch double-page spreads viewed at 19.1% of actual size.)

Both timely and historical.

(Picture book/biography. 6-10)