The Picture Book Buzz

Were I Not A Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry - Perfect Picture Book #PPBF

Today I have the opportunity to highlight a nonfiction biography, that released this past October. It is an important book that introduces both trans history and one man's courage to fight for his dreams and what was right. The story of a talented transgender doctor who fought for proper patient treatment.



Were I Not a Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry


Author: Lisa Robinson


Illustrator: Lauren Simkin Berke


Publisher: Random House (2020)


Ages: 4-8


Nonfiction


Themes:

Biography, determination, and gender identity.


Synopsis:

This unique picture book biography tells the story of Dr. James Barry, born female, who lived as a man from age 18 to his death.


Like other girls of her time, Margaret Bulkley didn't go to school. She wouldn't grow up to own property, be a soldier, a doctor, or hold any job other than perhaps maid or governor—such was a girl's lot in 19th century England. And was she comfortable born in a girl's body? We will never know. What we do know is that at the age of 18, she tugged off her stockings and dress, cut her red-gold curls, and vanished. In her place appeared a young man. Margaret became James Barry. James would attend medical school, become a doctor and a soldier, travel the world. He would fall in love, deliver babies, and fight in a duel. And he would live a rich full life.


Here is a picture book that is both a fascinating and sensitively drawn portrait of someone who would not be undervalued, and an important introduction to the concept of gender identity.


Opening Lines:

Imagine living at a time when you couldn’t be

the person you felt you were inside.

You couldn’t be true to yourself.

This is a story about someone who refused to let that happen:

Dr. James Barry.


What I liked about this book:

In an interesting biography where many facts are unknown, such as the birthday, actual age at death, and who did or didn't know of the transition of Margaret Ann Bulkley into James Barry, the known facts of his medical and professional accomplishments and that "he lived for more than fifty years as Dr. James Barry" are succinctly relayed to the reader in a conversational, second person point of view.

Text © Lisa Robinson, 2020. Image © Lauren Simkin Berke, 2020.


Let me tell you a little more about what we do and don’t know. . . .

Margaret Ann Bulkley was born in Cork, Ireland, sometime around 1789.

We can’t be sure—there is no official birth record.


After explaining the lack of schooling and opportunities for women in Ireland in the late 1790's, Lisa Robinson follows Margaret's move to England, where a family friend agreed to teach her and she discovered a desire to be a doctor. But, at the time, women couldn't be doctors. So, Margaret "tugged off her stockings, dress, stays, and chemise, chopped off her red-gold curls . . . and vanished." And there appeared "a young man in breeches . . . Margaret Bulkley became James Barry."

Text © Lisa Robinson, 2020. Image © Lauren Simkin Berke, 2020.


It's interesting how the illustrations for these two spreads (this one and the one before it) heighten the anticipation, hinting at the transformation - with a top hat in the partially closed armoire and the teasing edge of his green coat on the bed - and showing the shedding of Margaret's identity. An identity James Barry never returned to. The muted watercolor and pencil images are full of interesting architecture and delightful period furnishings and clothing.


James Barry completed medical school and passed the licensing test. He worked in London until he enlisted in 1813, fulfilling both of his earlier dreams to be a doctor and a soldier. He traveled with the military, performed the first Cesarean section (where both the mother and baby survived), fought for better patient care in hospitals & prisons, and was promoted to Inspector General of the Hospitals. I appreciated the author's honesty that James Barry's age at death, as well as other facts, are "question[s] that will never be answered." That "sometimes, no matter how hard we search, answers remain hidden." Definitely delivering on the books opening promise to tell us what is and isn't known.


The back matter fleshes out some of the facts of Barry's life, and the author and illustrator's notes provide detailed information on pronouns and transgender and nonbinary identities. Overall, it is an interesting biography of a man determined to follow his dreams and be true to himself. A good addition to LGBTQ+ history book collections.


Resources:

- is there a job you'd like to have? Draw a picture or write a description of your dream job.

- read Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall. Is there something about you that others don't know just by looking at you? Make your own crayon and wrapper (https://assets2.hrc.org/welcoming-schools/documents/WS_Lesson_Red_A_Crayons_Story.pdf)


If you missed it, be sure to check out Monday's interview with Lisa Robinson and Lauren Simkin Berke (here).


This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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