The Official Description: “Sometimes I have trouble filling out tests when the name part feels like a test too. . . . When I write letters, I love that you have to read all of my thoughts and stories before I say any name at all. You have to make it to the very end to know.”
Rowan has too many secrets to write down in the pages of a diary. And if he did, he wouldn’t want anyone he knows to discover them. He understands who he is and what he likes, but it’s not safe for others to know. Now, the kids at school say he’s too different to spend time with. He’s not the “right kind” of girl, and he’s not the “right kind” of boy. His mom ignores him. And at night, his dad hurts him in ways he’s not ready to talk about yet.
But Rowan discovers another way to share his secrets: letters. Letters he attaches to balloons and releases into the universe, hoping someone new will read them and understand. But when he befriends a classmate who knows what it’s like to be lonely and scared, even at home, Rowan realizes that there might already be a person he can trust right by his side.
Tender and wise, The Ship We Built is about the bravery it takes to stand up for yourself–even to those you love–and the power of finding someone who treasures you for everything you are.
Just the facts: trans character, growing up, bullying, sexual abuse, epistolary
A beautiful and sad story is tied to a balloon and released into the world. – Kinzie Things
My thoughts bit: I want to preface my review by saying… I am going to refer to the main character as Rowan Beck. Rowan is a 10-year-old transgender boy. While another name is used to identify Rowan in the book, and other pronouns I am going to use Rowan’s name and the pronoun he. That’s what seems right to me, but I apologize if I have confused anyone or done it wrong. That just seems right to me! Now! On to the review.
Rowan is ten years old and Rowan is a transgender boy. He doesn’t necessarily have the exact vocabulary to describe it, but he knows that he is different – special on days when he is feeling more charitable towards himself. “I’m not like other boys,” Rowan declares early in the novel and this is the beginning of the story.
His group of girlfriends have abandoned him and have begun the almost silent bullying that so often happens in middle school: laughing, pointing, exclusion. There’s Sophia… Rowan thinks that he and Sophia have a lot in common. Neither of them seems to “fit in” the way they feel they should. Together they have a tender and touching friendship. I was particularly touched by the way they would leave rocks on each other’s porches so that they knew they were each fine. It struck me as something that a young person would do… a way of existing and being noticed.
Because of the inner turmoil, Rowan is dealing with he begins writing letters to an anonymous friend. Using his allowance Rowan buys balloons and ties the letters to them and sets them free. It’s a wonderful coping mechanism and a beautiful vehicle for the character’s thoughts.
“I don’t really care if the person reading this is a boy or a girl, but for some reason picking sides seems to matter more now than ever.” – Rowan
The letters are Rowan’s way of processing what is going on in his own mind and around him. As he explores gender by signing with different names and pondering the way he feels about various students at his school – Rowan reveals that he has another secret. Clearly, he is dealing with sexual abuse at home.
The letters are very realistic, heartfelt, and reflected the turmoil of living in a home in which there is little safety. I found the voice sometimes varied a bit… there were times when I felt that Rowan seemed much younger than 10 years old, but I suppose that could be a manifestation of spending so much time alone. It’s a minor issue.
What is most touching is that Rowan slowly reveals that he is being sexually abused by his father. It’s heartbreaking to read the subtle references and I can’t even begin to describe how touching this part of the novel was. I found myself with tears in my eyes more than once.
I did feel that the 90s references in the book were a little overwhelming. Sometimes there were so many references that it pulled me out of the emotion of the novel.
This is a very important topic and I suspect that it will reach children right where they are. I don’t know that all young people will connect with Rowan as the letter-writing is something than a lot of young people won’t identify with. I do see how it would be a way of speaking when you feel as though you aren’t being heard. And, if there is any message in this book it’s that Rowan is desperately trying to say something, and no one is listening.
I received an ARC of The Ship We Built by Lexie Bean from Dial Books via Edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.