Catherine Ryan Hyde's latest novel deals with transgender issues

Cambria author Catherine Ryan Hyde tackles the controversial topic of transgender identity in her latest book, “Jumpstart the World.”

“I wanted to have a conversation with the world about transgender acceptance, to say, ‘Maybe this isn’t as big of a deal as you’re making it out to be,’” explained Hyde, best known for her book-turned-movie, “Pay It Forward.”

Hyde will read from “Jumpstart the World” and sign copies of it Nov. 13 at a San Luis Obispo fundraiser for Tranz-Central Coast, a local support group for transgender people.

The award-winning author of 14 books, Hyde shot into the national spotlight when “Pay It Forward” was made into a 2000 movie starring Kevin Spacey.

“Jumpstart the World,” her fifth novel for Knopf Books for Young Readers, examines often-thorny issues of sexuality and gender from a teenager’s point of view.

Elle, an awkward, anti-social 16-year-old, has just been abandoned by her mother at an apartment in New York City. She has no friends, no support structure. Even the cat she rescued from a shelter won’t have anything to do with her.

Then Elle meets Frank, a warm, gentle man who lives next door.

Elle soon develops feelings for her neighbor. But when she discovers Frank’s secret – he was born female, but identifies emotionally and physically as male – the revelation throws their friendship and her life into disarray.

“Being someone who loves and supports a person in my life who is transgender is totally my story to tell,” said Hyde, who grew up with a transgender sibling and counts a local transgender man among her closest friends.

Their experiences formed the foundation for “Jumpstart the World,” an honest, tender story about compassion in the face of overwhelming prejudice.

“Children are dying by their own hands because of the treatment they are facing in high school – or earlier, in middle school – from people who do not accept them,” Hyde said, pointing to the much-publicized recent rash of suicides among gay teens.

Many gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people encounter opposition daily from a society that doesn’t welcome or understand them, she said. And for transgender people – especially those openly transitioning from male to female, or female to male – it’s even worse. “It’s what I call the last frontier of tolerance,” Hyde said.

Hyde said she aimed “Jumpstart the World” at younger readers in part because they are more likely to be open to new ideas.

“It just seems easier for a young person to make a change,” she said. “They’re growing and changing all the time."Plus, Hyde added, young adult literature gives her the freedom to be sincere.

“You do that in adult literature and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that was so sentimental,’” the author said. “Somehow, in young adult (fiction), you get to be unashamedly emotionally direct and really hit life head-on.”