“Your New School Library” is a column of book reviews that will highlight the expanding role of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and strong female characters in literature for children and young adults today. Once a month, we’ll tell you about books that help young girls be awesome.
Thank you, Kirstin Cronn-Mills, for writing not just the best transgender YA book I have read in a long time, but simply one of the best books I have read in a long time. I’ve been in one of those weird reading phases where I’ve been reading a lot, but each book is a struggle to actually get into, and even after I do, none of them really inspire me to say, “Hot diggity, five stars on Goodreads!”
But then! Then, I fell in love with Gabe, the hero of Beauty Music for Ugly Children, from the first page on out, and the choirs of reading heaven sang a joyful tune. And perhaps I loved Gabe so much because Gabe felt sort of like me as a teenager: obsessed with music to a fabulous, compulsive degree. Maybe I wasn’t as obsessed with Elvis as Gabe is, but the mutual understanding of each other is still the same. As Gabe says, “Even bad music is good. Mostly.”
Things seem to be going pretty swell for Gabe, too, as he finishes his senior year of high school in Minnesota: He has his own late-night slot as DJ on a local radio station, and he’s entering another radio contest that could be his ticket to the Big Times. He’s coined his late-night radio hour “Beautiful Music for Ugly Children,” and get this — people are actually listening to it. They’re celebrating Gabe’s message of playing your B-side even when the world only wants to hear your A-side. [Young readers: Google “old records.”] They call themselves the Ugly Children Brigade. They even have a Facebook page!
The only kink in Gabe’s life is that Gabe is still biologically Elizabeth. And everyone in Gabe’s small town—including his parents—still sees him as Elizabeth. Radio is his one safe place to really start to come out as Gabe. But when some members of the Ugly Children Brigade find out that Gabe is actually Elizabeth From High School, things take an ugly turn, one that could possibly cost Gabe, and those who love him most, their health and safety.
While being transgender is clearly a large theme of this novel, and while Gabe goes through both danger and personal doubt and fear, Cronn-Mills has done a remarkable job at not making this seem like an “issue” book. Although I’m sure there are those out there that would label it that way, because people are always ready to label everything, particularly when it comes to YA. Gabe, to me, has the important distinction of being a character who happens to be transgender, as opposed to “a transgender character.” I never once thought of him as anything but Gabe, and the first thought that comes to mind, weeks after reading it, is not about the Mango penis he had delivered to his house so he could use the boys’ bathroom, but about wishing I actually could listen to his radio show. And perhaps one of the biggest signs that being transgendered is dealt with here not just as being a terrible “issue” is that Gabe—to his own shock—has a number of positive romantic leads, even when his suitors know that he was born Elizabeth. One girl sends a text to let him know: Doesn’t matter. Still sexy.
Gabe’s voice throughout the entire book is solid, authentic, and relatable. I never doubted it once.
Through Gabe’s voice, Cronn-Mills has also written a story that is incredibly serious while still being totally, utterly funny. I loved it.
Every Day, David Levithan (Random House, 2012)
Everything about the concept of David Levithan’s Every Day seems sharply unique and new: every day, A remains the same person, but wakes up in a different body. (Yes, a DIFFERENT A. This one is much less malicious.) “Every day I am someone else. I am myself—I know I am myself—but I am also someone else. It has always been like this.”
OK, so maybe there is something a little familiar about this idea of trippy time travel: like Quantum Leap, or jumping around the universe in a TARDIS. But there is something so much more achingly sad about A’s plight. Dr. Sam Beckett at least knew there was a reason behind his maddening character shifts, and he had trusty Al there to help give him advice. The Doctor has a level of control over where he time travels, and he (usually) has his companions. Whereas A has no idea why they wake up in a new body every day. And it has been this way since they was born. As far as they can tell, there is no one else like them, no one to offer them guidance. There is no rhyme or reason, and they are utterly alone.
Yet A has sort of gotten used to all of this, as much as one can get used to it, until Rhiannon shows up. Rhiannon is the one thing that sticks. Even when A wakes up in a different body the day after meeting Rhiannon, the feeling of love for her is still clear as day. But how can you carry on a relationship with someone who might not believe what you are? There’s no reliability, no waking up next to the other in the morning, ever. It’s a kooky idea to even try. But love is a powerful thing, and A can’t give up.
One of the biggest themes of the novel is obviously empathy, as we kaleidoscope through a variety of characters that A inhabits: gay guys, straight guys, black girls, white girls, poor kids, rich kids, transgender kids, athletes, nerds, and everything in between. The most haunting identities for me were the body of the addict, crashing and craving, and the suicidal girl, dangerously on the edge. The most disappointing for me was the one fat-shaming chapter, when living a day in the life of an overweight boy is apparently the worst thing in the world.
But the most interesting part of this book for me, and the thing that makes it so queer, is that while, yes, A happens falls in love with Rhiannon while they inhabit a male body, A insists that they are genderless. Which is why I refer to A as “them” or “they” in this review, as him and/or her is annoying to type and also actually inaccurate. A is not him OR her. They have never felt a solid allegiance to either gender. A is just A.
I love this concept, and one of the most irritating parts of the novel for me was the fact that Rhiannon, when A tries to explain this, has a very hard time accepting it. Perhaps this is a realistic reaction, and to be honest, Rhiannon was already dealing with a lot in this relationship with the constantly changing bodies thing. But the close mindedness she sometimes displayed made me feel somewhat averse to her, and it’s always hard for me when a protagonist is going out of their minds over a girl when I don’t know if the girl is worth it.
There are so many interesting things about this novel, but yet there is also still so much left unexplained, so much unresolved. And going along with the concept of gender ambiguity, maybe plot ambiguity was also something Levithan did on purpose. Not all stories can be categorized, not all stories can be explained. Is this a fantasy book? Is it a realistic love story? Maybe it’s a little of both, maybe it’s neither. I’m still not sure. What I do know is that it left me feeling overwhelmingly sad. But that could be just me: it’s the type of book you could love or hate.
If You Could Be Mine, Sara Farizan (Algonquin, August 2013)
The moment I heard about If You Could Be Mine, to be released next month, I was thrilled. I’m always on the hunt for more diversity in queer books, and here was a tale I had never heard of in the YA world before: 17-year-old Sahar has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for as long as she can remember. And luckily for her, Nasrin loves her back. There’s only one snafu in their relationship: they live in Iran, where homosexuality is illegal. On top of that, Nasrin is soon set up by her family to be married—to a dude.
While Nasrin accepts that there’s nothing to do but go along with it, Sahar sinks into ever increasing despair, determined to stop the wedding at any cost. Her solution becomes this: transition to a man, as gender reassignment surgery in Iran is, funnily enough, legal. As a man, she can finally make Nasrin hers, once and for all.
Once I actually had a chance to read an advanced copy of this, though, I did have a few small issues. But let’s start with the problem that actually became not much of a problem.
I had been nervous about how exactly this would translate for the trans community, as it presents an excruciating conundrum: faking trans emotions, as Sahar does, seems offensive (obviously). But at the same time, the fact that Nasrin would be pushed to such extreme ideas necessarily highlights the painful ridiculousness of the entire situation. Nasrin ends up joining a trans community in the novel to get advice and encouragement, and this is where I felt Farizan was able to balance this delicate act well, by showing folks who actually were living their trans truths, and accordingly exposing the spectrum of joy and hurt that being trans in Iran entails, whether their “condition” is “legally treatable” or not.
My main critiques had to do with the main characters themselves. Remember when I talked about not understanding the motivation behind the protagonist’s love interest in Every Day? It’s much worse here. Nasrin is consistently portrayed as a selfish, shallow girl, and yes, while we do believe that she loves Sahar, perhaps deeply, it’s a love that she will never allow herself to indulge, at least in a public way. And so when Sahar becomes so single minded in her obsession with Nasrin to the point of complete irrationality, I felt it was even harder to understand. When people repeatedly warn Sahar of the negative outcomes of her desires, or the futility of the entire thing, she continues to shrug their worries away, saying, it doesn’t matter. I need to be with Nasrin, and that is that.
And yes, I know that teen love—any love—can make a person remarkably single minded and irrational. But it was hard not to feel frustrated with Sahar, that she wouldn’t have had more conflict within herself, more doubt, more anger. And anger directed not just towards Nasrin’s to-be husband, but at the entire system, the entire world for letting it be so. Farizan shows the grittiness of being queer and different in Iran in many of her other characters; I wanted that same grit for Sahar. In the end, I think perhaps this novel just wasn’t long enough, and there wasn’t enough room for the deeper character development I really craved for both girls. Because at this point in YA, I expect more.
At the same time, it is hard for me to critique a novel that tells of a culture I could scarcely imagine living in. Who am I to criticize how Sahar acts—or even “shallow” Nasrin—as an obnoxious white girl in the Western world? If driven to such extreme circumstances, maybe I would act just as irrationally. I don’t know. I should add to all this that after getting through some frustrating middle parts, I did actually really like the conclusion.
And in the end, would I still stock this book in a middle school or high school classroom? Would I put it on displays in libraries? Hell yeah. It still opens the door to discussions that need to be had, and can educate a lot of young (and grown) people who may not be aware of the struggles other young people just like themselves endure in other parts of the globe.