The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

This is a revision of a review originally posted on Butler’s Pantry.

Williamson, Lisa. The Art of Being Normal. 352 p. FSG, 2016. ISBN 9780374302375.

The Art of Being Normal Book Cover

David’s classmates call her a “freak.” It started when she was eight and shared with the class what she wanted to be when she grew up. Other kids wanted to be sports stars, actresses, or the prime minister, but not David. She wanted to be a girl. Aside from her two best friends, Essie and Felix, she is isolated in her posh high school, where no secrets stay hidden for long. Although she longs to tell her parents the truth and start her life as Kate, fear of rejection keeps her feelings locked inside her.

Leo Denton is desperate to escape Cloverdale. His acceptance into the elite Eden Park High School is his best chance to leave behind the bad memories at his old school and his unstable relationship with his mother. He dreams of finding his father who left when he was a baby. All Leo has to do is keep his head down and stay out of trouble so no one will learn about his past. However, when he finds himself falling for the popular and artistic Alicia Baker, his secrets get harder to hide in the spotlight.

Set in the suburbs outside of London, The Art of Being Normal is a coming-of-age story that explores gender identity, socioeconomic differences, and what it means to fit in. Written in first-person narration, the chapters alternate between the perspectives of Kate and Leo. Overall, the self-acceptance narrative is flawed by a fixation with cis-normative standards of gender expression. Leo “passes.” He is never once denied masculine pronouns except in overt instances of bullying. However, when he chooses to share his story with his father and with the girl he likes, he faces rejection. Kate, on the other hand, gets misgendered throughout the book, even by her allies. No one calls her “Kate” until she starts wearing dresses, and the chapter markers designate her as “David” too. While The Art of Being Normal provides visibility for transgender teens, it fails to challenge cis-normative standards or break out of the gender binary.

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Looking for Group by Rory Harrison

This review was originally posted on Butler’s Pantry.

Harrison, RoryLooking for Group. 368 p. HarperTeen, 2017. ISBN 9780062453075.

Looking for Group Book Cover

Dylan might not be dying anymore, but he isn’t well either. His cancer is gone, but he doesn’t know how to start his life over again. It doesn’t help that he’ll never convince his mother, who works a late night shift, to come to his high school so he can re-register for the spring semester. Instead of starting classes, he steals his mother’s car and drives to Amaranth to find his only friend Arden, who he met online in World of Warcraft. Arden is perfect—“Everything dark burns away when she smiles”—but they come from different worlds. She has everything and has been everywhere, while he has nothing except the fifty dollars in his pocket and some Tic Tacs. Still, Arden wants to escape from her father who won’t accept her gender identity and she’s ready for adventure when Dylan invites her on an IRL quest. Together they embark for California to find a sunken pearl ship lost in the Salton Sea. Along the way they discover friendship, life, and love.

Funny, geeky, and hopeful all at once, Looking for Group explores what it means to love others and yourself. Dylan struggles with his feelings for Arden, because he has always been sure that he’s gay. He doesn’t want to love her for the wrong reasons. Overcoming self-doubt and rekindling his desire to live are central to his character development throughout the novel. Harrison’s portrayal of Arden, a transgender teen, is strong for its resistance of cisnormativity. The character’s identity and expression are never glossed over or depicted as a deficit. While over the last few years transgender teens have become more visible in mainstream young adult literature, books often focus on characters who “pass” as cisgender or who aspire to pass. What makes Harrison’s portrayal of Arden special and groundbreaking is that Arden does not pass, but she is unashamed and beautiful. Although the last chapter brings the book to a sudden ending, it doesn’t detract from the overall value and quality of the narrative. This 2017 Spring release deserves a place in every young adult collection.