I am interrupting my teen hitchhiker series to bring you this book recommendation while it is fresh in my mind. I had pre-ordered it and when it arrived a couple of weeks ago, I devoured it in two days. Since then it has been weighing on my spirit, in a good way, just like another verse novel I read very recently, October Mourning by Lesléa Newman. It is an important book and I want to add my recommendation to others.
Author: Kristin Elizabeth Clark
Publisher: Farrer, Strauss Giroux Books for Young Readers, October 2012
Form: Novel in Verse
Themes: Sexual orientation, transgender, wrestling, family life, high school
I’m in the wrong skin but there’s no way to make it right because I’m not into long fingernails, high heels, or skirts, either.
I’m Freakboy and there will never be a place for me.
This young adult novel is told in verse from three teen points of view, whose lives interweave as the plot develops. Brendon, the main protagonist, and for whom the book is titled is a white middle class teen from a divorced background, with atheistic beliefs, great commitment to his little sister, love of gaming, an ambivalence towards his wrestling team, a good relationship with his girlfriend with whom he enjoys sex (or at least being close to her body) but whose soft skin, long hair and gentle curves also make him envious. Vanessa, who is a better wrestler than her boyfriend, Brendan, and occasionally gets teased about being a bit butch, is in that typical teen infatuation stage of focusing everything on her boyfriend and forgetting her girlfriends even exist. Angel, whose story runs tangentially at first, is a black, working class, Christian, boy-girl trans teen, who was kicked out of home and has lived on the streets prior to working at the LGBTQ center.
Brendon’s brief encounter with Angel early on touches a subconscious nerve in Brendon, provoking him to lob a stone through the center window in a moment of great gender self-doubt. This incident brings these two trans lives together in a lovely platonic nurturing friendship which is kind of rare in teen literature. Angel’s self-confidence and courage (she outs herself to the guy she crushes on) is intentionally set in stark contrast to Brendon’s constant emotional turmoil in the novel. Much of the novel is taken up with Brendon’s inner dialogue of self-loathing, questioning, confusion, and, at times, suicidal thoughts, and the impact his conflict has on relationships around him. Angel’s sage advice and support is a breath of fresh air throughout the book.
Brendon pursuit of his place on the transgender spectrum moves significantly forward, but does not come to a tied-up, neat conclusion. Vanessa, whose priority is to discover what’s bugging Brendon and to hang on to their romantic relationship, is clearly not going to have resolution either. Angel, who has had some hellish demons of her own to fight, comes out a little more optimistically than the other two, but the book intentionally leaves the ending open.
Why I like this Book:
I admire Clark’s choice of subject and form. I am a big fan of novels in verse and find that they are often, if in skilled hands, a great choice for challenging material. While there is progressively more superb YA novels out their form the gay community, the trans/non-binary gender community is hardly represented at all in YA lit. Clark takes great care in not offering us stereotypes, and even in a foreword underlining that every trans/gender nonconforming story is unique. Each character in this novel has its own well-developed, unique voice and story, though I do feel Angel’s comes over the strongest, but this could also be because she’s a tad older and certainly more confident in her identity (gender and otherwise). I had empathy for the struggles and choices of each of the characters, finding them very authentic. Brendan’s questioning is intense and often self absorbed, which strikes me as realistic. I love that he Clark doesn’t fall into stereotyping and that one of Brendon’s questions is how can he be trans if he doesn’t want to be a girly girl?
The lack of closure was, clearly, a strong authorial choice, which I understand and respect, though I have secret hopes for a sequel as I so want to know more of Brendan’s transitioning. How great that both Angel and Brendon come to that amazingly mature revelation that their junk doesn’t define them. Amen!
I am also in love with the jacket cover design and font choice. It’s fluidity and the fluidity of the verse are part of the strong appeal of this novel for me.
Since moving to New York, I have been lucky to encounter more men and women from the trans community, and as always, knowledge and experience are powerful in breaking down prejudices. This is a gutsy, raw, important debut novel that I sincerely hope will not be read only by LGBTQ youth, but by many towards greater acceptance of what truly defines us in all our beautiful gender variation. Let me leave you with the first page quote from the author herself:
To every Freakboy and Freakgirl out there: You are not a freak. And you are not alone.
The book contains a great list of further reading and helpful organizations and centers.
More information about the book and author can be found at her website – http://kristinelizabethclark.com/