Posts Tagged With: gender

Almost Perfect

by Brian Katcher

Logan is still smarting from his break-up with Brenda, his chaste girlfriend of three years who cheated on him in the backseat of a car with some random dude. His friends try to convince him to ask out someone new, but he isn’t interested–until Sage Hendricks transfers to his school. She’s cute, she’s weird, and she seems really interested, but some secret from her past is keeping her from being anything more than friends with Logan. Everyone thinks they’re together, and Logan wishes they were… until he kisses Sage and she tells him her secret: she was assigned male at birth. Logan freaks out about what this means for him, but as Sage remains part of his life, he starts to think about what it means for her and what it doesn’t have to mean for them.

I’m really happy a book like this exists (even though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, which I’ll get into later). It’s not a great book for a trans person to read, because it is so much about the ungenerous things ignorant people think when they first encounter a trans woman, but it’s a great premise for a reader who still has a lot to ponder about trans issues. Logan is a hick, and his response to Sage’s revelation is horrible, but pretty realistic. He worries that it means he’s gay, he worries that others will think it means he’s gay, he thinks Sage tricked him, he grapples with the image he has of Sage’s body. He treats her like dirt, and I wanted something better for Sage, but I appreciated the realism. Logan evolves realistically over the course of the novel, but he’s still not perfect by the end, which I liked even though I still didn’t like him. I loved Sage and I thought she was a really well-rounded character, especially for a trans character in an issues book, since they usually treat “problem characters” like Sage as props for the “normal” main character’s emotional journey.

What I absolutely hated about the book was all the racism. Some of it was unnecessary characterization of Logan’s friends: Sam is a fat Japanese-American who is compared to Buddha more than once; Jack is a white kid whose favourite joke is an “Engrish” pun. But the worst instance of racism in the book was Logan’s description of going to a frat party:

Approaching Greek Town was like riding up to an encampment of angry Indians. I could hear their war cries long before I saw them.

None of these descriptions or characterizations are valuable in any way, and it frustrates me that they were not edited out of this otherwise valuable book. Yes, a lot of LGBT-themed YA books are about middle- or lower-class white teenagers, and as problematic as I find that I will still recommend those books to teens. I’m so desperate for good trans YA fiction that I probably would have still recommended this to teens with the racist characterizations of Sam and Jack. But the “encampment of angry Indians” bit is inexcusable.

With great regret, I have to say that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

edit: Definitely did not think this review would ever find its way to Brian Katcher. He seems like a decent fellow and he took my criticism seriously, so I’d definitely give his next book a chance. I’ve removed a line I wrote about the award this book received, because while I still have problems with race issues being overlooked in LGBT book awards, it was a pretty mean thing to write.

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Hana-Kimi vol. 1

by Hisaya Nakajo

Mizuki Ashiya loves Izumi Sano, a teen high-jumper in Japan, so she stalks him online to find out where he goes to school. Unfortunately, it’s a boy’s school, so if she wants to get close to him she will have to disguise herself as a boy! She travels from America to Japan and enrols in the school, only to discover that Sano has quit the high jump. Luckily they are roommates, and she hopes her proximity to him will allow her to befriend him and change his mind. Meanwhile, she is the new prettiest boy in school, and her feminine beauty causes her classmates to question their sexuality. Also included in this volume is a bonus story called “The Cage of Summer,” about a girl whose angelic second cousin comes to stay with her family, only to reveal himself as a bad-boy player who promises not to seduce her friends if she promises to kiss him.

First, I’ll address the main story, which is pretty dull as far as cross-dressing manga goes. Everything happens so quickly that I can’t imagine the story retaining its secret-fuelled excitement for more than a few volumes. Mizuki is clueless and insensitive and a stalker, so I don’t really care for her or understand her motivation. Izumi is ambivalent, so I am ambivalent about him. Even the dog who lives in their dorm is boring.

Second, “The Cage of Summer” bonus story is not an appropriate story for teens, since it romanticizes sexual abuse. The boy not only pressures the girl into kissing him, but he banks on his innocent facade to encourage her to remain silent about the abuse, since no one will believe her if she tells. She then sees that he is hurting because his parents are getting a divorce, so she warms up to him and has sex with him, after which he leaves and avoids all contact with her for two years. In the end, he transfers to her college. Happily ever after?

While Hana-Kimi is pretty harmless (at least in this volume–I won’t be reading on), the bonus story has a really damaging message and may be traumatizing for teens who have suffered sexual abuse, especially because of its positive portrayal of abuse. I would feel uncomfortable recommending this to anyone for that reason. Even without the bonus story, there are other manga series featuring cross-dressing I would recommend before this one.

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Beauty Queens

by Libba Bray

When a plane full of beauty queens headed for the final leg of the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant crashes on an island in the Atlantic, all but 13 of the contestants perish. All of the stranded girls have their own priorities: Miss New Hampshire wants to figure out how to survive on the island, Miss Texas wants to continue to practice for the competition, Miss Rhode Island needs to find her medication, and Miss New Mexico has to figure out a new hairstyle that will distract from the airline tray stuck in her forehead. Surviving the elements is the first challenge, but the girls will have to learn to love and respect themselves and each other in order to make it through the trials that await them on the island. While the beginning of the story focuses on the skeptical Miss New Hampshire (Adina Greenberg), we get to see each of the contestants’ thoughts and backstories as the book goes on. The story is occasionally interrupted by commercial breaks, and includes product placement footnotes from our sponsor, The Corporation.

I was pleasantly surprised that this book was actually overtly feminist. It’s a satire, so it gets a lot of flak for having characters who are just stereotypes, but Bray turns a lot of the stereotypes on their heads. There are a lot of characters who never get a name beyond Miss [state], but even this gets some tongue-in-cheek attention near the end of the book. For a story with such overt political messages, it is shockingly funny! Even though the characters discuss some complex political issues, the book avoids a didactic after-school special directness by staging these conversations in settings that would be either realistically appropriate for such conversations or hilariously inappropriate for them. Of course a group of beauty pageant contestants would discuss Feminism 101 over campfire. And a backstory about colonialism is totally pillow talk material before oral sex! But, race politics while sinking in quicksand? Well, that’s just awesome. While the book sort of spirals out of logical control in the last quarter, none of the messages are lost in the chaos, and it’s still pretty funny. There are some glaring plot holes, of course, but I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief for what I got in return: a socially responsible survival satire starring a group of kick-ass ladies.

Recommended for mature teens who are comfortable enough with reading non-descriptive sex scenes. Ideal for teens who are interested in social issues, but funny enough to be enjoyed by teens looking for something silly.

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f2m

by Hazel Edwards & Ryan Kennedy

Skye doesn’t feel like Skye. Born and raised female, Skye feels like a boy. Nobody knows this about him, and everyone treats him like a butch lesbian. His best friend always tries hooking him up with hot girls, but he can’t focus on who he’d like to be with when he still hasn’t sorted out who he is. When he writes “Finn” on a nametag among a group of friends, they go along with it as a silly role-playing scenario, but he worries about how they will react when the time comes for him to fully transition from Skye to Finn. f2m follows Finn as he navigates the complicated world of transitioning from female to male.

I’m glad that this exists and is in my public library because it’s a subject that is little covered by young adult literature. Another original point is that Finn is punk, and he worries that his non-traditional appearance will make it harder for him to convince a psychiatrist that he wants to be a guy. Aside from the punk trait, Finn and his story are pretty generic. He’s a white 18-year-old from an affluent 4-person family living in a metropolis. Although he seems to know no more than his own preference to be male at the beginning of the book, he rapidly moves through all the huge life events involved in transitioning within the next few months, including hormone therapy and chest surgery. What I worry about with this book is that it really only appeals to people who seek out stories about transitioning, and they will get an unrealistic picture of how easy the transitioning process is. A lot of the reactions Finn received were realistic, though: his all-girl band members found it anti-feminist, other friends didn’t care, and his mom felt like she was losing a daughter. The least realistic and most problematic for me was his brother’s reaction, which was that he would feel more comfortable with Finn once he had chest surgery because then they could be bros instead of Finn being some girl he couldn’t talk to because boobs and stuff. While I don’t think a book about a little-covered subject has to be all things to all people, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see Finn go through all of the questions about his gender that led him to be sure he wanted to transition. He seemed so single-minded about it, but also completely unprepared for the trials of transitioning, which I thought was odd for a person who grew up in a metropolis and was involved in a queer/punk/feminist underground scene. It made it harder to be invested in his quest because I wasn’t confident that he was completely sure of what he was doing.

I’d recommend it to anyone 13 and up looking for a story about transitioning, although I would warn them that this book is very idealistic about the process and doesn’t go into any of the politics or personal reasons for transitioning.

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Leviathan

by Scott Westerfeld

Alek is the prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents have been murdered, his country is in turmoil, and his life is in danger. He has had a few lessons on how to operate a Stormwalker, a biology-inspired war machine, but he has to learn most of it while he is on the run from rebel forces who do not want him to ascend to the throne.

Meanwhile, in England, a tomboy named Deryn disguises herself as a boy in order to be allowed to serve in the air forces. She earns a spot aboard the Leviathan, a whale-like airship woven from strands of animal DNA. As Deryn and the Leviathan make their way toward the Ottoman Empire to deliver a top-secret package, Alek and his Stormtrooper head toward neutral Switzerland for safety. Their meeting complicates everything.

This book is fantastic, even if it ends without resolving much (paving the way for a sequel). The narration switches perspectives depending on whether the focus of the chapter is on Alek or Deryn, which gets pretty neat when they meet and Alek believes Deryn to be a boy named Dylan and refers to her with male pronouns. Even though the characters were unoriginal (rebellious rich boy who has to learn about real life the hard way, daring common girl whose unexpected romantic feelings undermine her ‘masculine’ ambitions), it was overall an original read, and the characters develop a lot more in the sequels. Definitely one of the most imaginative steampunk stories I’ve read so far, and with beautiful illustrations.

A good read for anyone who is interested in steampunk, alternate history, books with a World War I setting, or plucky cross-dressers. Very similar story elements to Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, with a more complicated setting.

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