The Art of Being Normal – Lisa Williamson
I want to review this because its good and I want more people to read books like this and for more books like this to be published, but I am a bit nervous about reviewing it because as a (hopefully not so ignorant) cis person (I am LGBTQA though, so I’m not completely boring.) (that was a joke) (i love and respect everyone. please don’t hurt me), I don’t want to use the wrong terminology or accidentally offend people… Please just know that by reviewing this, that isn’t my intention. My intention is to convince as many people as possible to pick this book up and others like it, so we can get more diversity into our literature and more representation into our media. It is also because I am selfish and want people to send more book recommendations. Anyway, if I say something that is SUPER WRONG let me know! I want to be educated!
Two boys. Two secrets.
David Piper has always been an outsider. His parents think he’s gay. The school bully thinks he’s a freak. Only his two best friends know the real truth – David wants to be a girl.
On the first day at his new school Leo Denton has one goal – to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in year eleven is definitely not part of that plan.
When Leo stands up for David in a fight, an unlikely friendship forms. But things are about to get messy. Because at Eden Park School secrets have a funny habit of not staying secret for long…
Ok so firstly, I have not come across all that many books dealing with gender issues. At the beginning of the year I decided that I wanted to read books about people who were gender fluid, non binary or transgender, because as you know, I am a big believer in representation for all in books, films, tv etc. My first expedition into this genre was with Alex As Well, which I got in January and was hugely disappointed with. I was expecting so much and got so little in return, this though, this was everything that I wanted Alex As Well to be and so much more. (I have read Love in the Time of Global Warming and Beauty Queens, which do feature characters that identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, but neither of those characters were narrating and the stories weren’t really about them… So, I’m going to stick with saying that I haven’t had much experience with this.)
Side note – before I continue with actually like reviewing this, I am going to, for the purpose of this review, use the word ‘trans’ I hope this is ok… Like I said at the beginning, feel free to correct me!
Right – review.
Like I said, I haven’t read many books, YA or otherwise, that focuses on trans characters and this was something that I wanted to rectify. I am so glad that this book exists and that it is a genuinely brilliant read. In fact, I’ve seen lots of other reviews of this and not one of them disliked this book, but we all need one more review don’t we? Plus, I actually really want to read more books like this and if I tell the hundreds of you that follow this blog and talk about this book, maybe one of you can recommend me more!
So, first things first, the characters. I pretty much adored every character in this book (well, except maybe Harry, he was a douchebag of epic proportions.). Something this book does really well, where other YA I have read fails, is it has a dual narration and it actually works. We are first introduced to David. David is from an averagely middle class family, goes to a good school, has accepting, middle class parents and lives in general comfort. Apart from the fact that they were assigned male at birth and they identify as female. The only people who know this (other than David of course) are their two best friends. (I am using a gender neutral pronoun there… Those more knowledgeable should tell me if that is not the right thing to do.) We also have Leo, Leo’s background is the complete opposite, we have a lower income family, living in a not so nice neighbourhood with an absent father. Not once was I confused with which character was talking, not only has Lisa Williamson managed to distinguish them by personality, but also by socialisation. I found this book to be as much a tale about class and how we interact with people from other sections of society as it is about gender and how we express our identities. Both these characters go to the same school, yet because of Leo’s background and home life, everyone assumes that he is dangerous or a ‘bad boy’, they assume he is violent or has some sort of criminal record and they assume he isn’t as intelligent. Quite the opposite, he ends up tutoring David, the kid that has always been in this environment in maths. I just found the subtle class discussion a very interesting way to emphasise the don’t judge people on appearances theme of the story.
Another thing that I really liked about the Art of Being Normal – and something that I found very wrong with Alex As Well (the only other book I’ve read with a trans protagonist) is that although this is a book about young people who identify as a different gender to the one they were assigned as birth, is that that fact isn’t the only issue they have to deal with. David and Leo both have other stuff going on… Like, I don’t know. Normal teenagers. David is bullied, they hates maths, their best friends have started dating each other and they feel left out. Leo wants to get to know his birth father, he is feeling frustrated about his living situation, he is starting a new school, he is recovering from a traumatic experience. These things just serve to make the characters more 3D, more relatable and most importantly, it makes the whole transgender storyline completely normal. I’ve said this before, I’ll probably say it again, feel free to call me a broken record, but the key to universal acceptance and understanding of gender identity, sexual orientation, whatever, is representation. People have to see others behaving in a completely ‘normal’, relatable setting in order to understand and accept something. Having these stories and these characters and those two things combined be so well rounded is so important. Basically, every character is this book is a delight to read, they’re so complex and well presented that I got a little too heavily invested in their well being. This is a great book for other people to watch you read – seriously the facial expressions I pulled while reading this!
Honestly, I was really impressed with the way this was presented. Ok, so while some of the chapters flowed seamlessly, there was a few pacing issues, especially towards the whole road trip element of the book, which to me seemed a bit random and out of the blue and ok, it maybe could have gone a little deeper, but I think this is a brilliant stepping stone into a whole world of untapped potential stories.
I think really, the only thing that I was disappointed about is we never got to hear Leo’s mother’s side of the story when we came to Jimmy. I think if that had been included, I’d maybe rate this a little higher. But you know. We can’t be perfect. Speaking of being perfect, ok, yes, this is not the best book I have ever read. The author’s voice wasn’t the most engaging, but that doesn’t matter. The overall package is really rather excellent, so like. Go read it anyway and recommend me more things like it to read!
Of course if there is anything I have said or phrasing I have used that is in any way problematic – please tell me! I won’t know if I’m not told!