Reviewed by Bookgazing.
David is a social outcast; dubbed ‘Freakshow’ by the bullies at her posh school, Eden Park, and hopelessly in love with the most popular boy in school. Despite the efforts of her two best friends, Essie and Felix, David is often miserable, particularly because, although everyone around her sees David as a boy, David knows she is actually a transgender girl. David dreams of being called Kate and is desperate to publicly present her true identity, but she is afraid of what will happen if she tells her parents. She can only be open with Essie and Felix in private.
Leo Denton, a new student at Eden Park, just wants to keep his head down. He plans to do well at Eden Park, go to a good college and escape from his life in a run down part of town. When Leo arrives at Eden Park, David tries to make friends with him but Leo refuses and resists making friends with anyone. In Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal the reader is fed small clues about Leo’s past life but, like Eden Park’s gossipy students, they are largely left in the dark about the reasons why he isolates himself and has such a violent temper.
While fighting back against the bullies, David is put in a vulnerable situation when her journal falls into the hands of her tormentors. Leo steps up out of instinct and defends David. This incident forces them to spend detention together and there they begin to form a friendship.
Mainstream young adult fiction about transgender teens is rare. In her analysis of the LGBT fiction put out by mainstream publishers in 2014, author Malinda Lo identified one YA novel, published by a mainstream publishing house that featured transgender characters. Lo has run versions of this analysis for four years and has identified that only six YA novels featuring transgender characters have been published by mainstream presses since 2011. This scarcity makes The Art of Being Normal a special, important piece of young adult fiction, but this novel also challenges a pervasive character story that attached itself to LGBT literature and is still being eroded. And to explain why I’m going to have to spoil its major secret. Fair warning.
Half way through The Art of Being Normal Leo reveals that he is also transgender. Named Megan by his mother, Leo started to identify as male from an early age. That The Art of Being Normal features two transgender characters of the same age makes it feel particularly special. With so few novels being published, it’s difficult to say that teenage transgender characters routinely exist in young adult novels without transgender peers groups. With so few young adult books featuring transgender characters it’s hard to talk about wider patterns. Currently, the pattern is absence. What The Art of Being Normal highlighted for me was that I had never heard about a young adult novel that featured multiple transgender characters or a teenage transgender community. The Art of Being Normal shakes off that story type and the way it might other transgender people by making them seem rare and singular. David says each school is supposed to have an average of two transgender teens, so why shouldn’t books tell stories which at least reflect that figure?
The friendship between the two teens is the core of this novel. Essie and Felix offer David support but she doesn’t feel like they can completely understand because they’re cisgender. Plus, they’ve recently become a couple and she feels just a little isolated by their new relationship. David can be open with Leo, and can learn more about being transgender from him. Leo gets a friend he can safely be honest with and he starts to rebuild some of the faith he has lost in people. He also starts to reconsider whether he wants to keep his transgender identity to himself forever. For these two teens, the friendship of an equal peer is their way out of silence and it helps them move towards happier lives.
Despite their friendship, Leo and David’s lives are still often hard and feel fraught with the danger of being outed. By moving to Eden Park, Leo hopes to find a fresh start. If no one knows that he has transitioned no one will question his masculinity. Leo moved from his old school because some of his fellow pupils still saw him as female and wanted to punish him for transitioning. They lured him into the woods, slashed his clothes and tried to cut off his chest binder. Leo’s plan to start again works perfectly until he falls in love with the most popular girl in school, Alicia. Alicia likes Leo and pursues him, but when he tells her he is transgender she breaks away. Her friends, intent on vengeance, unearth Leo’s secret which they then spread all over school. Transphobia runs rampant, and it isn’t easily silenced.
However, The Art of Being Normal makes it clear that life isn’t over after Leo is outed; people’s reactions to him being transgender don’t define or affect his whole life. Which is not to say that being transgender isn’t still an important part of both character’s lives, rather that Williamson’s novel also gives its characters other important issues to navigate, as in real life. Leo deals with his broken relationship with a difficult mother, but their clashes have nothing to do with Leo being transgender. As part of Kate’s first public outing, Leo and Kate go on a trip to find Leo’s absent father. Family is very key in this novel, where Leo’s twin Amber and little sister Tia provide a constant, positive grounding force.
Crucially The Art of Being Normal doesn’t forget to add pure teenage fun into its pages. While looking for Leo’s dad the two get drunk in a pub, Kate buzzing with the excitement of wearing the right clothes. Leo ends up doing terrible karaoke. Leo and Kate go to an alt-ball planned by her friends and have fun, despite the negative comments from some of the people who are allowed in. It provides a balanced picture of the way life could work for any transgender character with a good support network. The need to deal with prejudice, coming out, and working through other big life issues is brought together with the character’s ability to have fun, and shows a realistically mixed life that modern transgender teens could live.
I still wished for some kind of romantic happy ending for Leo at the end of this novel, romance still being a huge literary badge of happiness, and that didn’t come to pass. However the fact that this novel ends so positively, with two trans characters surrounded by so much support from their parents, support groups and from other trans teens, is a pretty great ending.
Lisa Williamson, The Art of Being Normal (David Fickling Books: London, 2015). 978-1910200322, 355pp., hardback.