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The Art of Being Normal

Review

The Art of Being Normal

Lisa Williamson has taken on the challenge of writing a young adult novel about transgender teens in THE ART OF BEING NORMAL and, for the most part, succeeds. Set in the outskirts of London, young Kate and Leo navigate high school --- and high school romance --- as trans teens. Kate, whose birth name is David and who is referred to as David throughout the majority of the novel, struggles with her fear of being rejected by her family if or when she comes out as a male-to-female trans woman. Leo is the proverbial “new kid on the block,” having been accepted to Kate's school after relentless taunting at his own local public school in the aftermath of his initial transition from a female to male trans man.

“The characters of THE ART OF BEING NORMAL are real, inspiring and beautiful: multidimensional and so tangible, the reader feels they are practically friends with them.”

After being forcibly outed at his new school, Leo --- and Kate, whom he allows to tag along, albeit begrudgingly --- run away to the seaside in an attempt to find Leo's birth father. Along the way, Leo is forced to reconcile the fantasy of a father he never had with his reality, while Kate herself is forced to recognize the relative strength of her own biological family. Despite having every opportunity to do so, Williamson resists the urge to have the two fall in love and instead allows the characters to pursue separate romances, which are left open ended for the reader to decipher on their own.

The characters of THE ART OF BEING NORMAL are real, inspiring and beautiful: multidimensional and so tangible, the reader feels they are practically friends with them. It is rare that a novel has such lovely characters and Williamson champions her characters with equally wonderful prose. The voices of Kate and Leo are distinct and oh-so adolescent.

If NORMAL suffers from anything, it is irresponsible language and research on Williamson's part: repeatedly Williamson employs outdated language of the transgender community (more than five years outdated, at this point) and some passages may be particularly harmful toward young transgender readers. (For the record: it is NEVER "too late" to transition, as Kate bemoans so early in the novel, and the heavy use of the slur "tr*nny" against Leo was...odd to say the least, considering the slur is historically used against trans women, not men.) NORMAL stands on the back of Julie Anne Peter's LUNA, published in 2004, but adds a much needed modern edge to the dialogue and characters. Ultimately, WIlliamson's NORMAL is a departure from the boring tropes of transgender YA, even if it takes a while for the novel to find its footing.

It is easy to mistake the main character of this novel as Kate ("David"), but the real star of the show is Leo --- it is with Leo's story that the novel picks up, becomes fully-formed, and realizes what it wants to accomplish. To that end, it is with Leo's story that it accomplishes so much: without Leo, Kate would not have been able to come out to her family; without Leo, Kate would not have been able to realize that her family is actually relatively awesome; and without Leo, the story would not have been able to transcend the boundary of being a story about transgender teens to "simply" become a story about, well, teens. Leo helps bring the story back to center --- to its heart --- which is the encouragement to have a little faith in your family.

Although NORMAL comes with its flaws, it is ultimately a respectable piece of young adult literature about transgender issues. It is a good, modern story about these issues for any parents, guardians and/or educators who may be struggling to understand transgender identity, transgender politics, and gender dysphoria; it is not necessarily a good, modern story about these issues for any transgender or questioning young adult, as the story does suffer from a certain sense of negligence with regards to research into the transgender community as it is in the year 2016. Yet, when all is said and done, the YA literary world is better for having Williamson's THE ART OF BEING NORMAL, and we are lucky that a writer as talented as Lisa Williamson gave us the gift of these characters.

Reviewed by Adrian Meyers on May 23, 2016

The Art of Being Normal
by Lisa Williamson