The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson is a book about two transgender teens, which deals with the matter – how do I say this nicely? – rather terribly. Let me tell you why.
I initially didn’t want to include this synopsis in this review because even the synopsis is terribly problematic – I really wish I had read it before buying and reading this book and had not just read the blurb on the back of the book instead (WHICH WAS NOT PROBLEMATIC). Though it also feels wrong to not include any synopsis so I’m going to cross out some parts and replace them by good things.
Two boysOne boy, one girl. Two secrets.
DavidKate Piper has always been an outsider. HisHer parents think he’s gayshe’s a gay boy. The school bully thinks he’sshe’s a freak. Only hisher two best friends know the real truth – David wants to be a girlKate is a closeted transgender 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
DavidKate 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…
[CONTENT WARNING: TRANSPHOBIA] I’m not transgender, but even I can see how terrible the author dealt with the characters transness. The story is about the transgender girl Kate who is closeted (and goes by David for most of the book) and the transgender boy Leo who is not out at his new school. The two of them form an unlikely friendship and that’s basically what the story is about. I thought the story itself was – except for some problematic things I’ll remark on later on – really fun and just nice to read. I love reading about queer kids and friendships.
This book hits a lot of basic trans tropes that are problematic and could have been handled so much better. I honestly wonder if the author (who isn’t trans herself as far as I know) has even asked a single trans person for feedback because I can’t believe that nobody realized how this book was basically a cis person wanting to “prove” how good of an ally they are by writing a book about trans issues (without knowing anything about trans issues). Guess what? She’s a terrible ally. If you can even call her an ally at all.
The book has a whole lot of misgendering, deadnaming and usage of the wrong pronouns and on top of that, there’s bullying, transphobia and name calling and if that’s not bad enough, here’s some more.
From here on, there will be some spoilers, but honestly, you probably don’t want to read this book after you’ve read my review so does it really matter? You decide.
I honestly thought I had somehow misremembered Leo being trans until, GUESS WHAT, the author uses it as a huge plot twist (and a bad one with that). He’s basically forced to reveil his transness to someone he cares about after which that person completely drops him. Which is very shitty.
When Leo (voluntarily) comes out to Kate, he does this by partly undressing and showing her his binder. As if there is no other way you can let another person know you are trans, except for showing your body. I cannot believe for a second a trans person would rather show (fairly) intimate parts of their body, than just saying “hey I’m also trans”.
Both Leo and Kate are outed without their permission whatsoever and even though Kate being outed was done with good intentions (I guess?), it is still a terrible thing to do. Near the end of the book, Kate’s friends out her to almost the entire school without asking her anything, and instead host her a suprise party, dress her up, and not tell her anything until it’s too late to do anything about it.
This is the end of the spoiler section! What comes next are very minor spoilers that have nothing to do with the plot.
I wanted to go a little more in depth on the use of pronouns and names in this book. Though Kate is a trans girl – A GIRL – for most of the book she still goes by her birth name and he/him pronouns. Both in narration and dialogue David and he/him are used, which I didn’t have much of a problem with until she was out. Even after Kate is out to Leo, he still continues to call her David and uses he/him pronouns. You’d think a trans person would understand the importance of names and pronouns. HE KNOWS how much it hurts to be called by his birth name and yet he still goes out and calls Kate by hers. That’s just plain bad and if the author did any research on this, she’d know.
At the point they do start using she/her and Kate, it’s treated as something the character needs to be congratulated on instead of, you know, it being a f*cking decent thing to not misgender people.
The thing about this – and more of the often badly phrased laguage of the author – is that the author makes it seem as if Kate is not a girl, but instead is a boy wanting to be a girl. In the narration there are several mentions or sentences that not just imply this but even state this literally. Just a paraphrased example Kate says near the end about her parents “how freaky it must be to see their son being dressed up as a girl.” If I know anything about gender identity (and the same goes for sexual/romantic orientation), I know that it’s not a choice. You don’t pick and choose to what gender(s) you’re attracted (if you’re even attracted to any gender at all) and you also don’t choose being trans. A trans girl is a girl and a trans boy is a boy and using language like ‘wanting to be [a certain gender]’ is very problematic and promotes the idea that transness is a choice (which it isn’t).
As I said before, I’m not trans and though I try my best to educate myself on trans issues but if you found anything I said in this review to be wrong or problematic or anything, please tell me and I’ll try to do even better in the future.
Here are some #ownvoices reviews written by trans people: by Neo on GR and by James on Tumblr. On a side-note, PLEASE for the sake of my sanity, like some ownvoices reviews and/or reviews about how problematic it is on goodreads and make them the top reviews so people see what a shitstorm of a book this is. I can’t stand the fact that it has over 4 stars and everyone praises how amazing it is.