At our last meeting of the Nightlighters Book Club, I think the we had two firsts – unless I’m forgetting something. The first first was that we read a YA novel (i.e. young adult). The second, and probably more important first, was that we read book with a LGBTQAI main character.
The book? If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo.
(Soapbox side note: LGBTQAI means – lesbian, gay, bisexusal, transgender, questioning, asexual or intersex. If you feel confused or indifferent or even hateful toward any of those words, may I suggest picking up this month’s book. Hate usually stems from fear of the unknown and there is no better way to better understand something than to read about it.)
The bad-ass girls book club
If you’ve read my blogs previously then you already know I have the best book club ever. It’s filled with smart, sassy, completely open-minded and always opinionated ladies. We tend to lean toward the progressive. However, our location in the Northern Virginia suburbs just outside Washington, DC is also extremely diverse and provides us with a unique exposure to various points of view.
With that in mind it shouldn’t be a surprise that our discussion of If I Was Your Girl was extremely enlightening and educational.
The plot thickens
If you’re unfamiliar with the book If I Was Your Girl, let me give you a quick preview. It is a young adult book about Amanda Hardy, a teenage girl who flees her hometown where she lived with her mother due to an “incident in a bathroom” (irony abounds here in that she is the one harmed not the other way around). Amanda moves in with her father in the small, rural town of Lambertville where a favorite past time is driving big cars around in circles in the mud. Amanda’s goal is to get through her senior year unnoticed, graduate and then go to college in a big city like New York.
That’s not the way things go. Amanda quickly catches the eye of not one, but two football players and befriends several girls, some of them even “popular”. For the first time, Amanda has the life she’s always dreamed of. But there is something about Amanda, a deep secret that prevents her from fully embracing her new life. Amanda used to be Andrew.
So what did our book club discuss about this book? That would probably take about 10 blogs to review thoroughly. Instead, here are some highlights of our discussion that resonated with me.
Even among educated, progressive women like us, there is a lot that is not understood about what it means to be transgender.
During the discussion it was clear there were varying degrees of understanding of what it meant to be transgender. We had long discussions about the difference between sex and gender, which is an important distinction to understand when trying to understand and relate to someone who is transgender. (In case you’re wondering, sex is what you’re born with, your biology. Gender is the sex you identify as.)
What makes this book so compelling is that it provides an approachable platform to have those discussions and to explore not just the physicality of trans, but the emotional impact it has on a person and his or her family. The book not only sparked conversations among our group, but several of the woman also used it as a launchpad to have discussions with their children.
(Soapbox side note: Some people may be reticent to discuss these topics with their young children. I would actually encourage you to start these discussions early. Children understand more than you realize and are open to differences. It’s us adults that push our prejudice and ignorance on them. I Am Jazz is a great book to help start the conversation with younger kids. In my family, we’ve been talking about what it means to be LGBTQAI with my daughter for many years. Before the age of 10, she understood the difference between sex and gender, what it means to be gay or bisexual. So, when she sees Willow and Tara kissing on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and says “Ewwwww.” It’s the exact same “Ewwwww” she gives Buffy and Angel. She is equally grossed out by all kissing. That’s my girl!)
A comfortable story is a great place to introduce the unfamiliar
Several of the book club members said something similar to the following “Once I realized this was a YA book…” implying, I think (as I don’t want to make assumptions for anyone) that the simplicity and predictability of the plot may have seemed lacking if it weren’t a YA book. Yes, YA books by nature of being YA, approach storytelling in a way that makes it more palatable and digestable to a young adult audience.
However, in the case of this book, I’d argue that the simplicity or even predictability of the plot had little to do with it being a YA novel and more to do with something much more brilliant. Here’s what I think. The book uses a familiar trope as a backdrop. A new girl comes to school, finds popularity, and then a big secret is revealed that ruins everything. If you’ve read YA or watched any teenage movies or TV shows, you’ll know this story well. Think of the movies ‘Never Been Kissed’, ‘Carrie’, ‘She’s All That’, ‘Mean Girls’, you get it.
What makes putting Amanda into a story like this so smart is that it is predictable (trust me, if you haven’t read it, I’ve ruined nothing.) The story is smartly familiar. In another book, that might be a bad thing. In this book, it’s kind of brilliant. It accomplishes two things.
One: It puts you at ease. Having a familiar story makes you comfortable with a concept that may (and I stress the may) make you feel confused or uncomfortable – that is someone who is transgender.
Two: It also underscores the fact that transgender people are just like everyone else. By fitting Amanda into a story we’ve read and seen countless times with non-transgender girls, it’s saying she’s just like them. She has the same emotions, fears, experiences. It creates a connection.
This Book Isn’t Necessarily a Realistic Portrayal, But That Isn’t the Point
Several Nightlighters wished that some of the aspects of the story had been more realistic. How quickly Amanda made friends and was accepted seemed, to some, unrealistic by even the most normal of teen standards. Others expressed that they would have liked to see more complex relationships and characters. For example, several found the relationship between Amanda and her father lacking and wanted it explored further.
It was suggested Meredith Russo might even want to think of making an adult version of her young adult novel that fleshes out the characters and plots and delves into some of the more difficult aspects of her life. While I don’t think that’s a bad idea, I also think that would take something away from the beauty of this book – It’s all about Amanda, as it should be.
In the author’s notes at the end, Meredith Russo explains that she really took it easy on Amanda in a way. Her mother was supportive; she was able to transition when she was young before really hitting puberty; her mother somehow financially managed these very expensive procedures and other medical expenses; she was easily accepted by her peers.
While this might be, in some ways, an atypical story of a transgender teen girl or any teen girl, I felt that the emotion was truly authentic. My stomach twisted when Amanda’s stomach twisted. My heart broke when Amanda’s heart broke.
This book is fiction, young adult or not. For me, the purpose of fiction is to expose truth. And the truth here is that transgender kids, teens and adults are just people, like you and me, who want to be free to be themselves. They struggle with something very difficult and society only makes it more difficult with hate, and labels and vilification.
But when you read a book like If I Was Your Girl you get invested in a character, and start to care about that character – just like you care about Harry or Hermione or Elena or Clary or any other fictional character that starts to feel like a friend. That’s when you realize the truth. We need to start to view people as people and not labels if we all want to survive in this crazy world.