Published by: Harper TEEN
Order at: Amazon
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: A superb tale of a teen coming into her own.
All Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty.
But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth—that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.
The first impression of the book starts with the cover. I’m loathe to admit this because I always want to transcend the notion I can look beyond the image to get to the real stuff, which would be inside the jacket cover (I’m often wrong about this. A good jacket cover is undeniably valuable). In this case, our heroine is holding up a wall: the sides of her head are shaved, her arms are crossed (over her chest…which is important), her t-shirt is effortlessly scrunched, her foot is on the wall, her face says do-not-mess-with-me. She is unadorned. She is alone. She is beautiful. She is tough. The aesthetic of the image is one used with graphic novels and comic books so there is a sense that this girl is a superhero. But because of the perspective, you — the onlooker — see her from above…which automatically means you are looking down on her.
This level of thought and attention to detail weaves all the way through the book.
Stay with me one more moment while I waffle excitedly about the first line. As much as I don’t want to admit that a cover can sway me one way or the other, I will go on and on and on about a first line that draws me in and accurately sets the scene for the rest of the book. So it goes without saying that since M-E Girard gave me a gem to work with, I must waffle on about it. Here it is:
“There are four of us dudes sitting here right now, and I’ll kick all of their butts when it comes to video games — and I’m not even a dude in the first place.”
I happen to be ridiculously impatient. It’s a problem. In this case, I stopped reading after “right now” went to the blurb on the front cover and thought, goddamn it, which freaking person didn’t do their job when it came to even getting gender identification right? There it is, right? Six words in. The MC’s a dude. Why are you calling him a girl? Then I went back to read the rest of the sentence (sentence, mind you) to see that the author gave me the clarification I needed. Oh. She’s not a dude.
Right away, I know the following.
1. Gender identity is going to be a thing. The MC’s peeps are dudes. She’s kind of one of them. But she’s also not one of them. Because she is a she. We don’t yet know whether she likes being a she but we do know she is one.
2. She has no compunction about putting someone in their place, especially not a fellow dude, especially when it comes to video games, of which she is queen.
3. The sentence starts with her having a place in the world. It’s a happy place. But by the end, there’s already an exception. And I’m not even dude in the first place. Don’t get too comfortable. Someone, somewhere got it wrong. There’s going to be a big change. Who knows what’s going to happen?
4. M-E Girard is more clever than me.
On that last point, something that I really enjoyed was this feeling that I was a cat and she was my human, shining a red laser light in one spot to catch my attention, only to wiggle it around for me to frantically run in circles, around the room, possibly up a wall to in an attempt capture these shiny, elusive things.
The things, in this case, are questions about gender, sex, friendship, family, nationality, each of which must be handled by the heroine Pen.
Gender issues are at the forefront of this book. What comes out is that Pen not only identifies as a girl, she’s happy about it. Get the rest of the world out of her head and she’s content with who she is. And because she’s butch, someone that others perceive as male-looking, she enters into a territory that enters the space reserved for transgender and intersex discussions. Bathrooms, for one. Yet Pen remains clear – she doesn’t identify as trans. Nor does she identify as intersex. SHE doesn’t identify as genderqueer at all, though she comes into contact with a lot of people who do.
It is interesting to note that while the author doesn’t say so explicitly, she does make it clear that gender is not sex. She does this by throwing Pen into situations in which the constant stream of queries on “what are you?” smack up against the prevalent and reductionist query, “so, do you have a hole or do you have a thing to stick in one?” As if fingers or toes or mouths or hair or belly buttons or arms or legs or feet or toys or walls or any infinite number of things can’t be used in any infinite number ways of stimulating and getting someone off.
Also interesting is Girard’s of secondary characters and their choices of who they are with to demonstrate this idea of a girl’s value being tied into how well she chooses a partner. There is an entire thread in this story about a smart, cool girl who has chosen the jerk. A jerk who demeans her. A jerk who is one thing in public and another in private. And when she set next to the easily persuaded stream of girls this jerk gets — with Pen’s help — the reader is confronted with how they chose to judge and value this character. She is also pitted against Pen’s love interest, who clearly has great taste (since she chooses Pen.).
I am continually and pleasantly surprised by this constant questioning of Girard through the book where she’s asking — So, where do you stand, reader? So what do you think about the line between remaining loyal and drawing a line under a friendship that clearly isn’t one anymore? How far will you go for a friend? How far will you let a friend go for you — and why isn’t it the same?
The thing that really cemented my love for the book was this exploration of what it is like to be first gen. That is, your parents are immigrants and you are the first generation to be born in your new country. Something that comes up frequently — and, man, does it feel un unfair to a kid — if a set of parents has moved to a new country for the opportunity available, why do they choose not to assimilate? Why choose to socialize only with those from the country they came from? Why try to adhere to that culture for raising children, when they are so clearly trying to fit in with the only home they know?
These questions would be very different if posted from the parent’s perspective. Pen isn’t the adult. She’s the kid. So, it’s her job (in a way) to thrash against them, adamant that is not bound by the same things they are. Different flavors of this are seen with her brother and with their cousins.
Add in the fact that their country of origin is conservative and Catholic and with very clear views on what a woman’s role. None of these, I hasten to add, have much to do with who Pen is. It would be easier if she wasn’t loved or if her parents were disinterested. But they care deeply, they are doing their best, and it physically hurts them that they are so far away from understanding their child.
It. Is. All. So. Maddening.
And she’s not perfect. No one in this book is. She messes up. Her friends mess up. Her family messes up. Some people redeem themselves and others don’t.
Put all of this together and what you get is a story of a fierce girl railing against the world in which you will feel every argument, every comfort, every pleasure, every loss, every win, every punch in the gut, and — if you are anything like me — will leave you sprawling in your chair with a cold cup of coffee next to you, dazed and repeating to yourself, wow.
Honestly, this book is so tight, you can bounce a quarter off it. I would be remiss if I did not give a shout-out to the book’s editor: Jill Davis.
What you may not like: I typically reach for an M/M novel first, then to an M/F, and lastly an F/F last – because that’s me, those are my preferences. This book transcends those preferences. I recommend this to everyone – straight or queer, caucasian or POC, top or bottom, butch or femme.
What you will love: It’s a heartfelt and courageous story about finding one’s place in the world.