Wednesday, May 11, 2016

If I Was Your Girl

I know out there in the kidlit community the questions "What exactly is a 'boy book?'" and "Do we really need books specifically made *for* boys?" Inherent in the first question is a need for a solid definition, in the second an argument against the idea that boys and girls think and read differently. I'm not going to try to answer these questions, but I do want to present an opportunity to think about what we want from the books boys read, and how do we best achieve that.

Okay, kind of a heavy start for a review, but this is Guys Lit Wire, and I think most of us here are committed to this idea of championing really solid literature in all formats for a broad audience of boy. This time around, perhaps a non-obvious choice on the surface if you judge by the cover, and that's my point. You look at If I Was Your Girl and think "Hmm. Is that really a boy book?" Then you read a little.

Amanda has just been picked up at a bus station by her Dad, who she hasn't seen in six year, needing to get out of the town where her Mom lives and start her life with a clean slate. She arrives in Lambertville, GA with a black eye and the overall desire to just crawl into a ball and hide after a stint in the hospital. She approaches her new school with the usual apprehensions about being the new kid in town, afraid she'll land in the same scrapes but with the hope that something will change, because she has.

You see, back at her old school she was known by her birth name, Andrew.

As a teen in the final stages of gender transition Amanda walks into Lambertville High with her guard fully up, but from the moment she walks in she feels what it feels like for the first time to be the girl she always felt she was. People not only do people accept her as a girl at face value, but she catches the eye of a couple of key jocks almost immediately. Quickly Amanda learns the pecking order among the girl cliques and seems to be able to float easily between the popular girl crowd and the sexually fluid art nerd crowd. She even gets nominated to be homecoming queen.

Now, knowing who she really is, how big of a secret she's keeping, what sort of questions would this raise in a boy reader? Is he going to think the spurned suitor Parker dodged a bullet when he finds out (if he finds out), or will the reader side with Amanda as the ultimate insider, the world of teen girls as witnessed by a former boy trying to fit in? Can she really get away with never telling Grant her secret and hope to live a normal life while keeping her past a secret? Search your feelings, guys, because this compelling narrative is an opportunity to gain empathy for a teen who is seemingly nothing like you, but in many ways is also exactly like you, just slightly more complicated.

And when Amanda is suddenly outed in front of all her new friends, who will come to her rescue? Who will abandon her as some freak? As a reader you can't help but think about which side you'll be on in the aftermath.

Naturally this book will likely appeal to trans teens, or those perhaps on the cusp of transitioning, as a story that reflects many of their own troubles and concerns and does provide an appropriate note of hope at the end, but I think many cisgender end readers -- especially boys -- could find a safe haven within a book for examining these issues that may challenge their own ways of thinking. More than anything, I feel boys could use a good dose of what it means to be a human and treat others as humans on the same path. For some it's harder, but that makes the need for understanding even greater.

If I Was Your Girl. It's right there in the title. Sister, mother, daughter, girlfriend, classmate... the 'you' is the reader. What would you do if Amanda was your girl?

If I Was Your Girl
by Meredeth Russo
Flatiron Books / Macmillian

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