The Art of Being Normal is a YA novel about two teenagers who attempt to navigate high school, crushes, and the inevitable difficulty that comes of being trans.
Two boys. Two secrets. David Piper has always been an outsider. His parents think he’s gay. The school bully thinks he’s a freak. Only his two best friends know the real truth – David wants to be a 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 11 is definitely not part of that plan. When Leo stands up for David 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 …
Kate and Leo are both trans, but they are drawn from very different material. They are at different stages of transition and coming out, and their individual lives also clearly affect how they react to bullying, ‘helpful’ adults, and their families. I found both of them hugely realistic. I know that this is a silly little detail, but I was especially struck by how modern it was. For example, Kate learns how to put on makeup from YouTube. Details like this makes The Art of Being Normal seem far more grounded in reality in comparison to other trans YA novels, such as If I Was Your Girl.
In many ways, this is quite a standard YA novel. Leo easily fits into the stereotype of the dark and brooding stranger (one with an absent father and neglectful mother, to boot). Bullies are the popular, athletic kids. Crushes, parties, and proms abound. I’ll admit, I didn’t enjoy this aspects very much. But when it came to the discussion of gender identity and the variety of mental health issues that often (unfortunately) are associated with being trans, The Art of Being Normal really does stand out as a particular gem of the genre.
Lisa Williamson is not an own voices author – rather, she was inspired to write The Art of Being Normal after working at the Gender Identity Development Service in London. I thought that her research was good, although I personally would have preferred her to be a trans author. However, I’ve been pretty impressed by her sensitivity in interviews, as well as her understanding of trans issues.
(A note: David is Kate’s birth name. Although she uses David for most of the book, I felt uncomfortable using it in my review.)