Beast - Brie Spangler

Tall, meaty, muscle-bound, and hairier than most throw rugs, Dylan doesn’t look like your average fifteen-year-old, so, naturally, high school has not been kind to him. To make matters worse, on the day his school bans hats (his preferred camouflage), Dylan goes up on his roof only to fall and wake up in the hospital with a broken leg—and a mandate to attend group therapy for self-harmers.

Dylan vows to say nothing and zones out at therapy—until he meets Jamie. She’s funny, smart, and so stunning, even his womanizing best friend, JP, would be jealous. She’s also the first person to ever call Dylan out on his self-pitying and superficiality. As Jamie’s humanity and wisdom begin to rub off on Dylan, they become more than just friends. But there is something Dylan doesn’t know about Jamie, something she shared with the group the day he wasn’t listening. Something that shouldn’t change a thing. She is who she’s always been—an amazing photographer and devoted friend, who also happens to be transgender. But will Dylan see it that way?


Between this book and Meredith Russo's If I Was Your Girl, I think I have a couple of book chapters worth of material to write on exemplary moments of trans representation in YA. Much like Russo, I also pulled a bit of a Dylan at first while reading this book. At the mid-way point, I was getting prepared to get on my soap box and start getting all theoretical and critical, and then I remembered that I still had half the novel left to read. Now, having finished the novel, I can put many of my initial critiques to bed and review the book as a fully formed piece of literature!

Though Jamie's trans identity is made explicit in the cover synopsis, the treatment of her identity within the text is quite subtle and isn't made explicit until about a third of the way through, and the coming out scene is rather chaotic and filled with anxiety and realistic drama. I was so mad at Dylan during that moment, but I mean, it's real that way, so real. Especially since we're still living in a society that doesn't educate young people on transness and gender enough, early on. 

When it comes out that Dylan and Jamie have become close, Dylan's classmates are less than supportive (except for JP, for the most part), and it is this moment that made me pause and feel uncomfortable. I've written a lot on the possible alienation of young trans readers because of transphobic language in YA texts in order to make the stories realistic. There is a lot of talk of "chicks with dicks," "boys in skirts" and other more inflammatory language is used by the more misogynistic and hypermasculine characters in the story.

I am somewhat concerned about the idea that there is yet another trans novel with a cis protagonist panicking at the trans revelation and then spending the rest of the novel "learning a lesson," even if it is for the best in the end. This seems to me to give trans readers the idea that such a toxic reaction should be expected and inevitable (since there are so few examples of novels where this doesn't happen.) I can't blame Spangler specifically, but rather the overlying expectation of this trope in reality and within the larger body of YA literature. I'm just really glad that Jamie ends up coming out on top and Dylan and JP end up being the little (or big) shits!

The subject of hypermasculinity also brings me back to what I loved about the story, namely Dylan as the ultimate masculine man (so much body hair, hugely muscled, and incredibly tall!) and yet he is able to come around to a more compassionate and understanding head space. His dysphoria with his own body is also a brilliantly realized mirror against which he can be compared to Jamie and her own transness. In the words of Susan Stryker, they both see themselves (or in the case of Jamie, once saw herself) as monstrous. Though it may seem heavy handed with the title and Dylan's nicknames, the nuance with which Spangler explores the themes of monstrosity and body dysphoria through narrative and character development is truly wonderful.

I agree with Russo that Spangler will likely be under a lot of scrutiny due to her identifying as a cisgender woman, but I really think that she has managed to avoid certain cliches tropes within Beast that so many other trans YA novels fall prey to. I find this to be a thoughtful novel that, while having a few issues noted above, I think is a great addition to the trans YA sub-genre. Check it out!

Recommended

P.S. The mother is awesome (give her time, I promise!)

(NOTE: This review is from an Advance Reading Copy - Out Oct. 11, 2016)


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