Some Assembly Required - Arin Andrews (with Joshua Lyon)

As a scholar working on young adult literature for and about transgender teens, I was beyond thrilled when a friend at Simon & Schuster informed me that two new memoirs were coming out from Arin Andrews and Katie Rain Hill. There is a history of memoir being used as a tool for self-expression, self-exploration, and a platform through which to inform a larger population, so to see two young people using just such a form to express themselves and engage young people in thinking more about gender and sexuality was a huge thrill. Of course, when I get this excited, I inevitably start creating HUGE expectations in my head, and sometimes that means disappointment (until I remind myself that it was my own fault for creating expectations in the first place.) This, I am happy to say, is not one of those cases! 

Some Assembly Required and Hill's companion memoir, Rethinking Normal, should be incorporated into as many high schools and gender studies classrooms as possible, as far as I'm concerned, and they will make intriguing comparison pieces with memoirs of transgender individuals from decades earlier, especially looking at changes in social acceptance and perception. (Also, if you want a brief introduction to Arin and Katie, check out the Barneys of New York ad embedded below.)
[T]ears started streaming down [my mom's] cheeks, down her neck. "I will support you. I can't lose you."
"You won't," I said. "I'm still me. I'll always still be me. But I need my body to be my own." 
Arin's journey is enlightening, inspiring, and ultimately uplifting. I didn't realize until a few chapters in that I had actually followed Arin on youtube a while back, watching the early stages of his experiences with testosterone injections and later the recovery period after his top surgery. It was incredible to see the struggles, the bravery, and the courage that Arin has, which brought him to the point where his is now able to live freely as a male while still remaining in a relationship with his family. While the story is not unlike many novels I've been reading recently, the fact that I know this person is real makes the narrative and journey that much more fascinating and powerful.

The narrative is written very accessibly; the voice is not preachy and the details are never gratuitous or too vague, giving a no-nonsense feel to the overall book. I hope that trans teens will find courage and hope in this narrative, and that cisgender individuals will find enlightenment and inspiration through Arin and his words. There are moments of incredible depth that nearly brought me to tears, and though I realize that memoirs can become spaces of exaggeration, I never found myself thinking that about this particular story.
I knew she could probably feel the edge of my binder underneath my shirt, and I worried for a second that it would be a turnoff. But then I felt her bulge against my leg and knew I had nothing to worry about. We were both dealing with equipments issues, and her issue canceled out any concern I had about mine. We knew who we were—a boy and a girl, cuddling together, watching a scary movie.
Religion is also another component of the story that I felt myself connecting with. While I'm not trans, I am gay, and growing up in a religious home did make things more difficult when trying to navigate the coming-out process. Arin's time in Catholic school gave him a number of obstacles to overcome, but he managed, and I'm sure is much stronger for it. But as I said before, the language is never preachy, but rather matter-of-fact and understandable in a way that, I hope, will actually help readers with religious backgrounds to appreciate the difficulties of growing up and being seen as contrary to what is normal or natural.

Pictures of Arin accompany each chapter and allow readers to follow his physical growth and transition in a concrete way to go along with the textual descriptions, and for those wanting even more information, the back matter includes a list of resources as well as a section entitled, "How to Talk to Your New Transgender Friend (A Very Brief Guide)." This section contains helpful information for those who are either unsure about what to say or ask and guidance for those who have no previous experience talking to trans individuals.
In the right forum and context, I'm okay now with discussing sex and my own genital dysphoria, but it's really important to understand that many trans people aren't. And it sucks when that's the first thing strangers ask about. Any topic relating to bodies, sex, and sexuality is going to be different for everyone, and privacy should be respected.
Overall, I was impressed with the tone and the writing style —the book is complex, peppered with moments of humour and tenderness—as well as the emotional impact of Arin's journey and his willingness to share his experiences with the world in such a public fashion. I hope you will pick up this book when it comes out on September 30th, 2014!

Highly Recommended

P.S.  I will have a review of Katie Hill's Rethinking Normal soon, as well!



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