The Other Boy - M.G. Hennessey
Twelve-year-old Shane Woods is just a regular boy. He loves pitching for his baseball team, working on his graphic novel, and hanging out with his best friend, Josh. But Shane is keeping something private, something that might make a difference to his teammates, to Josh, and to his new crush, Madeline. And when a classmate threatens to reveal his secret, Shane’s whole world comes crashing down. It will take a lot of courage for Shane to ignore the hate and show the world that he’s still the same boy he was before. And in the end, those who stand beside him may surprise everyone, including Shane.*
As with any new book with trans themes, I am both excited and anxious. I've seen fantastic treatment of trans subjects and characters and horrifyingly ignorant treatments, and as such, my reviews of these particular titles are always a little bit more detailed and sometimes come off more on the harsh side. With that caveat, here we go...
I applaud Hennessey's decision to write this book, and her attempt to write a new story to complement the works of Alex Gina and Ami Polonsky. While I do wish there were more trans authors being published in YA and MG age ranges in general, I am happy to see more publications with trans characters and themes overall. Shane is a well-rounded character, and though others are terribly frustrating, they are unfortunately realistic. There is so much ignorance in many secondary characters, even if it is not entirely conscious. In a discussion between Shane and his mother, for example...
"Mommy, why don't I have a peanut like Matt?"
She bent over and kissed me on the forehead. "Because that's a boy thing."
"But I'm a boy."
She looked at me seriously. "Do you think it's better to be a boy?"
"No," I said, suddenly confused.
"It's okay to be a girl, too. You can still do any job you want, and marry whoever you want."
"I know. But I'm a boy."
There is a lot of talk from secondary characters about Shane being a tomboy, or being a masculine girl, but acknowledgement of his own gender identity seems to be the central theme of the novel. It's infuriating, if realistic. The father, in the first few chapters, simply raised my hackles.
I do have to give Hennessey kudos for incorporating Star Wars and Firefly into the story. I also enjoyed the graphic novel elements, a story being told by Shane that plays out between text chapters. And the writing itself is strong and I have no qualms with the more structural components of the book. However, while I am glad that this book exists and believe it will find an audience (likely cisgender readers looking for a glimpse into a particular trans coming out story), I find a number of components to be problematic.
"Body dysphoria," they called it; and it's why I used to see a therapist in addition to a regular doctor. I don't hate my body, though; I mean, I wish it was different, but it could be worse. There was a kid in my old school who was born with cerebral palsy; every move he made was jerky and wrong, and he couldn't play sports or anything. That would really suck.
While I understand that the narrator is young and might see the world in this way, the assumption that the boy with cerebral palsy is somehow worse or on a different scale of suffering in comparison to being trans is troubling.
Many other reviews that I've seen tend to focus on the ways in which Shane's narrative "teaches" various things about what being trans can include, such as using certain terms: "transitioning," "body dysphoria," and "stealth mode," for example. And lo and behold, there is also a doctor who specializes in transgender young people and readers are treated to explanations and educational opportunities.
And there are rather stereotypical statements and phrases being used, such as, "You've got a boy's brain," and whether or not Shane is a "real boy." This, of course, assumes that there is a particular "right" way of being a boy, but I could go on and on with theory there, which is not the point of this blog. This is unfortunately a cliche in trans literature for young readers. What I am disappointed by is that this is, as seen above, yet another trans coming out story, and not a story in which the trans character is allowed to exist without transness being the overarching theme.
There is much to enjoy in this book, even if it seems that I'm not super excited about it. For the cisgender reader, this is a lot of interesting information that can be gleaned from the text, and there is a lot of truth to the difficulties that Shane experiences and the obstacles he has to contend with in his desire to date and live a relatively "normal" life. I am not overly disappointed nor am I overly excited, but this is indeed a solid addition to the trans middle-grade body of literature.
Recommended with Reservations
(NOTE: This review is from an Advance Reading Copy - Out Sept. 20, 2015)
*This really isn't a critique of the author or the text, but I am immediately struck by the frequency with which synopses of trans YA and MG novels nowadays are mirroring early gay and lesbian fiction, in terms of the use of the "terrible secret" trope. Is there a reluctance to admit the book is about a trans character? Is the publisher trying to "trick" young people into reading the book by not stating this outright? I'm not sure exactly why it is, but I hope it's a trend that will disappear soon.