Books written in verse can be very difficult to pull off … it can be extremely hard to build character (other than the one ‘speaking’ through the verse) and hard to build action and plot. The only other book I can think of, off-hand, that I’ve read, written in free verse like this, is Karen Hesse’s Newbery winning book, Out of the Dust. Further challenging Kristin Elizabeth Clark, in this book, Freakboy, is the subject matter … transgender issues.
For anyone with gender issues, particularly young adults struggling to learn and cope, any book that deals with the subject will be eagerly devoured. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering that anyone, particularly a teen, must go through when believing/recognizing that they are in a body with the incorrect gender.
Author Clark tackles the subject with appropriate gentleness and care, posing difficult questions and is careful not to offer ‘solutions.’ This is important as anyone with their own gender issues will certainly have different experiences.
This leads me to an issue I took with the book.
** WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT TO FOLLOW **
** WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD **
Although I can’t say that I personally know anyone who is transgendered, one of the questions/struggles that our main character, Brendan, goes through feels … well, wrong.
Brendan is starting to question whether or not he is in the right physical body. It starts with little things … like appreciating a ribbon in a girl’s hair, or her choice of clothing. It’s all still a question to him, when he asks: “Do I want to do her?/Or do I want to be her?” This is the first time I feel that we’re off the mark.
Please … I don’t know … maybe this is EXACTLY the sort of thing a transgendered teen would question … but it feels wrong. It feels too drastic a difference … between having sex with a girl or becoming a girl? I can’t imagine not understanding the difference between wanting to have sex with a girl or becoming the girl. We’ll talk a little more about the lesbian implications in a minute.
To add to Brendan’s confusion, or rather, to show us his confusion he says:
I think I’m trans, but I’m not really sure.
I’m not one of those people
who’s always wanted to wear a dress.
Who’s always known
he should have been born a female.
As weird and confusing
as sex can be for me,
I still like it.
Did I forget to mention that Brendan has a girlfriend, and they have sex. So…what is it, precisely, that makes him feel like he’s trans? We never really know. At one point his little sister chooses a book for him to read. It is Rapunzel and he comments that he doesn’t like the story because it reminds him how short his hair is. His hair. He makes the leap to being trans because of a fascination he has with his hair!
Let’s remember that he has a girlfriend; he likes sex. There is nothing in the sexual relationship that suggests he’s the wrong gender. At one point he asks: “Can’t I just be/a girl with a dick?” And when he finally admits to his girlfriend his trans-gender confusion and goal, he actually suggests that they stay in the relationship … as a lesbian relationship. I about flipped at this! This is beyond just gender confusion! (I won’t tell you the girlfriend’s response….)
Because I’m totally new to this trans-gender world for which this book was written, I did a little research and discovered that indeed, a trans-gendered person is not necessarily a homosexual. A trans-gendered person can be straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, just as a non-trans-gendered person. Whoa…this is confusing! And while that may lend some credence to Brendan’s suggestion of sticking with his girlfriend in Clark’s book, I think that it would speak to a much, much smaller audience.
Now let’s leave the subject matter behind and talk about the structure of the book.
I mentioned that it’s difficult to write a book in verse and I don’t understand why that was the chosen method for this book. When writing from three different points of view, it’s important to give each character his/her own voice. That didn’t happen here. All three read very much the same. It was the author’s voice we were reading, and not the characters’. Only the point of view changed. The tone, the style of the poetry, the voice was the same.
There is very little build to the story. Although we are following Brandon, Vanessa (Brandon’s girlfriend), and Angel (a transgender, former prostitute working at an LBGT center for teens), the story is clearly Brandon’s. Vanessa’s role in the story is to try to hang on to Brandon, even at the risk of losing other friends (this rings very true). But Clark hits us over the head a little bit by setting us up with this being such a true and perfect romance.
I’m confident the reason i s
because there was this perfect
person waiting for me. M y
ideal. When we’re together, we’re
the only people in the w o r l d.
By this point in the book, we already know the relationship appears doomed, we don’t need this further set up to try to have a bigger fall.
The character of Vanessa is a bit of an enigma. In some ways she appears to be there to provide a counterpoint to Brandon … a transgendered person who is now comfortable in her skin. And yet she’s not comfortable. She has other demons still haunting her. And her relationship with Brandon is completely confusing. What has drawn her to him is not clear, and why she continues to stick with him is also not clear.
While it’s Brandon’s story, Vanessa comes out as the loser; almost the tragic heroine.
I applaud the effort and for tackling a difficult subject, but the process doesn’t quite work for me.
Looking for a good book? If you know a teen who might be struggling with gender identity, this book might be helpful, otherwise the structure and execution of form leave a bit to be desired.
* * * * * *
author: Kristin Elizabeth Clark
publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
hardcover, 448 pages