The Art of Being Normal
David Fickling Books
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 ...
What we like about it
· Compelling and ground breaking UK YA from debut author Lisa Williamson. The Art of Being Normal shows a variety of human circumstances – her narrative crosses socioeconomic class divides and looks at a spectrum of gender representation following the lives of two teens as they determine their identity.
· Beautifully crafted dual narrative - both protagonists are nuanced and fully realised characters that represent two very individual teen voices.
· The story is funny, gripping, moving and relatable.
· How is coming out shown in the narrative?
· There is a sense of community established for LGBTQ* readers. Unlike in many transgender stories, the protagonists are not fully isolated. As David points out, there is a statistic that there are ‘at least two trans kids in a school’ and the culmination of Williamson’s story shows that there will always be someone out there who gets you.
· The teens are fallible and Williamson cleverly develops the teens’ own understanding of gender. David and Leo's internalised cisnormativity leads to misgendering within the community they have established. Following their growth is humbling and eye opening.
Questions & learning points
David likes drawing and fashion design but can't sew. Leo doesn't know he what to do with his life yet. How are career goals and aspirations tied into representations of gender?
Some transgender terminology is new to David, despite their assured sense of self. Are there readily available resources for trans* teens looking to transition? Should teens be able to access these resources as part of school lessons. Did you learn anything new from reading The Art of Being Normal about transgender lives?
Were you surprised by the way that class and family dynamics affected the protagonists’ coming out and acceptance?
Many LGBTQ* stories include instances of slurs and physical violence. Do you think this is an unfortunate side product of representing reality, or is there space for a young adult coming of age story without extreme bullying?
Who was your favourite side character in the story? In what ways do they defy a perceived sense of what is ‘normal.’
Charlie: I can honestly say that The Art of Being Normal is the best novel I feel I have ever read that introduces transgender stories for a young adult audience. I literally read it in four hours (and missed a train home because of it.) As a Cis reader, the characters felt relatable even though their situations are beyond my own experiences. The writing is fantastic, littered with hilarious true to life details that bring the narrative into sharp reality (such as classmate Steven who smells inexplicably of plasticine.) In my opinion it shows that Williamson has done her research, with a range of representation that shows both FtM – female to male - and MtF – male to female - transitions at different stages. Williamson shows that no transgender life story is the same.
Side characters such as Leo’s Mum and little sister and David’s best friends Essie and Felix show diverse lives that are full of fantastic idiosyncrasies. David is out to their friends completely as transgender before telling their parents, who love and accept them. Unlike some previous Trans inclusive YA, nothing is a neat little tied up bow, including David’s naming of themself. Leo and David remind us that you can't always get what you want - but if you don't try you get nothing at all. The way that the protagonists adopted true names are slowly revealed within the narrative was moving, thought provoking and important in helping readers grasp the reality of human identity. The one thing I did struggle with is knowing what pronouns to use when writing about David. David self refers as 'he' even after identifying as a transgender girl. I would be very interested to hear from Trans readers about their thoughts on that topic. There is a severe lack of transgender representation in the UK and it is long overdue, but I couldn’t have asked for a better first step than with Williamson’s wonderful The Art of Being Normal. I sincerely hope and believe it will help make lives better and a little less lonely.
Trans - gender identity differs from gender assigned at birth. Cis - gender identity matches gender assigned at birth.
Sarah: I'm so surprised and relieved at how much I love this book. Surprised because I’ve learnt to expect little authenticity from non-trans people who chose to include trans characters in fiction. Relieved because I don’t feel obliged to explain a long list of problems in a way which may be viewed as ungrateful or even deluded because … hey! … the author was trying to be positive. Lisa Williamson gets it. By any standards The Art of Being Normal is well-constructed. The main characters are developed beautifully so that you can’t help empathising with them. There is tension and pathos … it had me in tears at times … and a reveal which I must admit I did not see coming. It also deals movingly with some grittily unpalatable realities, not by any means all to do with being trans, while still being none the worse for a gloriously sentimental denouement. It’s wonderful to be able to recommend a book which parents, teachers and young adults can be sure they are going to enjoy while at the same time finding an authentic portrayal of trans kids’ lives mostly filled with the same kind of concerns as their own. The book is written from the viewpoint of two parallel narrators and the only thing which I found consistently jarring was that, once the narrator known as “David” had clearly revealed herself as Kate to Leo, the other narrator, Leo still refers to her as “David’ and uses the pronoun “he”. I’m not suggesting this couldn’t be justified by saying it might authentically have been the case. I do however wish that it had been used as a powerful teachable moment. The struggle to claim their gender identity experienced by trans people … the lack of entitlement … is something which I think few cisgender (non-trans) people grasp. As Paris Lees has written: “Research shows that the majority of trans adults got the memo we were trans at around 5 years old - a realisation most of us felt we needed to hide: "It soon becomes clear that to be different in this way is socially unacceptable and as such the most common response is concealment of their true feelings." If we also know that 94% of people who walk into gender identity clinics are adults, that means, although the figure is accelerating, only 6% of trans children are currently being identified. In other words, most trans kids are suffering in silence.” Even Williamson’s blessèd publisher, David Fickling, describing in his forward how the book has “changed his perception of the world”, refers to “the boys in this book” despite one of the protagonists on the very first page making no bones about who she feels she is: “I want to be a girl”. Such misgendering may seem like a small thing to most people but to a trans child it is huge. It probably shouldn’t surprise me either how some of the reviews of the book slip blithely into the usual clichés about “young people struggling with gender identity” (The Guardian), “a tale of a teenager’s struggle with identity” (The Telegraph) when this is so clearly not what Williamson’s book is about. Her characters give no sign of being anything other than clear about who they are. Her story is emphatically not about internal gender struggles taking place in a vacuum inside the protagonists’ heads. It’s about the struggles young trans people experience when dealing with the gender expectations mainstream cisgender society dumps on them. As such I think it’s a breath of fresh air. One last thing … before writing this book Lisa Williamson worked at the Tavistock NHS clinic which specialises in treating trans children and I have to say I do find the rosy picture she paints of the ready availability of professional support for such children in the UK misleading. While we may assume things have improved somewhat, research only a few years ago found that 1 in 5 GPs are unwilling to help with referrals to gender services and 60% of those who wanted to help felt they lacked the information to do so.
Anon: As a transboy, and now that I think about it, in Year 11, I relate very closely to Leo Denton. My family situation is much much different, but I just feel like I can relate to Leo in a way I've never related to a character before – and not just in the sense that we're both trans. More in a sense that, I know what it's like to want to be invisible, and I know what it's like to be put out in the open because I don't fit into the pigeon hole that people want me in. This book was my favourite book from about halfway through reading it the first time. I adore it, the storyline, the characters, the experiences, and I imagine my copy will become very worn, in the best way by the time I stop reading it (which now that I think about it, probably won't happen).
Have you read this book? Add your thoughts.