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Book Reviews: Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill and Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews

by Amanda MacGregor

(NOTE: I’m going to use the pronoun “she” when referring to Katie even pre-transition and “he” for Arin pre-transition as well.)

When Arin and Katie met, they felt an immediate connection. It wasn’t just that they each thought the other was cute (though they did), but it was more that they understood each other in a way that not many other people they knew could understand them. Katie, born Luke, and Arin, born Emerald, are both transgender, and they met at an Oklahoma support group for trans teens. Their memoirs tell their individual stories of growing up and transitioning, as well as their story as a couple.

In Rethinking Normal, Katie (who is 20 and a junior in college as of the publication date of this book) talks candidly about transitioning from Luke to Katie at age 15. She jumps ahead in time to the start of college, giving readers a little peak at the life she leads now. Katie characterizes herself as tough-minded and emotionally strong, both qualities that most certainly helped her along her journey. Katie, who felt from a very young age that she was in the wrong body, suffered years of depression, even attempting suicide at age 7. She says she felt uncomfortable with her body and judged. By 4th grade, Katie is certain that she is a girl and that she is attracted to boys. At 15, she began taking hormones, and four months before college, she underwent gender reassignment surgery. She recounts losing friends in high school (and being bullied to the point that she switched to an online school) when she transitioned and her fear of losing her new college friends. She doesn’t tell them she’s transgender, fearful of their reactions. But it’s hard to think that they won’t find out the truth given how public Katie’s life has been.

While a high school student, Katie worked hard to serve as an advocate for the trans community, giving speeches at high schools and camps. She received a prestigious award for her work and eventually drew the media’s attention, too, with multiple newspaper articles and television segments focusing on her life. Katie writes about her childhood, family life, and relationships with her parents (both of whom came from very dark pasts filled with abuse, neglect, death, and fear). Katie discusses the medical side of transitioning (detailing doctor appointments, hormone shots, and surgery), the legal side (like changing her name), her dating and sexual history, and the many emotions that come along with so many large issues.

Her relationship with Arin is the largest thread of the story, from their initial infatuation with each other, to the media coverage of their relationship, to their eventual break-up. Told in a conversational tone, Katie weaves many stories of hope and joy through her memoir, making it clear that the uncertainty and sadness she once felt doesn’t get to win out. The book ends with lists of resources that helped Katie, tips for talking to transgender people (outlining what may be offensive, how to make them feel understood/how to try to understand, and reminders to respect confidentiality and privacy).

In Arin’s memoir, Some Assembly Required, he shares that he began transitioning his sophomore year of high school. Arin, who went to private Christian elementary school, always felt different. He wore his boy cousins’ clothes, desperately wanted to be able to pee standing up, and felt isolated from the other kids. He felt a lot of discomfort with his body—a lot of insecurity, anxiety, and shame. He was bullied in school for being too masculine, enjoying motocross and outdoor activities. At 13, he began to date Darian, a girl who identified at bisexual. Arin (still going by Emerald then) felt his identity was more complex than just appearing to a girl dating another girl. He preferred to think of himself as gay rather than a lesbian, which implied that he was a girl liking another girl. He felt maybe he was a gay tomboy, a “tomgay,” he writes. It’s the discovery online of the term “transgender” that helps Arin begin to understand who he really is.

Arin experiences horrible bullying at school and eventually gets kicked out because homosexuality violated the honor code. His new school, however, is extremely supportive, as is his mother, once she has a little time to come to terms with this news about Arin. Arin is lucky in that he finds a lot of support from his family.

It’s really interesting to see both teens write about their relationship, to see each side of the story, especially concerning the publicity and their break-up. Like Katie, Arin wants to serve as an advocate for their community, but doesn’t love all of the attention. Arin astutely points out that he understands why the media likes them so much—they were safe. In his words, they were “white, telegenic, and heteronormative.” He wishes that their time in the spotlight was leading to a wider spectrum of trans people being represented.

Arin is also always careful to say that this is just his experience, that all trans people do/feel/believe/undergo different things. When he talks about the medical side of things, he points out that he’s oversimplifying things for the sake of readability. His memoir also ends with a brief guide on how to talk to your new trans friend as well as a list of resources.

I hope these books will find the wide audience they deserve. Katie’s book is a little more unpolished than Arin’s, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Her tone is more casually conversational, which will quickly draw in readers. Arin’s tone is a little more reserved and his narrative doesn’t jump around in time quite as much as Katie’s. Both teens put it all on the page, writing honestly about every aspect of their young lives. Their stories include a lot of pain, but their focus on joy and hope point to much happier futures than their pasts have allowed them. These are highly recommended for all collections. While cisgender and transgender teenagers alike will gain a lot from these moving stories, they may prove invaluable finds for trans teens looking to see that they are not alone.

Publisher for both: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date for both: 9/30/2014
Review copies courtesy of Edelweiss

Little Fish: A different kind of memoir for a different kind of teen (and a different kind of TPiB)

I don’t know about you, but graphic novels and graphic novelish type books are hot at my library.  Heck, they are hot at my house.  And with the school year just starting, it’s great for Juniors and Seniors to start thinking about WHAT COMES NEXT.  So, tada: Little Fish, a memoir from a different kind of year by Ramsey Beyer. (Zest Books, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-936976-18-8)

Ramsey Beyer was a teenager from a small town in Michigan.  My family is from a small town in Michigan.  They have one blinking stop light and thought they were a big deal when they got a McDonalds.  Trust me, I know all about small towns in Michigan.  And most people growing up in a small town anywhere just want to escape.  To find a way out to something bigger.  Beyer did that when she went to college.  She became an apartment dwelling, city living art student.  And she created this artistic book to chronicle her experiences.

Little Fish is told in a series of comics, illustrated poems, and illustrated lists.  So you know where you see all those journals that are “destroy this book” and “make it yours”?  Beyer did that.  And it is pretty cool.  In fact, it is a built in program (TPiB).  You can buy blank books from Oriental Trading and invite your teens to come in and create their own journal.  Duct tape, markers, torn pages from magazines and glue . . . anything goes.  You can take anyone of the different lists from the books and asks teens to do the same.  Or just let them freestyle it.

In Little Fish, Beyer captures all the hopes and fears of moving away and embarking on a journey like starting college and moving away from home.  I remember packing up what I could fit in my little car and setting out from California to drive cross country and go to college in Ohio.  Why Ohio?  My then fiance’s family (now my husband) was from Ohio and after his dad died from Cancer, he needed to move back there because living in California without a good job is super expensive.  So he moved back to Ohio to help his mom and go to college and a semester later, I followed.  The first winter there I remembered all about winter snow and the need for gloves – the hard way (and almost lost a couple of fingers to frostbite.)

I have always journalled.  I write poetry (not necessarily good poetry, but poetry).  I collect my favorite quotes from the books that I read.  And when my first daughter was born I wrote in a journal to her every day.  And now I blog, which is kind of a journal.  It’s great to have this little book of your life that you can look back through and remember who you were and how far you have come.

Little Fish by Ramsey Beyer is a must have.  It is definitely in a popular format that has huge teen appeal.  And it is great insight for all of our high school students who are about to venture out into the big unknown of what’s next.

More Memoirs for Teens

Carnegie Library List

More Memoirs from Zest Books

Have more memoirs to add to our list? Add them in the comments.