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Book Review: Spirit Level by Sarah N. Harvey

Publisher’s description

spiritHarriet (known as Harry) is a donor-conceived child who has never wanted to reach out to her half-siblings or donor—until now. Feeling adrift after a breakup with her long-time boyfriend, Harry tracks down her half-siblings, two of whom are in Seattle, where Harriet lives. The first girl she meets is fifteen–year-old Lucy, an effervescent half-Japanese dancer. Then she meets Meredith, a troubled girl who is always accompanied by her best friend, Alex. Harry and Alex are attracted to each other, much to Meredith’s chagrin, and when it becomes clear that Meredith is an accomplished liar, Harry makes it her business to figure out what Meredith is up to. In the course of her investigation, she discovers a lot about Meredith, but the biggest shock is not about Meredith—it’s about Alex, who was born female. So now Harry must deal with not only her growing attraction to Alex, but also Meredith’s hostility. As decisions are made around whether to contact their donor, the three donor sisters negotiate their relationship and Harry tries to figure out what she really wants.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

17-year-old Harry leads an interesting life. She works every Sunday at her “grandma” Verna’s hair salon giving free hair washes and haircuts to the “Sunday ladies,” a rotating cast of homeless women. Verna is not Harry’s grandma by blood relation; Verna took Harry’s mother in when she was young and homeless. Harry’s mother now has a PhD and is a sociology professor whose main area of research is the lives of homeless and runaway young girls. These girls and their stories (as well as some of those of the older “Sunday ladies”) show up a lot in this novel, as Harry spends time transcribing her mother’s interviews with the homeless girls.

 

After reading a magazine article about donor siblings, Harry decides she’s finally ready to begin searching for her siblings. Harry’s mom, a Single Mother by Choice, had long ago set Harry up with a way to access the donor sibling registry. Harry decides she wants this to just be her thing for now and doesn’t tell her mom that she’s starting her search. She quickly finds three donor brothers and two donor sisters, both of whom are currently in Seattle, where Harry lives. As she learns more about all of them, she finds they all have very different family makeups and reasons why their mothers used a sperm donor. After getting over the initial shock of how enthusiastic and gregarious her sister Lucy is, she begins to grow close to her. The introduction of another sister, Meredith, interrupts that growing bond. Meredith is secretive and hard to read. Harry just doesn’t click with her. She does, however, click with Alex, Meredith’s best friend who is also living in Seattle. When Harriet embraces the MO of one of her namesakes, Harriet the Spy, and digs into Meredith and Alex’s pasts, she uncovers something she didn’t expect: Alex used to be Danielle. Harry is thrown for a loop, but not horrified or upset or anything negative. She has some questions, but now knowing Alex is transgender doesn’t change anything. She’s still interested in pursuing a relationship with him, but Meredith has other ideas.

 

I really liked this book. I’ll admit that the title didn’t draw me in. Did I know that a spirit level is something carpenters use for checking if things are level? Of course not. Did I read the title as something either supernatural or New Agey? Yep. Good thing I looked beyond that and read the description. Harry and her mom are wonderful characters. They are very close and supportive of each other. Harry’s mom has worked hard to teach Harry to be compassionate and open-minded. With the exception of Alex’s garbage heap of a mom, who we only briefly meet, all of the characters in this book are so supportive and caring. I love that we see stories here from donor-conceived teens, from homeless girls and women, and from families made up in a variety of ways. I also love Alex and Harry’s growing relationship. I don’t want to be like, oh, Harry is so great to not be bothered by learning that Alex is transgender, because that should never bother anyone and you shouldn’t get heaped with praise for simply not being a close-minded idiot. BUT—I really did love that Harry was like, okay, this is a thing we need to talk about, and I have some questions, but she wasn’t otherwise concerned. Overall this was a good read focusing on voices we don’t hear a lot of in YA. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781459808164

Publisher: Orca Book Publishers

Publication date: 02/02/2016

Sex and Romance in Trans YA, a guest post by Vee Signorelli

by Vee S. (@rausicabklvr)

The first time I read a sex scene with a transgender character, I cried.

I was just figuring out that I was trans, and trying to piece together what that meant for me. I thought that no one would ever be able to love me. I thought that maybe it’d be better to kill myself than to live in this way for the rest of my life.

That sex scene changed so much for me.

 

Trans YA can have a strong impact on what trans youth understand about themselves. I’ve learned about identity politics through tumblr and non-fiction works, but reading trans YA helped me figure out how I could exist happily in the world. Seeing someone like you go through the things you’re going through, and things you never thought you’d experience can change a lot. Reading about trans characters in romantic relationships helped me see a future for myself and expel most of the seemingly infinite amount of shame I had around being trans.

 

A lot of trans YA has romance subplots, but they’re usually not exactly romantic or sexy, and oftentimes the cis love interest is weirded out because the character is trans. I want to share the books that I have read that are different. The books in which trans characters have sex, get swept off their feet by a dashing love interest, explain to their date that they’re trans and have them respond affirmatively. I want to share the books that opened new doors for me, the books that made me look forward to the rest of my life, in the hope that they might do the same for someone else.

 

Trans Characters as Romantic Interests

Though cis people often have an odd, voyeuristic fascination with trans bodies, trans people are not depicted as desirable by our culture: trans bodies are things to be reviled and ogled simultaneously. Our culture says that trans people are too freakish—mentally, physically—to ever be found desirable.

 

This is why it is important to have trans characters depicted as romantic interests. The following six books do just that. These are not the books in which the cis character is disgusted that the person they’re attracted to is trans, but the books in which the cis character barely blinks when they find out the person they like is trans. These books can make you squeal and giggle and curl up in a little ball and fill your stomach with butterflies.

 

LOVE IN THE TIMELove in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

“I’m not what I once was.”

“I don’t give a fuck what you are or were. I just don’t want you to go away. Ever.” -131

 

Description: Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead.

 

Why I’m recommending it: Although it’s told from a cis girl’s POV, this book takes the archetypical sci-fi/fantasy romance, and puts a trans guy as the love interest. Showing a trans character in such a typical romantic storyline normalizes and validates trans people as romantic interests.

 

The Micah Grey series by Laura Lam PANTOMIME

“You’re not odd. This, what you can do… it’s beautiful.” He came close, and wrapped me in his arms. “You’re beautiful.”

 

Description: R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

 

Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star.

 

But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.

 

Why I’m recommending it: Spoiler/not spoiler: Gene and Micah are the same person, and Micah is intersex and nonbinary. The romance in the first book, Pantomime, ends badly, but Shadowplay gives Micah an excellent romantic storyline. Also, in Pantomime, it seems like Micah is being portrayed as a “non-human” because he is intersex—something that’s really not OK. But in Shadowplay, it’s made clear that that his abilities have nothing to do with him being intersex.

 

TWOBOYSTwo Boys Kissing by David Levithan

“I like whatever it is that makes you the person you are.” Pg 80

Description: Told from the perspective of two gay men who died of AIDs, Two Boys Kissing follows the stories of several different boys. One of those boys is trans, and just getting into a relationship.

Why I’m recommending it: Avery, the trans boy, is gay. It’s really cool and very validating to see his experience as a gay trans guy included in a book that’s about the varied experiences of gay men. It also lays out one potential roadmap for dating as a trans person in the real world, an important balance to the trans romance in fantasy books.

 

Freakboy by Kirstin Elizabeth Clark FREAKBOY

“My junk doesn’t dictate who I am.”

 

Description: From the outside, Brendan Chase seems to have it pretty easy. He’s a star wrestler, a video game aficionado, and a loving boyfriend to his seemingly perfect match, Vanessa. But on the inside, Brendan struggles to understand why his body feels so wrong—why he sometimes fantasizes having long hair, soft skin, and gentle curves. Is there even a name for guys like him? Guys who sometimes want to be girls? Or is Brendan just a freak? Along with the alternating POVs of Brendan and Vanessa, is Angel, a young black trans woman, navigating her way through her life and a new relationship.

 

Why I’m recommending it: Angel is a young black trans woman, and the depiction of her new relationship is wonderful. Freakboy also delves into her difficult past, and represents the myriad experiences of trans women of color through a supporting cast of several TWOC. The storyline of the main character and their girlfriend may be hard to read for some people, however, as Vanessa, Brendan’s girlfriend, is very weirded out about Brendan being trans.

 

BRAYBeauty Queens by Libba Bray

“I think you’re beautiful. And brave. And really fucking cool. And you can make Charles Dickens puns.” Pg. 247

 

Description: When a plane crash strands thirteen teen beauty contestants on a mysterious island, they struggle to survive, to get along with one another, to combat the island’s other diabolical occupants, and to learn their dance numbers in case they are rescued in time for the competition. This is a fun, satirical, feminist romp, following the storylines of multiple girls. One of the girls, Petra, is trans.

 

Why I’m recommending it: This is a goofy, delightful read, and in it, Petra has a goofy, delightful romance. It’s important to have a trans girl represented that way. The two best-known books featuring trans girls, Luna by Julie Anne Peters and Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, have some pretty problematic content (the titles are linked to posts detailing the problematic nature of these books). Having Petra’s storyline and romance in this satirical/semi-fantasy book is important to begin to counteract those narratives.

 

Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff BROOKLYN

“We’re in love. You can’t hurt us.”

 

Description: When you’re sixteen and no one understands who you are, sometimes the only choice left is to run. If you’re lucky, you find a place that accepts you, no questions asked. And if you’re really lucky, that place has a drum set, a place to practice, and a place to sleep. For Kid, the streets of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are that place. Over the course of two scorching summers, Kid falls hopelessly in love and then loses nearly everything and everyone worth caring about. But as summer draws to a close, Kid finally finds someone who can last beyond the sunset.

 

Why I’m recommending it: The protagonist and the love interest in Brooklyn, Burning are never gendered, and both the characters can be easily easily read as trans, of any identity. (When I read it, I read both characters as nonbinary.) That establishes a safe space within the book for trans readers.

 

Detailed Sex Scenes

There is very little information out there for trans teenagers about having sex. It’s hard to even imagine what sex could be like! How do you have sex when you’re uncomfortable with some parts of your body? What safety precautions are important/necessary for sex after you have surgery? How does taking hormones affect sex? What words do you want to use for your genitals? How do you communicate all of that to your partner?

Stories can’t take the place of real, comprehensive sex-ed. So, before I get into those, I want to recommend Girl Sex 101. Though the title may be off-putting for some transgender folks, it is incredibly inclusive and respectful. I would highly recommend it for trans-feminine and trans-masculine folk alike.

Stories do provide something that sex-ed can’t, however: real-world contexts, and characters you love. In the following three books, you will find those.

 

LOVE IN THE TIMELove in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Quote: I curl [my fingers] into a soft fist and stroke him the way I used to touch myself before the Earth Shaker, when touch wasn’t something you thought you’d have to do without and when love wasn’t the difference between life and death.

Description: [see above]

Why I’m recommending it: The sex scenes in this book have a strong focus on the romance and sexiness. The scenes are rather dubiously consensual, unfortunately, but this is an important contribution nonetheless.

 

Just Girls by Rachel Gold just girls

Her fingers started touching me so gently I almost couldn’t feel them at first. “You have to tell me if I do something you don’t like,” she said. “Or something you really do. Okay?” pg. 151

 

Description: Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag University, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.

 

New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.

 

Why I’m recommending it: The sex scene in this book is very detailed. The characters discuss what they are and are not comfortable with, and consent is prioritized. Through Ella’s thoughts we hear all the fears she has about having sex. It’s incredibly sweet and sexy. And it’s also between two girls!

 

KHAOS KOMIXKhaos Komix by Tab

Description: Khaos is a webcomic about eight teenagers navigating gender and sexuality. There’s one cishet character out of the cast of eight. There’s a Charlie, a trans girl and Tom, a trans boy, who both have lovely romantic storylines. I wanted to talk about them here, though, because there’s some NSFW side-stories that are just gold.

 

Why I’m recommending it: The sex scenes in the NSFW side-stories really explore some of the different ways trans people can have sex. The characters have conversations about what they’re comfortable with, and in one case they stop sexytimes to make a list of things they do and don’t want to do. Also, the trans boy is gay and Latino!

 

None of these books are perfect. If you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you probably know I’m very critical of trans representation. I have issues with how transness is portrayed in almost every single one of these books. But sometimes representation doesn’t need to be perfect for it to be enough to make a difference for transgender teens.

 

I hope that in coming years there will be so much trans YA that includes romance and sex that this post will no longer be needed. These things should be so common that they don’t need to be hunted down. But until then…

 

Because of the way these books depict trans people romantically and sexually, I would recommend them for: trans teens looking for representation, cis readers who want to broaden their reading horizons, librarians who want to put together trans-inclusive reading lists and collections, and anyone else who is interested in spreading the word about positive transgender representation.

 

On one last note, I wanted to talk about sexual violence (since this is the SVYALit Project, after all!)

 

Sexual violence is a very real thing for trans people. Multiple studies have shown that 50% of transgender people (or one in two) experience some form of sexual violence at some point in their lives.

 

I haven’t read a single trans YA book that reflects this reality. I’m hoping that as more and more trans YA books come out, particularly ones by authors who are themselves trans, more of this will be represented. Sexual violence is a terrible, confusing thing and YA has a unique opportunity to offer guidance to teens dealing with it. (Which the SVYALit Project has done an incredible job of pointing out and utilizing.)

 

In lieu of those books existing, I compiled this short list of resources in case anyone needs them.

Forge

FORGE was founded in 1994 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to provide peer support for those in the transgender community who are survivors of sexual violence. They also provide a lot of resources on how to keep yourself safe going forward.

 

Pandora’s Project

Pandora’s Project’s mission is to provide information, facilitate peer support and offer assistance to male and female survivors of sexual violence and their friends and family. To meet its mission, Pandora’s Project sponsors the internet’s largest support community for those who have been the victim of sexual violence.

Though Pandora’s Project is a resource for all survivors of sexual violence, they are very inclusive, and they have a separate forum for LGBTQ members and a separate forum for teens.

 

Meet Vee Signorelli 

jjuhXav2Vee S. spends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. They’re a passionate feminist, a huge fan of actual representation in media, and a lover of theatre, mythology, and biology. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. Find them on Twitter, Goodreads, or Tumblr.

Book review: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Gracefully Grayson, by Ami Polonsky, tells the story of 6th grade Grayson, a transgender girl. Raised as a boy, Grayson has never felt entirely comfortable in her own skin. She spends her class time doodling abstract princesses in the margins of her notebook, trying to keep them unrecognizable because she knows boys shouldn’t do that—and everyone perceives her as a boy. When she looks in the mirror, she can envision herself in dresses. She longs to be able to express her true gender identity. Grayson is a loner, eating her lunch in the library and just trying to avoid the attention of the class bullies. Her parents were killed in a car accident when she was young, and though she’s lived with her aunt, uncle, and two cousins for many years now, she isn’t close to them. They don’t know the real Grayson. No one does.

 

It’s only when Grayson impulsively signs up for play tryouts that things start to change. The play is The Myth of Persephone and Grayson auditions for the role of Persephone. The teacher in charge of the play casts Grayson in this role, unleashing a background storm of controversy (which is revealed bit by bit throughout the story). Grayson loves playing Persephone. At play practice, she finds new friends, including Paige, an older girl who sort of takes Grayson under her wing. While it’s nice to have friends at play practice, and feel part of the group, it further reinforces to her the many other ways she’d like to fit it. She’d like to be able to use the girls’ restroom with her friends, to have them braid her hair not just because they’re being silly but because she’s a girl and it’s what the girls are doing. The decision to play Persephone has many negative ramifications, but Grayson repeatedly thinks that playing this role is right, that choosing to make this bold move is the right choice.

 

Grayson is bullied from the kids at school who take to calling her “Gracie.” She does her best to just keep her head down and stay out of their way. At home, it’s not a whole lot better. Her older cousin Jack is horrible to her. Once they find out she will be playing Persephone, her aunt and uncle begin to address not only this situation, but what might be going on with Grayson in the larger scheme of things. Her uncle Evan is much more supportive than her aunt Sally, who makes it clear that Grayson being anything other than the boy they have raised is not okay (couching her disapproval in the “I’m just trying to protect you from what others will think” mask). After Grayson’s grandmother dies, she is given some old letters from her mother that help put everything into perspective. While her aunt is hateful and not understanding, there are many other lovely displays of support and encouragement. And while I found her aunt odious, I don’t think her reactions are out of the ordinary for many people. It made the story feel more honest and I was grateful for all of the times we see her uncle being quietly supportive, counteracting his wife’s reactions.

 

Reading this book wasn’t easy. Grayson is very alone for much of the time. The people who are horrible to her are awful. We spend a lot of time getting to see Grayson’s thoughts and dreams, which are so far from the reality she currently is in. But by the end, after the weeks spent with new friends in the play, the story begins to feel more hopeful. It’s clear that Grayson’s path won’t be an easy one. Nothing magically becomes great for her before the story wraps up. There is still a lot of uncertainty and sadness in her life. Though the ending is a bit abrupt, it looks like Grayson will be taking further steps to begin to show her true self to the world.

 

This groundbreaking middle grade book presents a look at the life of one transgender girl in a way that feels completely realistic and age-appropriate. Polonsky’s writing is beautiful, always keeping us right there with Grayson and understanding how she is feeling. The true moment of beauty in this book, for me, was how she presented the performance of the play. I teared up (and would have cried a fair bit, I’m sure, were I not in the waiting room of the auto mechanic!). Many times throughout this book I wanted to be able to leap into the story and hug Grayson. I hope this book is purchased widely for collections and gets in the hands of the people who need it the most.

 

For other thoughts see:

Sense and Sensibility and Stories

A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall

Bookish Ardour

A Chair, a Fireplace, & a Tea Cozy

 Gay YA
ISBN-13: 9781423185277
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: 11/4/2014