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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

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