Sunday, February 20, 2011

Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher

I spent almost all of today laying on the couch and reading. Let me tell you: there is nothing in the world I like more than this! I mean, okay, ice cream, and Kathy, and my animals, and barbeque sauce, and traveling, and cheese, are all maybe tied for this title, but you get the picture. And most of this reading time was spent consumed with this book, Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher, which I picked up from the library earlier this week because it won the ALA's Stonewall Award for Young Adult Literature this year. (For those who are not as informed about the GLBT community--which is okay!--you can start informing yourself by reading  a little about what the significance of Stonewall is.) This is only the second year the Stonewall Awards have had a Children's & Young Adult category (read my babbling about the first winner here), which I feel is Kind of a Big Deal, and awesome. It signifies many different things: 

1) The recognition of the increasingly high quality of literary works for children & young adults. 
2) The increased amount of high quality literary works for children & young adults concerning GLBT issues, enough to sort through and have an honest debate about assigning an award (and honors) to. As you may know, I made a website concerning this topic for a class last year which I am proud of, although I haven't touched it since I made it. I keep wanting to update it, but the truth is the amount of books I have listed on there is so paltry compared to the actual amount of books available to children and teens now about GLBT issues that it is daunting even thinking about it. 
3) We are slowly acclimating to the reality that it is okay and healthy and important to discuss GLBT issues with children. Some may even say it's essential.

Back to my main point, I had started reading this book during sporadic bus commutes and the occasional exhausted five minutes before bed (such a poor way to read, but often all we have time for), and shockingly, hadn't been too into it at the beginning. I know the course of today helped change that: when I sit down and read something for hours in a solid block of time, I always enjoy it more. My brain is allowed to really sink into the story, to transport to this imaginary time and place more deeply and satisfyingly. As another recent hero of mine Kelly Gallagher explains in his book Deeper Reading, reading comprehension does not always depend on how great of a reader you are; it often depends on your current situation, how tired or alert you are, your current state of mind. You need your brain to be on the right reading channel, and sometimes that channel is fuzzy or plain out of service. (But if you're a student and you don't pass a state mandated reading comprehension test on a particularly bad day, you obviously must be a bad reader--and also probably have a bad teacher.) If you're only reading a book in brief snippets on the bus while your mind is on a million other things? Guess what, you might not like it as much. So I'm not sure if it was just me, or the book, but suddenly, I was loving this story.

There were things I found frustrating at the beginning of the novel--on purpose, I believe--which I was able to wrap my head around and understand more as I got more sucked in. And, hey, I guess I should get around to actually telling you what this book was about, eh? Logan Witherspoon is our protagonist, a senior in high school in a small town in Missouri who starts the novel aching over his ex-girlfriend-of-three-years. All of his friends are telling him, "Move on, man! She cheated on you! She doesn't deserve you! Get over it!" and he's saying, "Leave me alone, jerkfaces!" Until Sage Hendricks enters his life. Sage is new in town, which is interesting in itself since new people hardly make an appearance in their small town. She's especially interesting however, considering she has funky fashion, is over six feet tall, and is bold and funny and confident and just different. Another important detail: she likes Logan. He likes her. They make each other laugh. She bakes him cookies! She sews him a blanket! His cheating ex never did any such things.

Then the other shoe drops. She tells him the truth after they kiss for the first time: she's a guy--technically, physically. Everything about her is all woman, and always has been, except for the penis between her legs. His reaction is to almost punch her in the face.

Their relationship is an extreme roller coaster of ups and downs from then on, with at times euphoric results and other times devastating ones. The decision to tell the story from Logan's point of view was a really interesting one. There are things that he says, things that he does, at first, which are infuriating--but at the same time, probably realistic of an 18 year old boy. He tries to convince himself of different things each day, and each time convincingly so--I don't like Sage because I don't like dudes but I can be her friend, to, When Sage and I go off to college everything is going to be perfect and we'll hold hands every day and that other thing doesn't even matter! He is almost adorably naive at points but his emotions, from rage, to confusion, to love, are all acutely realistic.

While all GLBT youth (and adults) are at risk of suffering injustices, there is no one who is more at risk than the T (for transgender) part of that acronym. People who are transgendered are without a doubt the most vulnerable for not just teasing or bullying but for serious physical violence or death, on a daily basis; the most at risk for undefended discrimination and legal struggles; the most at risk for suicide and self-hate. There are statistics I could bring up for you, but it would make me too depressed. While most of the general population is at least aware of differences in sexual orientation (even if they don't agree with them), for a majority of folks, meeting someone who says they're a woman when their genitalia says they're male (and vice-versa) is like that person saying the sky isn't blue--a shock to the system almost impossible to accept. You can't decide what color the sky is! It's just blue! When in reality, the person has to explain, sadly--it has never been blue for me. I've only ever seen red--and no one else can see it but me. And it makes me feel so alone.

(It perhaps should be mentioned that for some people, the sky is neither blue nor red, but purple, and the idea of even having to see it one way or the other is offensive. And having to transition fully from one gender to the other is simply reinforcing the gender binary. For instance, in the novel, ever since Sage was a little girl, she knew she was a girl because, among other things, she wanted to wear dresses and be a princess, and now as a teenager, she loves shopping and makeup. To which people may cry, "But that's just playing into stereotypes!" However, I always say that stereotypes--while still stereotypes--exist for a reason. Meaning, they're normally true for some people. There are some people who know 100% that they are a woman--and love shoes and makeup, or not--or 100% a man--and love trucks and sports, or not--and others who are somewhere in between. What's important to stress, in any shape or form, is that any of these are okay, any of these are normal.)

A problem I've seen in certain GLBT novels for young adults, and other books which deal with "issues," is that it's easy to turn didactic--to do too much explaining instead of just storytelling. In one way, it's hard to have an issue with that--because often these things need to be explained to people, hence the purpose of the book! (For instance, I loved the incredible amount of information disclosed about Muslim identity in Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big in This? Sure, at times it felt like the narrator was just spewing out a textbook, but, at the same time, an important and eye-opening textbook!) Yet because Logan--and Sage--did struggle so much with both of their feelings and identities, the story felt organic to me--there weren't any easy answers or solutions for either of them.

Two things I had small issues with: one dealt with another issue entirely, that of fat phobia. One of Logan's friends, Tim, is overweight, and it seems like this is the only real character trait assigned to him. Every time he's mentioned, it is also mentioned how he is overeating like a maniac. It made me uncomfortable, but thinking about it at the end of the novel, I comforted myself by believing that perhaps Katcher was making a subtle point through the fact that Tim was the only guy of their friends who had a true, stable relationship with a girl by the time they graduated. The other issue had to deal with the deep homophobia which often lies behind transphobia--even though being transgender has nothing to do with a person's sexuality, why it often makes other people uncomfortable is because it makes people re-examine theirs. The reason Logan was so angry at Sage, and himself, was because he felt she duped him into being gay--he kissed her, and she was a dude, so if people knew, they would think he was a fag, and he was NOT a fag, man! He repeated this sentiment quite a bit when struggling with his physical attraction to Sage, and I kept wanting someone to jump into the narrative and shake him and say: "First dude, obviously you are not gay, but why are you SO TERRIFIED of even the thought, as if it's the worst possible thing that could ever happen to a human being? And stop saying fag, alright." But surprisingly, I found myself getting over this one pretty quickly. Logan is not perfect. In the end, he's still a small town boy in Missouri. He loves a transgendered woman. That is enough for one novel. He may not break down all of the prejudices in his mind, he may not crack all of the realities of the universe, but it would be unrealistic and forced if he did. 

While this post has wandered quite a bit, from talking about reading in general to talking about GLBT issues in general, what I really wanted to say was that I started this novel ambivalent and ended it in tears. Logan and Sage are complex, developed characters who wormed their way into my heart, and their ending made me ache. What I also wanted to say is that books such as this can save lives. I'm sure this one already has. And that is why I will keep reading them, writing about them, and defending them until the day I die.