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art of being normalWhat: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

Who: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

When: May 31st 2016

How: A copy of this novel was provided by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for review via Net Galley.

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 his class 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 , and soon everyone knows that Leo used to be a girl.
As David prepares to come out to his family and transition into life as a girl and Leo wrestles with figuring out how to deal with people who try to define him through his history, they find in each other the friendship and support they need to navigate life as transgender teens as well as the courage to decide for themselves what normal really means.

3cats2The Art of Being Normal is about two trans characters, both of which have their own point of view. I’m not trans, so my thoughts on this book are not anywhere near as valuable as those with lived experience, so I definitely recommend reading thoughts from trans reviewers. So, my cis thoughts on this book are as follows:

1) I really didn’t like the constant misgendering and use of the name David when Kate chose the name Kate for herself. The book’s blurb, and reviewers are doing this and it makes me really uncomfortable. David is not the character’s preferred name – it’s Kate. And Kate’s pronouns are female, not male. So to have Kate constantly misgendered, and her own chapters titled “David” made me squirm, because I feel like there was no respect for Kate in terms of her name or pronouns.

Even Leo misgendered Kate and called her David all the time, which I found kind all kinds of problematic, for reasons you might understand in the next point.

2) Leo, the second main character, is also trans, which I loved. A book with two trans characters front and centre was amazing. And the fact that they were there for each other was really nice to read about (although like I said a moment ago, Leo’s misgendering and use of David when talking to and referring to Kate irked me).

Leo, on the whole, was a character I really liked. There were some cliché teenage moments on his behalf, but it was kind of forgivable because he is a teenager. His storyline is mainly centred on his romantic relationship with a girl at his new school, Alicia, and his relationship with his parents.

Leo’s mum was kind of written off as a dead-beat one who didn’t really care about Leo. Yes, most of the time she seemed to not give a crap about Leo, but she was also accepting of him (and it was revealed that she was in his corner all long later in the story). I feel like there could have been a lot more development of their relationship together. Leo’s father, on the other hand, has been absent since Leo’s birth, and Leo has a dream that if he finds his dad, everything will turn out okay. Pro tip: finding dads who don’t want you never turns out well, and the interaction between Leo and his dad broke my heart. (I wanted to pulverise the fucking bastard.)

3) I wanted more from Kate. I really felt like I got to know Leo so much more than I got to know Kate. I wanted to know her beyond her brief encounters with her friends and family, and her support of Leo. I wanted to see someone supporting her. Not just accepting her like her friends did, but talking to her and letting her speak her mind and vent and talk about what she was feeling. I don’t really feel like that ever got to happen. Towards the end there was more of a focus on this, but it was almost too little too late. I really liked Kate, and I felt like there was just so much more to her that we didn’t really get to see.

4) Gender was presented as quite black and white in The Art of Being Normal. For example, Kate knew she was trans because she liked toys targeted towards girls, and Leo knew because he liked toys targeted towards boys. Whilst this obviously can be the case, gender was presented in this novel as strictly female or male, and feminine or masculine, which left little discussion for gender identities that don’t strictly fit to either end of those spectrums, and left being trans defined as either ‘I was assigned female at birth and identify as male’, or ‘I was assigned male at birth and identify as female’.

5) I liked the ending. I liked that it wasn’t tragic (although there were elements before the end that were quite sad). I liked that there was happiness and hope for both Leo and Kate. I think we need more trans books that have a happy ending, so I was completely on board for this.


Overall, I did like The Art of Being Normal, although I felt like some things weren’t presented as well as they could have been. If you’re looking for your first book about a trans character, or you simply devour any and all LGBTQIA+ books, then I would still say give The Art of Being Normal a go.

© 2016, Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity. All rights reserved.

trigger warning: sexual assault/attempted rape, physical assault, bullying, transphobia, and absent parent in this novel

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Posted on: May 20, 2016 • By: Chiara

16 Responses to Five Thoughts on The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

  1. I appreciate your honest thoughts. It will be good going into this one, as it’s one of my next reads. I do wish the author had focused on gender a bit more and how it’s not so black and white. I suppose it’s a good start for people that don’t know much about people who are transgender, but at the same time, it could cloud what they think.


    • Chiara says:

      No problem, Lauren! Yeah, while it could be good for people wanting to know more about what beings trans is like and what it means, I think it does really present a very black and white depiction of trans identities, which is a bit of a shame.

  2. Annie says:

    I think the David/Kate stuff would have annoyed me a lot – the author should have known better. I’m glad the ending was happy, I wouldn’t have assumed it should be sad – but if that’s the trend in YA dealing with transgender characters, then we SO need to change that! And I’m happy that this book is making an attempt towards addressing that. ?

    • Chiara says:

      Yep, it was definitely one of the main problems I had with this book. Unfortunately a lot of books with trans MCs have tragic endings so I’m glad that this book subverted that!

  3. The misgendering of Kate bothers me a lot, honestly. I feel like this tends to happen far too often in books with transgender MCs, and it’s a whole new problem beyond the obvious “we need more LGBT+ books”. But yay for a happy ending; that, I think, is not something that should be sneezed at either. Pros and cons, I think, no?

    • Chiara says:

      It definitely bothered me the entire time I read it. It just felt like it was taking away from Kate’s identity. Yeah, I think this is one of those books that has both good and bad. Overall, I wouldn’t suggest this book to someone unless they have little to no knowledge on what beings trans means, because it’s very 101.

  4. Romi says:

    I’m glad you liked this one more by the end! *hurrahs*

    Personally, I don’t think it’s the book for me, by the sound of it. I don’t think I could stand to read the characters calling Kate “David” all the time, and would probably find myself intently frustrated by the black and white sides of gender, as you said, because I would want so much more to be discussed and gone into. I realise that having a book with two trans characters as the MCs is quite a rarity, and for that my wanting more feels a little selfish- but at the same time, I do want more, and someone who doesn’t identify as either “female” or “male” should be able to have that more, too. Books like this (sans the aspect of ignoring your chosen name and all that) are entirely necessary, but so are books that show other more/different/other parts of what it can mean to identify and be trans.

    I’m also quite interested in the absent-but-accepting parent aspect? I find that really interesting, actually, and would be intrigued if other elements of the book weren’t putting me off.

    Lovely review, by the by. OF COURSE AS PER USUAL NICE WORDS. xx

  5. Ooh happy ending? THAT SOUNDS NICE :D I mean, Usually I’m all for death and drama…but I do like a contemporary with a happy ending now and then *nods* Although your first point really bothers me. If Kate is being called David then…yeah. It feels like no one is taking her seriously? Especially if her CHAPTERS are labelled David??? That makes no sense to me. hmm. ANYWAY. I shall keep an eye for this one anyway. :D

    • Chiara says:

      Yes! It was really nice to have a happy ending in this contemporary, especially since both POV characters were trans (and happy endings are even rarer for trans characters). Yeah, it really bothered me, to be honest. Especially since, if there was some kind of reason, it was never explored or explained on page. I hope you enjoy it if you read it, Cait!

  6. Denise says:

    I completely get you, but I think I might have something that may change your mind on the misgendering of Kate/David. I’ve spoken to the author about this, and she was in conversation with a trans woman. One person asked both of them why they call David, David, and whether the trans woman in conversation (Juno Dawson) felt that David should be referred to as Leo. Lisa Williamson told us that she referred to David as David because he hadn’t fully come out yet, and that he wouldn’t feel comfortable. They both said that transitioning was a gradual process, and that lots of trans people feel like they can identify as female/male, yet still have their old name. Also, whilst transitioning, Juno Dawson still called herself James, even though she had female pronouns and identified as female. I see what you mean however – before I had this explained to me, it didn’t lie right. ♥♥♥

    • Colin says:

      Fair point but I don’t think it’s a logical conclusion to assume that that’s every trans experience. Williamson isn’t claiming that it is, of course, but I imagine for a lot of readers, especially trans ones, the misgendering and use of Kate’s birth name would be very hurtful (as a trans person myself, I would feel awful being treated the way kate is treated by Leo). Especially since kate expresses such joy at being called kate and “she” by Leo, I feel as though the choice to continue to use her birth name and masculine pronouns was very misguided…

  7. Valerie says:

    I haven’t read this, but it was really interesting reading your review Chiara! The blurb made it sound like Kate was in the process of going through the transition, and wouldn’t be Kate until the end of the book, which doesn’t seem like the case.

    Awesome review Chiara!!! Honestly I hate when things are portrayed as black and white. I might check this book out, but maybe not until later.

    • Chiara says:

      Yeah, Kate was Kate the entire time, just not “out” to anyone.

      Thank you! I was quite disappointed in this book, but can see it’s possibly importance for readers who don’t know much about trans identities.

  8. Win says:

    While the deadnaming and misgendering of Kate did annoy me too, especially as a trans person myself, I can honestly kind of see where the author was coming from. I’ve found that a lot of cis people tend to do this, I believe with the intention of indicating whether the character is out or not. I once read a poem in the perspective of a mother whose trans son came out, and the very end said something like “our daughter is a boy”. I feel like this is a similar case, since Kate’s correct name and pronouns are used only *after* she was finally out and presenting feminine. While it’s annoying when you can’t see it coming, I do honestly find it smart.

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