Some people would give anything to be considered “normal”, but in The Art of Being Normal, the lesson is that there really is no such thing.
Since he was little, David has only ever really wanted one thing: to be a girl. He keeps this a secret from everyone except his two best friends, quietly gathering information and arguments for when he finally has the courage to tell his parents, yet never managing to do so. It isn’t until he meets transfer student Leo that he learns he isn’t alone in the world.
The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson is a wonderful book that introduces two trans characters: David, a pre-transition trans girl, and Leo, a pre-op trans boy. For all that both main POV characters are trans, this is clearly a book aimed at cisgender people like myself. It gives a realistic portrayal of the struggles that trans people face, but it does so at a very basic level. For instance, David struggles with how to tell his family, while Leo deals with the fallout of a forced outing and assault at his previous school. However, the traditional gender binary is very much at play here: David likes fairy wings and wearing makeup, ergo he wants to be a girl.
This book may be of help to young people who are still coming to terms with their gender identity, but gender is such a complicated concept that I don’t know how helpful it would be to people who are actually trans. The Art of Being Normal strikes me as more of a brief overview of trans for cisgender people. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I feel trans people who pick up this book may be disappointed in the outcome.
That isn’t to say that The Art of Being Normal isn’t good. It’s still an excellent story with well-written, sympathetic characters, and I honestly enjoyed reading it. I do wish Leo’s mother had been better fleshed out; she seems like a caricature. I realize there is probably a purpose for this, as Leo’s story very much revolves around the idea of him realizing that his father is not the mythic hero Leo has made him out to be, but she could have been portrayed as less stereotypical. Also, though the book starts with David’s declaration that he wants to be a girl, most of the rest of the story focuses on Leo’s journey — coming to a new school, dealing with his family — and puts David’s aside.
The Art of Being Normal deals with a lot of important issues such as bullying (beware of transphobic language, and Leo’s account of his assault may trigger some people), acceptance, familial relationships, class, and identity. It tackles the idea of “normal”, what that really means, and if that is something to which people should aspire to be. Perhaps most importantly, it has a happy ending.
The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is currently available wherever books are sold.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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