There were so, so many things about this book that caught my eye and put it on my radar. The gorgeous and colorful cover, including and especially the fact that Felix himself, a young trans male with top surgery scars visible, is highlighted in all his beauty. Then, there’s the title (I’m a sucker for fairy-tale references, I can’t lie). Plus, and probably most important, is the fact that this own-voices novel centers and celebrates trans identity, love and a generally all-encompassing and wonderfully queer cast. I love reading YA because it can be so affirming in ways that I don’t often see in adult literature. And I want to support the authors and stories that I feel like were not as available when I was the “YA” age. I don’t remember reading many, if any, books that had queer voices, much less the even more marginalized trans and gender non-conforming voices. And even if I did read books with queer/trans characters in them, they weren’t “big” enough characters to stand out…and they for sure weren’t centered and celebrated like this. Anyways, I requested this book from my library as soon as I was able and waited impatiently while it was ordered and came in and my name moved up the waitlist.
“Only I have the power to say who I am.”
Felix is 17 years old and dealing with everything that normally comes with that age, like finishing up high school and figuring out what comes next, working on his art portfolio and applying to colleges, dealing with friend and family drama and a deep yearning to experience being in love and being loved by someone. But he also has some other things to reckon with, like the fact that he is “one marginalization too many” – Black, queer, transgender. When Felix’s identity is dismissed and called out in a very public way, and followed up with anonymous transphobic messages, he comes up with a plan for revenge. But that plan leads to much more than he anticipated, and he finds himself dealing with some truly complex relationship questions, both with others and within himself.
I just binge-finished this book and I have so many emotions! First, this is like, the YA book stuff of dreams. It’s fantastically written, compelling, full of both wonderfully supportive and realistically damaged/damaging relationships, well-paced, educational and beautifully inclusive. I know I said this already, but I never read anything like this when I was “YA-age” and I so wish I had been able to…this kind of representation in literature is extremely important, not least for those who are able to see themselves reflected as the leading voices in their own stories on paper, but also for those of us who don’t know what it’s like to not feel at home in our own body and who don’t have to deal with the dangers of living who we are out loud in a world that doesn’t recognize it. In reading the afterward by the author, where they discuss not discovering their non-binary, transmasculine identity until their twenties, because they weren’t exposed to the option before that…it’s breathtaking. And in part recognizable. I understand conceptually that feeling of knowing but not knowing something. I have always been attracted to both boys and girls, but I truly didn’t know that being bisexual was a thing, an option, until my twenties either, having no exposure to anyone bi before then. I cannot even imagine how much…worse (maybe not the right word, but I can’t think of better vocabulary right now) that must feel for someone transgender or gender-nonconforming, because it’s the body they’re in every single day that’s the “discomfort” and not simply a question of outer attraction. Anyways, bringing it back around, this book is fantastic and important.
Looking a little more closely, I want to talk a bit about Felix’s relationship with his best friend, Ezra. Honestly, I love how healthy their relationship is portrayed. They ask each other tough questions, get in arguments, can be insensitive and/or blinded by their own issues, challenge each other…but at the end of the day, they communicate through it, apologize, listen, consciously make efforts to do better, and just generally are THERE for each other. Yes, they were blind to some things, but hey, welcome to all relationships and, also, being a teenager. That didn’t stop their unconditional support for each other at the end of the day. I literally could not have loved that relationship more (from the beginning to, especially, the end). There is also a great range of the types of ally/friend and performative/damaging relationships presented by the supporting cast of characters. It provides great insight for anyone looking for what types of questions and actions might be helpful or offensive, how to be a real ally, and the various ways people can be trans and queer phobic or hurtful (whether intentionally or not).
Relatedly, Callender does a fantastic job exploring privilege and marginalization in this novel. There are myriad and very complex levels to privilege, from skin color to sexuality and gender identity to family to economic status (and more) and most of the characters in this novel, as in life, experience challenges related to some/all of these. Although initial reactions to these various privileges may not be handled perfectly, especially since not all of them are easily visible, Callender shows how they are all legitimate, valid problems. At the same time, they show that while some may be more immediate than others and therefore do deserve a priority, none of them mean you can ignore or minimize others’ problems. This is a strong, consistent and poignant message throughout the novel.
I also loved the messages about self-love and owning your own life. It’s wonderful to see how, from the very beginning, Felix outwardly lives the truth of who he is. It’s heart-warming to see how proud he is of all his identities. And yet, in large part because of those intersecting identities and internalized marginalization related to them, he still privately believes that he’s not worthy of love, success, outward recognition, and many other acceptances that he craves. Taking this coming-of-age journey with him, as he truly chooses to inwardly take the same chances he’s taken outwardly, choosing to risk pain and loss in order to step off the sidelines and jump into the action of his own life, is inspiring. I love the beauty and profundity of the message Callender crafts over the length of this novel: that it will be difficult, but you have to learn to fully accept and love yourself before you can really take a chance on loving/being loved by someone else. Real love is scary, but it’s worth it. The way that Felix’s art helps him with this process and, in reverse, how opening himself up allows his art to flourish, is an added bonus to this already great book. Any time creativity is honored and/or used as a coping mechanism is a “win” for me.
There is just so much life in this book – it almost vibrates with it! I think I experienced every possible emotion while reading this, and all with so much purity and intensity. There is a look at the many challenges and realities that trans people, and especially trans people of color, deal with. But there is also much more than that. In these pages Felix is written as a fully dimensional character and being trans, while important, is just a part of his person; he both is and is not defined by it in a way that feels incredibly genuine. Felix and his story will grab you from the very beginning and it won’t let go until you are taking fast, deep, dramatic breaths as you turn the final page. Do yourself a favor and give this book a read.
A few passages I highlighted while reading:
“I’m not flaunting anything. I’m just existing. This is me. I can’t hide myself. I can’t disappear. And even if I could, I don’t fucking want to. I have the same right to be here. I have the same right to exist.”
“You don’t get to use my pain to make your point.”
“I mean, I WANT to be in love. That’s something I’ve always wanted to feel. What’s it like, to be in love and have that other person love you, too? Is it another level of friendship? Another level of trust, vulnerability, always telling that person your thoughts and feelings, sharing every little thing with them so that you’re so in sync that it’s like you’re one person? Is it like every time you see them, your heart goes wild, and you can’t think because you’re so effing happy? Is it like whenever they’re away, you feel like you’re missing a piece of yourself? Does knowing someone loves you fill you with confidence, because you know you’re the type of person who deserves love? And what’s it like to break up with someone you love? What’s it like to decide to try again, and let yourself fall in love with someone else? To decide to take that chance you might get hurt, but still want to try? I don’t know. But I want to.”
“We all make mistakes. We all have the chance to learn and grow from them. But we all also have the right to choose whether or not we’ll forgive someone for the mistakes they’ve made…”
“Loving and accepting and celebrating yourself, and loving and celebrating and supporting […] who will come next. Changing this world, yes – we need people who will fight for our rights, fight for justice in the courts so that it will be better for the next generation. But creating our own world, not just for ourselves in our bubble, but one that can spread to those who need it most – one filled with our stories, our history, our love and pride – that’s just as beautiful. That’s just as necessary. Without that, we forget ourselves. Crumple under the pain of feeling isolated, unaccepted by others, without realizing that, above all else, we need to love and accept ourselves first.”
“There isn’t anything wrong with love. There isn’t anything embarrassing about love.” (My addition: ALL LOVE!)