Okay. I am going to jump right into it this time. The second verse novel I have had the pleasure of reading is Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark. I am pretty sure I have been obsessed with (the cover of) this book since we started The Book Wars last year. I finally got to read it and the summary, trust me, does not do the book justice …
From the outside, Brendan Chase seems to have it pretty easy. He’s a star wrestler, a video game aficionado, and a loving boyfriend to his seemingly perfect match, Vanessa. But on the inside, Brendan struggles to understand why his body feels so wrong—why he sometimes fantasizes having long hair, soft skin, and gentle curves. Is there even a name for guys like him? Guys who sometimes want to be girls? Or is Brendan just a freak? – [X]
Freakboy follows three characters’ stories as their lives are slowly drawn to one another. The first is Brendan, who is not actually the star wrestler- just a wrestler who takes quite a lot of (verbal) abuse from the coach. He experiences discomfort within his own body sometimes, though there are times when he feels just fine. His girlfriend Vanessa is the second character whose perspective is told through poetry. She’s strong, competitive, and smart, but as a fellow wrestler, she struggles to be herself within a system that sets very rigid boundaries on what it means to be a girl. The third narrative, and my favourite one to follow, is Angel. She’s the first character to be introduced as trans and is vocal about the struggles she had to go through to be able to get her life together.
Angel is a few years older than Brendan, works at Willows, a centre for LGBTQ youth, and despite her struggles, her story is one of hope. It works very well in balancing out the spiral of confusion and anger that Brendan (and sometimes Vanessa) feels, while providing some insight into how Angel herself may have once felt. Of course, readers must keep in mind that not everyone’s experiences are the same. And Clark is very clear about that from the onset. I had so many doubts about this book, but it was really Clark’s author’s note put me at ease:
I would never in a million years attempt to tell the transgender story. All I can do is tell a transgender story and cross my fingers that people will be interested enough to start asking their own questions.
It also helped that this disclaimer was followed by a poem that could have been from any of the three characters’ perspective*:
A pronoun is a ghost
of who you really are
whispering its resence,
taunting your soul.
I really appreciate the disclaimer, this poem, as well as the research and resources that Clark cites at the end of the book. Another thing I kind of enjoyed about the way Clark told the story is that she makes it feel incredibly visceral. She juggles three characters going through some pretty harsh moments and their descriptions and circumstances never feel muddled, or too similar to one another, or too trope-y and artificial. It seems like a glib comment to make- all literature is supposed to feel real in some way I guess. It’s just that I feel like all too often the trans community is reduced to statistics- abuse, depression, suicide, murder. And yes, these statistics are important and often they are touched upon for good reason- to educate. But Clark manages to write a complex, insightful story with heroes instead of martyrs and I feel like that may also be a good thing to have. I think Steph would argue (and I would agree) that hope is what gives a story the “YA” quality. In some cases, it is all about marketable hope. But! In the case of this particular novel (set firmly in a world like ours), understanding and hope are messages that are pretty rare and consequently, more valued. I am not saying that all books that deal with difficult issues ought to be hopeful or rather, in some way, unrealistically optimistic. I am saying that a variety of stories are necessary to suit the needs of a variety of people … and I am kind of proud that it is YA Lit that is starting to break the mould.
I could go on an on about this book. I have about fifteen dog-eared pages. I mean, can you tell?
And every poem is a treasure. It doesn’t have quite the flow that Lai’s poetry did, but I think that wouldn’t have worked here anyway, no matter how much I enjoyed Lai’s style. Clark’s poetry is jarring and formative** at the same time- which works quite well given the subject of her story.
Yesterday, after I made the obligatory pun, I quoted an exchange about poetry from The History Boys. What I neglected to do, however, is provide Hector’s response to Timms’ hesitancy over poetry:
TIMMS: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.
HECTOR: But it will, Timms, it will. And when it does, you’ll have the antidote ready. Grief, happiness … even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.
Of course, Hector is wrong. Not everything in poetry will happen to Timms or even to us. Timms, for example, will never have to fight in a war and watch his friends die. And not all of us will encounter the same issues as the characters in Freakboy. But we are, as I previously mentioned, in the business of empathy. So, whatever you identify as, and even if you don’t want to identify your gender at all, my advice- to teens as well as adults- is do not pass over this one. It is not the be all end all of LGBTQ works but it is (in my very humble opinion) a glowing new addition.
*It is presented in the same font used for Brendan’s poems.
** Sometimes, it is literally forming a shape or a letter. Just the style makes for an interesting read.