Month: June 2015

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Many of us feel that sometimes we are in pieces and wonder how all of the bits of our being will hang together when things seem to be falling apart.  Such is the scenario for Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.  Written in diary format–along with occasional poems and dialogue–the novel details the pieces of Gabi Hernandez, a teen trying to overcome challenges in life while finding her true self.

The pieces that Gabi grapples with is many—she has a father who is addicted to meth, a best friend who discovers she is pregnant, and another friend who is kicked out of his home for being gay.  And there’s more:  she questions many different things in her life, including religion, culture, family, and sex…all of these are slices of Gaby’s life that she feels are breaking apart.  In actuality, though, Gabi is pretty together even though she doesn’t see it that way.  She sees herself as a gordita, or fatgirl, and her insights about all of these things are reflected, humorously at times, in the novel, which begins with the following entry:

July 24

My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY, times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty-five. That story is the basis of my sexual education and has reiterated why it’s important to wait until you’re married to give it up. So now, every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait until you’re married crap, though. I mean, this is America and the 21st century; not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she will think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White.

As the book proceeds, we learn about Gabi’s struggles through her honest reflections as we barrel through the segments or days her life.  At times, humor dominates the day, as demonstrated in this Oct. 31 entry:  “Halloween was stupid.  As usual.”

Other times, sentimental honesty take center stage, as in this entry:  “QUESTIONS I WOULD LIKE TO ASK MY MOTHER BUT AM AFRAID TO BECAUSE SHE WILL PROBABLY THINK I AM:  A) BAD  B) WHITEWASHED, AND/OR  C) ALL OF THE ABOVE.”

At times, I relished the naiveté Gabi demonstrated.  Other times, I was saddened when her innocence dissipated into the landscape of her life.  Throughout it all, Gabi fights through the words in her diary, poetry, and zine.  Writing became a way for her to deal with her struggles, and she noted that “Now I know why Sylvia Plath had so much to write about.  Writing when you’re sad is so much easier.  And it makes you feel a little better.”

Gabi’s not perfect, and her entries demonstrate this, but it is her honest, resilient voice that creates a complete picture of a girl not in pieces but an intelligent, inspiring girl worth knowing.

Quintero’s views on “Why I Write” is worth exploring:

http://laisabelquintero.com/2014/06/02/why-i-write/

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

Beyond Magenta:  Transgender Teens Speak Out, Stonewall Honor Book, Candlewick Press, 2014

The stories you are about to read are of real people, members of the transgender community, whom I have come to appreciate and respect.  An author is supposed to be objective, and this author has withheld judgment while conducting interviews, taking photographs, and writing.  But my subjects’ willingness to brave bullying and condemnation in order to reveal their individual selves makes impossible to be anything less than awestruck.  -Susan Kuklin

And so begins Beyond Magenta:  Transgender Teens Speak Out.  The powerful and transformative stories come from six individuals willing to share their lives with the world.  Each has a different take on the experience, but all pack a powerful punch.

Here are a few examples from Cameron, who has contemplated the gender spectrum at great length:

But I like to be recognized as not a boy and not a girl.  I’m gender queer, gender fluid, and gender other. 

As you can see, I think about this a lot.  It’s a pretty big part of my life.  It’s what sets me apart from the rest of the world.  Since gender is everywhere in society, I’ve tried to understand it more profoundly.  Why do girls wear pink?  Why do boys wear blue?  How does this whole gender system work?

Gender is more fluid and more complex than society assumes.

A name doesn’t have to be perfect.  A name isn’t even who you are.  It’s like a variable in math.  You call a number x.  But x doesn’t determine what the number is.  It’s something to refer to for a particular unknown, x.  So my particular set of complex personality traits, and all that much, is Cameron.

There are other stories of those trying to deal with where they belong.  Luke happened to produce a play with some of his insights:

They told me

No.

Said, “What are you?” said, “you gotta choose”

Said, “Pink or blue?”

And I said I’m a real nice color of

Magenta.

These stories and others fill the pages of Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta.  Struggles with family acceptance, bullying by school administrators, trying to find their own place in the world before dealing with others’ reactions to them are all a part of the compilation.  Nonfiction books such as this focus on sharing information, but this book offers so much more through the teens’ unique perspectives (the book has a mix of MTF [male-to-female] and FTM [female-to-male] experiences and also has different ethnicities present).

Lessons come not only from the six teens but some family members or significant others as well.  One mother noted, “I learned through Christina.  I didn’t read a book or call anyone for information.  I listened to my daughter.  And I learned by letting her be.”  It is lessons like these that the reader will hold onto, long after the last page of the book.  As we transition into an age of more understanding about the topic, these individuals seem to acknowledge the transformation that is going on in society: “Transition? Everyone goes through one kind of transition or another. We go through transitions every day. Except mine is maybe a little more extreme.”

A bit hard to hear, but worthy information from the author (who is at the Brooklyn Book Festival):

 

 

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Music is something that unites millions of people.

The protagonist of this novel is transitioning from being Elizabeth to Gabe just as his high school graduation is approaching.  He also has a new job as a radio DJ, which fits in perfectly with his love for music.  After all, “What’s life without loud music?”  Indeed.  Music often times what people turn to when in need, and Gabe creates his show to connect with listeners from around the Twin Cities area:

This is Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, on community radio 90.3, KZUK. I’m Gabe. Welcome to my show.

My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. Gabe. My parents think I’ve gone crazy and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right. I’ve been a boy my whole life.

When you think about it, I’m like a record. Elizabeth is my A side, the song everybody knows, and Gabe is my B side—not heard as often, but just as good.

It’s time to let my B side play.

The B side generally does well on the air, and Gabe’s show even creates quite the following online.  There are, of course, struggles with those who have known him as Elizabeth for 18 years.  The adoration of his fans is contrasted with threats and brutality against him.  Gabe finds support in a grandfather-type mentor, who happens to be quite the music man himself.  This support propels him further into the music world, where he wants to make his home.  Gabe is confident on his life path now and notes that “I will survive…Just watch me.”

In essence, this is a journey about finding yourself, and that’s a road that everyone must take.  Gabe’s story just happens to be broadcast on the radio in late evening.  At times, his story does seem amplified, but that’s why I ended up with such strong connections to the novel.    A winner of the Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, the overall message is something that everyone must learn: “Whoever you are, you’re plenty.”

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

Many people in the world focus constant perfection:  they strive for perfect moments and perfect jobs.  They also want to have perfect relationships. Brian Katcher’s novel Almost Perfect focuses on the last of these—the perfect romantic relationship, which provides moments when love takes over and it’s only the two individuals who matter.

Logan, the protagonist in Katcher’s novel, is searching for this moment too.  He’s just broken up with his girlfriend and is intrigued with the new girl who has moved to his small Missouri town, Sage.  A friendship develops, and he longs to take it to the next level but Sage won’t have it.  Finally, they kiss for the first time.  Afterwards, Sage reveals that she is biologically a boy.

Logan experiences a myriad of emotions afterwards—hate, anger, denial, regret, and contemplation:

We just stood there for a few seconds. Back when we were friends, we’d have already been laughing and joking. Now things were tense and awkward. There was no way I could ever be relaxed around this person again. To me, Sage would never be just Sage. She’d be Sage-the-boy-who-pretended-to-be-a-girl-and-who-I-kissed-that-one-time. No friendship could survive with that many hyphens.

Underneath it all, he realizes that he still has feelings for Sage but questions whether the love could ever survive in the current world they live in.

Winner of the Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, Katcher’s novel tackles a great deal (homophobia, suicide, irrepressible love, among others).  Katcher’s writing is spot on and does an eloquent job of navigating through this couple’s bumpy waters.  This transgender love story is almost perfect itself.

Transparent by Cris Beam

Cris Beam started volunteering at a school for gay and transgender teenagers when she moved to Los Angeles.  She mainly worked with the students on their writing and language skills (and noted that these are kids who certainly need to be able to write their ideas and stories down) but learned so much more.  She became attached to the teens and the obstacles they faced on a daily basis.  The result of her instruction helped the students produce a 20-page zine, which ranged in topics and form, including poetry, obituaries, columns (“When Your Grandma Find Your Drag Clothes” was one published), and medical advice.  Beam developed a connection with the teens, and her first-hand experiences, combined with the formal research she conducted, resulted in this narrative nonfiction text.

Throughout it all, Beam not only educated the readers through stories but through her own experiences learning about transgendered youth as well.  In one transgender awareness workshop, she noted the following:

In their classes they hand out sheets of paper with four lines drawn across them, with an M and an F at opposite ends of each one.  The lines are labeled “biological sex,” “gender identity,’ “gender expression,” and “sexual orientation”—indicating these that notions aren’t fused—and students are told they can make a spot on the lines where they think they fall.  Most people feel they embody a mix of male and female qualities and will place themselves somewhere more toward the middle on at least some of the continuums.  We all float a little.

Information such as this is connected to the gritty, real stories from four girls (one of whom ended up as Beam’s foster child) that Beam connected with through her volunteering.  These stories are heartbreaking and harrowing—they clearly illustrate their daily struggles and their attempts to have the world see them as they see themselves.

Beam’s writing puts the reader in the center of all of this.  She becomes not only an advocate for the teens she worked with, but she takes on the role of mentor (and parent) as well.

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

A parrotfish has some amazing abilities—it can change its shape, color, and sometimes even its gender during its life.  The main character of Ellen Wittlinger’s novel Parrotfish is attempting to same thing, transitioning from Angela to Grady.  The reactions of everyone in Grady’s life ranges from acceptance to mortification, but one of the most interesting responses is from his friend Sebastian.  According to Sebastian’s research, there is a precedent for changing gender in the natural world, and it is the parrotfish.

Grady feels confident in the decisions he has made even though his family constantly questions his actions.  He seems to know that “…you can only lie about who you are for so long without going crazy.”

The novel also brings forth the fact that people often change a lot of things about themselves in order to be happy:

People changed lots of other personal things all the time. They dyed their hair and dieted themselves to near death. They took steroids to build muscles and got breast implants and nose jobs so they’d resemble their favorite movie stars. They changed names and majors and jobs and husbands and wives. They changed religions and political parties. They moved across the country or the world — even changed nationalities. Why was gender the one sacred thing we weren’t supposed to change? Who made that rule?

Perhaps this is where the book shines the most:  It lets the reader experience the transition with Grady.  Wittlinger’s inspiration for writing the novel came after meeting one of her daughter’s close friends who is FTM (female to male) transgender and realized it was a topic that not many people understood.  The friend sat down with Ellen for numerous interviews and also gave feedback after the draft was completed.  The friend did have an important request:  to portray Grady as a happy person.  She certainly accomplished that.

Luna by Julie Anne Peters

Julie Anne Peters is known for her groundbreaking books in the field of Young Adult Literature, including Keeping You a Secret and Far from Xanadu, among others.  Luna is a trailblazer in its own right.  Winner of numerous honors–including being a National Book Award finalist and Stonewall Honor book–this is one of the first YA novels to feature a transgender character.  Two stories dominate in this novel, and the first is that of Liam/Luna.  Liam is struggling getting through this days and finds relief when he dresses up at night in his sister Regan’s clothes and becomes Luna.  This is when she feels most authentic.  The novel flashes back and forth in time and offers a sensitive and poignant portrayal about a young person searching for their identity along with his family’s struggle to accept him.  The second story is that of Regan, the younger sister who is so protective of her brother that her own life can’t progress because she always needs to be there for Liam.

Authenticity in the topic of transgendered youth mattered to Peters, who wanted to ensure that her characters were genuine:

After my initial resistance (and I was resistant to writing this book; I didn’t feel I could tell Luna’s story authentically), I began to research transsexualism.  I knew zip, zero, zilch about being transgender or gender-variant.  I should have known, but gender identity and sexual orientation are two different animals…After six months my knowledge of their lives only scratched the surface, and to write a novel I need to know my characters intimately, to get under their skin.  I called the Gender Identity Center of Colorado and cried, “Help!”

Peters did get help, and the story of Luna and her sister Regan was crafted:

To be authentic and honest, the narrator, the main character, would need to act in the role of observer. I decided to create a sister for Luna, Regan. Regan would be Luna’s confidante throughout life and in that way she could see, and relate to the reader, the childhood manifestations of being born transgender.

The realistic portrayal of Regan’s emotions run the gamut.  At times, she is resentful and angry while other times she is fiercely protective, loving, and loyal.  Ultimately, though, the siblings love each other dearly as they both struggle to figure out who they are.  The novel’s messages about living as your authentic self is something that all readers can—and should–hold onto.

 

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