I like to try and read as much LGBTQ+ fiction as I can, including books aimed at younger readers. It’s partly that I want to see what books already exist, and it’s partly because there are so many stories that don’t get told, so I want to hear other perspectives. Geographical differences, for example, make a huge difference — and that was definitely evident in The Other Boy, although less in terms of how the trans character was treated, and more in terms of everything else.
Put simply, this book is an exceedingly American story about a trans twelve-year-old. It’s one of those things where I didn’t realise how different it is to be British until I read something entirely American — I’ve picked up a lot of slang and colloquialisms from years on the internet, but this still caught me out in places. On the plus side, thanks to my Kindle’s dictionary I now know what MVP means, which had been confusing me on social media.
I say it’s very American because the main character Shane is a trans boy who loves and is good at baseball, something I know absolutely nothing about beyond what I’ve picked up from fiction. He’s twelve, so he occupied that peculiar schooling stage that is also alien to me as a Brit — Middle School. I’d have been new to secondary school at that age, so the boundaries of friendships and stages of life are also subtly different, as is so much of the terminology.
(Also: is it an American thing to get naked in locker rooms, or just a guy thing? Because all the years I spent in girls’ changing rooms at school, everybody at least kept their underwear on, if they didn’t pull some contortionist magic under their other clothes and change without ever exposing themselves. A trick I’ve had to master, as a self-conscious dancer who is often late to stuff.)
Anyway, I’m straying away from the point. The point is, while I wasn’t exactly thinking I would RELATE to this book entirely, I definitely felt distanced from it because I’m not American. Which is no biggie. Plenty of people are. I don’t even know whether this is being sold over here, since I got it from Edelweiss as an ARC.
As far as transgender stories go, it’s a relatively unchallenging one. Shane has known since he was three that he identified as a boy and never felt like a girl; he’s into baseball and sci-fi and videogames, which are all safely masculine pursuits, even if he’s drawing his own graphic novel that suggests a more artistic tendency too. It was nice to see a story where at least one parent was unquestioningly supportive and the other was making an effort, and to see a character who was already on hormones and transitioning rather than one at the beginning of their journey. The book still involved a coming out storyline, but not in the same way that a lot of stories do.
This is aimed at younger readers, which is probably why it takes a straightforward approach. (Things start to get more complex when you have eighteen-year-olds slowly coming to the conclusion that they might be trans, or trans boys who wear dresses, or anybody who doesn’t fit quite so neatly and certainly into binary divisions. When you don’t know the answers, it’s sometimes easier just to avoid the questions when possible.) Though breaking down a black and white binary sense of gender among younger readers might be good, there is also a need for straightforward fiction with transgender characters, particularly for those who haven’t encountered them before. And I think the conventions of this story would allow it to be relatable for a decent number of people, although here and there it uses trans-specific terminology without explaining it, and some people might need to look it up.
I did like that Shane was into Firefly, even if I was surprised that he’d seen it so young. But then, I was late to the party with a lot of things, and I doubt I’d have enjoyed it so much if I’d watched it when I was twelve and still in my dragons-and-MCR phase. (It was a dark time.)
On the whole, my main issue with the book was that I felt I was constantly at arm’s length to it, partly because I’m older than the target audience and partly because I’m British. This meant that where the language wasn’t baffling me, it was overall a little too simplistic. I mean, on the bright side it only took me forty minutes to read, and neither of these facts are the author’s fault. It’s simply worth noting that this probably won’t be universally relatable and I might not be the only one who struggles to find an emotional connection with characters because of these difference.
Also, being 12 in 2008 was clearly very different to being 12 in 2016 / the vague present of this book. Or maybe that’s just because I was British. And a very strange twelve-year-old.