Jonsberg, Barry. A Song Only I Can Hear. Simon and Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-44252-8. 293 p. $17.99. Grades 6-8.
Rob is shy and prone to panic attacks, but otherwise is content with life. When gorgeous Destry transfers to the school; however, Rob discovers love. But how does an extraordinarily shy person get noticed? Rob’s beloved blankety-blank foul-mouthed grandfather (and best friend) provides some assistance early on, encouraging non-athletic Rob to play in the high-school’s annual soccer game against their arch-rival school. Surprising everyone, Rob shines at goalie; unfortunately, Destry misses the game. Soon after, Rob begins receiving texts from an unknown individual containing challenges designed to overcome shyness and bolster Rob’s confidence. This sweet story, however, is only one layer of a more complex issue. Astute readers may pick up on clues throughout the story (Rob mentions having to work out a problem with the school uniform, will not use public restrooms, and has image issues.), but most will be surprised that Rob, born Roberta, is a transgender male. (Readers who happen to read the Author’s Note first also will be clued into the big reveal). This thoughtful, quiet book, with its unique approach, is an outstanding entrant in the LGBTQ market. Readers accept Rob as a boy from the opening page and are rooting for this sweet, intelligent, quirky youth to succeed in overcoming his shyness. By the time of Rob’s announcement, readers are squarely on his side. An ingenious denouement allows readers to backtrack through the story with Rob and appreciate the full impact of his actions and the precipitating events.
THOUGHTS: This book deserves to be in all middle school libraries. Nowhere in the book is Rob’s gender debated or questioned, helping readers understand that Rob’s perception of himself is the perception that matters. As Rob says, “I don’t have problems with my identity…It’s other people who have that.” Hopefully, A Song Only I Can Hear will show readers the truth, and heart, of that statement.
Realistic Fiction Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD
Calendar, Kacen. Felix Ever After. Balzer + Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-82025-9. $18.99. 354 p. Grades 9 and up.
In the summer before his senior year of high school, it seems like everyone around Felix Love is falling in love… except him. Ironic, isn’t it? Even though he desperately wants it, Felix has a complicated relationship with love. Felix’s mom left when he was a kid and hasn’t spoken to him since. When he was 12, he realized he is a guy, not female, the gender assigned to him at birth. Though his dad has helped him with his transition, he still does not call Felix by his name, simply referring to him as “kid.” Now, Felix continues to question his identity, a feeling he describes as a “niggling” that just isn’t quite right. While at a summer program at his New York City art school, someone displays stolen photos of Felix before his transition along with his deadname in the school gallery, something he has kept secret from his classmates and did not plan to reveal. In the aftermath of the gallery, an internet troll sends transphobic messages to his Instagram account. With all that is happening in his life, how can Felix Love fall in love when he doesn’t feel he deserves it? The quest to find the person who bullied Felix becomes more than just that; as Felix and his best friend Ezra seek out revenge, Felix forges unexpected friendships, finds himself in the middle of a love triangle, and learns more about himself. This raw, emotional YA contemporary explores a plethora of race and LGBTQ issues and teaches readers that age-old lesson that in order to fall in love, you first need to learn to love yourself.
THOUGHTS: Kacen Callender has written a primer on transgender youth and the issues they face in their second YA novel. Seeing the world through Felix’s eyes provides awareness and empathy. I would recommend this novel to any student of any background, whether they are looking for a protagonist they can relate to or they want to be a better ally. Sensitive readers may appreciate a warning that there is a lot of inappropriate language in the novel, but that shouldn’t detract from this powerful and important novel full of loveable, imperfect teen characters. Highly recommended for all collections.
Realistic Fiction Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD
Gino, Alex. George. New York: Scholastic, 2015. 978-0-545-81254-2. 195p. $16.99. Gr. 4-6.
George took Girl’s Life magazine from the recycling in the library. Older brother Scott is a freshman in high school and is happy when he believes his brother is growing up and reading “dirty” magazines. George practices for the tryout of the fourth grade play “Charlotte’s Web” with Kelly only to have the teacher find it a joke when a boy tries out for Charlotte the spider and thinks it will confuse the audience. At home, George is dishonest with his mother, stating that he did not try out because it was too much to memorize. The next day at school his teacher shares that his audition took her by surprise and too many of the female students desire the role of Charlotte, but she offers George the role of either Wilbur, any male roles, or the narrator. George does not accept. Kelly gets cast as Charlotte which secretly makes George unhappy. Kelly consoles George when the classroom boys mock him and call him a girl. When George returns home, mom removes the Girl’s Life magazines and tells George not to go into her closet. When playing Mario Kart with his brother, Scott, George wants to be the princess but selects the next best: Toad. After a week of not talking, Kelly apologizes and asks gently if George is transgender. George shares that transgender people do not have all of the same rights. Kelly secretly gives George the role of Charlotte for the afternoon performance. Scott and George’s mother are accepting of his personal feelings. Kelly also accepts George as a girl, and they agree to have George go by the name Melissa. Together they try on dress clothes and go with her uncle on a trip to the Bronx Zoo. This novel received a Stonewall Book Honor in 2016. THOUGHTS: George is in fourth grade during the book. While George is younger than middle school student readers, having this book available would be advantageous for students.
Realistic Fiction Beth McGuire, Wendover Middle School
Andrews, Arin. Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 978-1-48141-675-7. 248 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 & up.
Arin’s memoir traces his struggles with gender dysphoria and eventual transition from female to male. Arin, born Emerald, felt from a young age that he was born in the wrong body. As he began to develop as a female, he became depressed and suicidal. It wasn’t until he saw a first-person YouTube video about a transgender person that Arin realized what he was experiencing. He began attending an LGBT support group and met Katie Hill, a teen who was transitioning from male to female. Their relationship highs and lows played a large role in Arin’s journey. Although Arin’s mom was not 100% supportive at first, she ultimately learned to accept him for who he is. Not all transgender teens are lucky enough to have family and friends as supportive as Arin’s, which he acknowledges. A list of resources in the back is essential to teens in isolated small towns such as Arin’s. This book is a strong addition to any memoir collection: All teens will gain compassion for the struggles of the transgender community, and teens who are transgender will find strength in Arin’s moving story. Pair with Katie’s memoir (Rethinking Normal), which also touches on her relationship with Arin.
Memoir (LGBT) Kristen Rowe, Plum Senior High School