Although I have read quite a few adult books with young trans protagonists I have never before seen a YA book with a trans lead, and so I was really intrigued by The Art of Being Normal as it seemed to be, potentially, a totally unique book. Even more so after seeing the stunning cover artwork, reading the synopsis, and flicking through a few random excerpts.
I loved the opening hook of the book where David reveals that he has always wanted to be a girl. It’s funny and authentic, but also sad and marks him as an outsider, so really sets the tone for the rest of the story. The book has 2 narrators: David and Leo, whose POVs are distinguished by slightly different fonts – a great design idea – and their differing teenage voices, David, nervous but optimistic, Leo, hard nosed, with an edge of cynical humour. Both voices feel engaging and authentic from the outset. The first half of the book focuses more on Leo and the writing is characterful and intriguing. As the story moved into the world of teenage parties and romances I felt it might become a typical YA tale about outsiders who become friends, with less focus on the trans stuff. How wrong I was, near the middle, the story takes a suprising turn that made it much deeper and more interesting. And, as David and Leo’s characters get to know each other, it becomes a personal and heartfelt piece and our understanding of them really deepens. I found their conversation at the derelict swimming pool very moving and beautifully done, really erring on the side of subtlety in what could have been an overplayed moment. There were many scenes like this during the second half of the story, where I worried things could get too dramatic, but Lisa WIlliamson does a fantastic job, creating quiet intense moments with a light touch and mixing bittersweet or dark events with the lighter funnier YA material about friendship, so that everything feels balanced just right.
It is a brillaintly plotted book with lots of fun details and I enjoyed the little nods to Twelfth Night and Mermaids etc and loved the Cinderella elements of the ending. I really think young trans and queer readers need their share of these type of YA stories, and more of them, so this books is a brilliant and unique addition to that genre.