When I saw that If I Was Your Girl, a book about a transgender teen written by a transgender author, was being published, I contacted my friend Alaina about doing this post. Alaina is transgender, and I thought there would be no one better to co-review this book with. The publisher, Flatiron Books, graciously shared Advance Reader Copies with both of us, and we decided to read the book and write our initial reviews independently, exchange them, then ask each other about how we felt about the book.
Publisher’s Description: Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.
But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.
Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?
I haven’t been this excited to read a teen book in quite a while. After almost ten years working as a teen librarian I thought I’d read it all, and I was SO over the angst, but this one…this one promised to be different. It was – and wasn’t – what I expected.
If I Was Your Girl explores universal themes of acceptance and hiding who you are (or were) in order to fit in. Amanda lives in a constant state of fear and wariness; she believes that the good things won’t last and that no one would really like her if they truly knew her; she is terrified that her secret will be discovered and that she’ll be bullied (again), beaten (again), raped, or killed because of her decision to live as a female.
I fully expected sadness and drama in this book, but that’s not where this story went. Though Russo’s novel did delve into the reasons Andrew became Amanda and the difficultly of being transgender, it was absolutely the story of a teenage girl falling in love, making friends, and trying surviving high school. Amanda is a very likable, relatable character, and the reader empathizes with her. Secondary characters, including love interests, are well developed and realistic. The plot has a few twists and turns, touching on other secrets teens keep hidden out of shame and fear and making the story even more relatable.
The novel kept me hooked from the beginning, and once I started reading I couldn’t stop. My only complaint is that the ending is a little unrealistically hopeful. While it really has to be, given the audience and genre, I don’t think things would actually play out that way.
When Heather contacted me about reading If I Was Your Girl, I was equal parts elated and mortified.
I am familiar with YA novels, having written one myself, and I am well acquainted with romance novels, having spent a good portion of my tween years sunk firmly into that world, so the YA Romance was familiar territory. But what was not familiar territory was the subject. Or rather, the Protagonist. If I Was Your Girl revolves around a transgender girl and for me that alone led to a strange sinking feeling of hope and dread. Because I have never read a romance novel about someone like me.
Imagine never having read a book with a character like you. Or at least not one where they are the protagonist. Reading a book without representation is kinda like watching movies with bit of film over the lense the whole time. The world is never really real.
I have read a lot of books.
And this book as the first book that was real to me.
So you can imagine the trepidation that I approached it with.
And I will say, the Author didn’t let me down.
This book wasn’t perfect, but what it was, for the most part, was real. It had its small missteps, the climax was a bit cliché, the world was a bit to rose colored, certain realities and insecurities got glossed over. But for the most part all those flaws were there for a reason, and I came away truly respecting the Author’s intentions to present the girls that will read this a note of grace. This was a YA novel after all. There is something to be said for the genre’s willingness to handle youthful innocence with a soft touch.
Trans Girls grow up fast, we have to, and I think we really deserve some escapism, some gentle wisps of non-reality, because life is ready to assert its realness to girls like us with startling clarity. That was the beauty of If I Was Your Girl. Ms Russo knew when to give us reality and when to give us fiction and she blended them both beautifully.
Alaina: This book shows a fairly accurate picture of Trans experience. That said what stood out to you or surprised you most about Amanda’s story?
Heather: I think what surprised me most was how typically teenager Amanda’s story was. Being trans was a part of the story, and lent a certain shadow to her interactions and decisions, but otherwise Amanda could easily fit into a Justina Chen or Sarah Dessen teen romance. I think maybe I was expecting a trans girl to have a different perspective than a cis girl, because maybe there was still some boy mentality in there? It wasn’t. Everything, from the way she thought about things to the way she interacted with her peers, screamed teenage girl. It really helped me understand being transgender in a way that someone just telling me this wouldn’t have done.
Heather: What about Amanda’s story resonated the most with you?
Alaina: I think the part that resonated the most with me was the constant tension she felt. I remember one part of the book where she is talking about how guys are looking at her and she isn’t sure if they are checking her out or realizing she is Trans. That is definitely an everyday experience for me but you don’t get that paradigm in other stories. The constant undercurrent of her worry and fear was heartbreakingly familiar. Being Trans is a scary thing, and the Author is obviously familiar with what that is like and the kind of thoughts that run through your head. In that same way, the matter of factness of death as a reality in the Trans world was bleakly realistic, hearing about one more murder or suicide becomes wearying and most get a bit jaded about it. Amanda embodied that stark acceptance and overpowering need to try anyway.
Alaina: So as a Cis person do you think the reactions of her friends were accurate? This is a novel written by a Trans Woman so I want to know if you think Cis people were portrayed correctly.
Heather: That’s a difficult question for me, as a forty-something adult, to answer. Ultimately, I think Cis teens were portrayed as accurately as most teen fiction portrays them. The sleepovers, gossip sessions, and need to fit in was very accurate. Teens with secrets and hidden lives is a universal theme, and is also probably very accurate. Teens with that much compassion, love and acceptance for someone who is different? While that is not what I experienced in high school, I see hopeful glimpses of that in viral videos and in teens at our local high school.
Heather: We’ve talked about Amanda, but not so much about Andrew. Do you think he was authentically written?
Alaina: Haha, I actually just had to look back in the book to see who Andrew was. I forgot she used Amanda’s dead name in the book, I just kinda mentally glossed over the name switches. Maybe that’s because I am used to dealing with Trans people and switching names on the fly while keeping their actual person in my mind. I never thought of it as being Amanda and Andrew, instead it was Amanda and Closet Amanda. But I guess that’s beside the point.
I thought the parts of the books focusing on Amanda’s past were very authentically written. I remember the horror I had as my own voice deepened and the inner revulsion of hair in odd places. I would have given anything to crawl out of my own skin back then, and if I hadn’t been 100% sure I would go straight to hell, I probably would have attempted suicide myself at that age. It really is a common reaction in those who are trapped with unsupportive family. In fact familial support is the biggest factor in whether or not Trans People of all ages attempt suicide.
As for Amanda’s relations with her previous classmates, well, I remember having crushes on boys and even writing their names on notes in church or class a few times before scribbling them out furiously, and if you think boys don’t pick up on that you are sadly mistaken. Being seen as gay or effeminate is many times a one way train ticket to ostracization and girls like me are often on speaking terms with the conductor.
Alaina: Ok. Switching Gears then to practicality; what age group would you recommend this book to?
Heather: This is definitely a high school book, probably 10th grade and up. That has nothing to do with the content or subject matter, but it’s a complex story with a wonderful emotional arc, and I think it needs a more mature reader to recognize that and pick up on the nuances.
Heather: How would finding and reading this book when you were in high school have affected you?
Alaina: Oh wow, great question. If I had read this in high school, it would have changed so much for me. Back when I was in high school the only representation I had ever seen of Trans women was on Jerry Springer. And I wasn’t like those women, I mean I knew in a way I was, but also I knew I was just a normal girl, I wasn’t the caricature I saw on TV. So to read a book about someone like me, about a normal girl who was also Trans. I don’t even want to think about it, because it hurts too much to think about. All the problems I could have avoided, the suicide attempts, the self-loathing, all of it would have been so much easier to escape if I had had just one inkling that normal life was possible. Being a high school girl is not for the faint of heart under the best circumstances, but being one who is stuck looking like a boy was terrible and if I had had the tiniest chance to be happy I would have jumped at it. And that is what this book represents for teen Trans girls, a promise of hope.
Alaina: Do you think this will help teens understand Trans Experience?
Heather: If I Was Your Girl does exactly what books are supposed to do; it allows the reader to be someone else. When you step into a fictional character’s shoes you can’t help but come away with a deeper understanding of that character, and maybe of yourself as well. The writing flowed really well, and the voice of Amanda was incredibly authentic, lending a lot of power to a story that teens may not otherwise hear. So yes, I really think that If I Was Your Girl will give Cis readers (teens and adults) a better understanding of what their Trans peers are going through.
Thank you reader for bearing with me and Alaina as we discussed If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Whether you’re Cis or Trans, adult or teen, we highly recommend picking up this book next time you’re looking for a good read. You won’t be disappointed.