by Hal Patnott
David’s classmates call her a “freak.” It started when she was eight and shared with the class what she wanted to be when she grew up. Other kids wanted to be sports stars, actresses, or the prime minister, but not David. She wanted to be a girl. Aside from her two best friends, Essie and Felix, she is isolated in her posh high school, where no secrets stay hidden for long. Although she longs to tell her parents the truth and start her life as Kate, fear of rejection keeps her feelings locked inside her.
Leo Denton is desperate to escape Cloverdale. His acceptance into the elite Eden Park High School is his best chance to leave behind the bad memories at his old school and his unstable relationship with his mother. He dreams of finding his father who left when he was a baby. All Leo has to do is keep his head down and stay out of trouble so no one will learn about his past as Megan. However, when he finds himself falling for the popular and artistic Alicia Baker, his secrets get harder to hide in the spotlight.
Set in the suburbs outside of London, The Art of Being Normal is a coming-of-age story that explores gender identity, socioeconomic differences, and what it means to fit in. Written in first-person narration, the chapters alternate between the points-of-view of Kate and Leo. Both characters show growth throughout the book. Through their friendship, Kate finds the courage to claim her identity and Leo learns to let in the people who love him. Despite the acceptance that the characters find in their friends and family by the end of the book, they both face violence and transphobic language from their peers. The otherwise engaging story of self-acceptance suffers from a fixation with the achievement of cisnormative standards of gender presentation. Leo “passes” and never once is denied masculine pronouns except in overt instances of bullying. Kate, on the other hand, gets misgendered until the end, even by her allies. No one calls her Kate or uses her preferred pronoun until she starts wearing dresses. The chapter markers designate her as “David” as well. While The Art of Being Normal provides visibility for transgender teens and a message of self-acceptance, it fails to break out of the binary.