Title: If I Was Your Girl
Author: Meredith Russo
Category: YA Contemporary (LGBTQIAP+)
Publisher/Date: Flatiron Books/3 May 2016
After getting beat up at her old school for being transgender, Amanda Hardy makes the decision to move in with her father and start over again at a new school. Just wanting to make it through high school without any further incidents, Amanda decides she wants to pass as cisgender rather than tell people that she is trans (because who else really needs to know, anyway?). When the charming Grant falls into her life, she feels like she wants to tell him everything about herself — but what would be the repercussions of doing so?
This book is important because it serves as a wonderful window into the life of a trans person. It can be very difficult for cisgender people to conceptualize what it means to be trans and how microaggressions in everyday speech and behavior can be hurtful, in addition to how being bullied for being trans can affect a person. Amanda’s bullying was brutal, and yet her story was easily digestible for someone who would struggle to actually relate to her situation. In the author’s note, Russo (who is trans herself) stated that she wrote Amanda like this intentionally; she wanted her to clearly be trans, but she also wanted to make her someone who cis readers could relate to, and as a nonbinary trans person I sincerely appreciate that because I know far too many cis people who would struggle to understand a character who was written to be a more “realistic” trans teen, and they really need to read a book like this so they can better understand why their behavior is hurtful, even if they don’t even mean to be hurtful.
Unfortunately, this strength is also one of the book’s biggest weak spots. While being relatable to cis readers, Amanda is a very idealized trans teen. She is incredibly lucky because she has no issues passing as cis whatsoever, and she even managed to have bottom surgery before she was even out of high school. The latter point, especially, is a rarity for trans teens because surgery is expensive, many places have an infinite number of hoops that need to be jumped through before it can take place, and age restrictions generally prevent teens from getting it (though Amanda avoided that last point by taking a gap year in the middle of high school, so she was legally old enough to have surgery before she graduated). These points help her become more relatable to cis readers, but at the same time these things distance her from trans readers who want a trans character to identify with. Transgender characters are still pretty underrepresented (though this has been improving), leaving a pretty limited number of trans characters for trans readers to identify with. Many trans readers, teenagers especially, would consider Amanda to be incredibly lucky and might even wish to be in her position, and that can cause distance to form between the character and the reader. Though trans readers can very well still enjoy this book (as I did), it was still written with cis readers as more of its intended audience. There’s nothing wrong with having a book like this, of course, but it did leave me wishing for a book about a trans character geared toward a trans audience to read next.
A minor nitpick (with very minor spoilers): In the scene where the girls take Amanda to go get her ears pierced, the second the piercer opened her mouth I wanted to tell Amanda to leave the shop and never look back. No piercer who knows what they’re doing would ever ask someone if they want “gauges” put in their ears (for those who don’t know, “gauges” are a unit of measurement and not a type of jewelry; most standard earrings are 18g or 20g, for instance, so if you have any piercings you’re technically wearing these “gauges” the piercer is referring to yourself, regardless of whether you’ve stretched any piercings), and a good piercer would pierce with sterilized jewelry (NOT jewelry brought from outside the shop), and you generally wouldn’t be able to change the jewelry in your lobes for about two months while waiting for the piercings to heal. The only thing in this scene that the piercer actually did right is use a needle and not a gun to pierce Amanda’s ears. If you’re planning to get piercings at any point in the future and the person whom you are considering to have poke holes in you and then fill those holes with metal acts anything like this piercer does, please turn around and walk back out the door and go find another piercer. You’ll thank yourself later.
On a much better note, this book did an excellent job of normalizing things such as taking medication regularly and getting help for mental health-related issues. Oftentimes these things aren’t handled very well in books, and I think it’s fantastic when a book shows its readers that things like this are healthy and normal, and we need more representation of mental and physical health issues like this in books. Additionally, including information about the necessity of dilation after bottom surgery was appreciated because many people don’t realize that this is a necessary aftercare step. Though it didn’t centrally focus on it, this book didn’t ignore the medical side of this character, and that’s something that I would really like to see more of in fiction in general.
I also really appreciated the role that religion played in the book. Though Amanda wasn’t herself, many characters in the book identified as moderately to very religious, and in general I thought that the conflict between religion and transgender people was handled pretty well. It may have been handled a bit too positively for my taste, but I think that might just go back to the cis vs. trans intended audience thing mentioned earlier.
One thing that I liked that brought a bit more realism back to the story was Amanda’s trans role model, as well as the other people from her support group. These characters weren’t present for most of the book (and while this was a bummer, it does make sense because these characters live closer to Amanda’s mom than to Amanda’s dad and so Amanda is geographically distant from them for most of the book), but these characters (some of whom are just mentioned in passing) are the types of trans characters whom trans readers would find most relatable because they don’t all pass flawlessly and they haven’t all had bottom and/or top surgery and they don’t all have their mental health situation under control. Though I understand why they weren’t, I wish we could have seen more of these characters and heard more of their stories.
Overall, If I Was Your Girl was a solid debut from Russo. If she has plans for a second novel, I hope that she’ll write a book with a trans character that’s more geared toward trans readers. After reading this, I think she would be rather good at it. Though it wasn’t perfect, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to others. I think this is a book that everyone (especially cis people) should read.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 stars