Title: Almost Perfect
Author: Brian Katcher
Category: YA Contemporary (LGBTQIAP+)
Publisher/Date: Delacorte Books for Young Readers/13 October 2009
Edition: eBook (borrowed from library)
You only hurt the ones you love.
Logan Witherspoon recently discovered that his girlfriend of three years cheated on him. But things start to look up when a new student breezes through the halls of his small-town high school. Sage Hendricks befriends Logan at a time when he no longer trusts or believes in people. Sage has been homeschooled for a number of years and her parents have forbidden her to date anyone, but she won’t tell Logan why. One day, Logan acts on his growing feelings for Sage. Moments later, he wishes he never had. Sage finally discloses her big secret: she’s actually a boy. Enraged, frightened, and feeling betrayed, Logan lashes out at Sage and disowns her. But once Logan comes to terms with what happened, he reaches out to Sage in an attempt to understand her situation. But Logan has no idea how rocky the road back to friendship will be.
Hello, dear reader! We need to talk about this book. More specifically, I need to talk about this book, and why I believe that both cis and trans readers should avoid it at all costs.
Here is a fair warning that I’m likely going to be heavy on spoilers. I don’t particularly care because 1.) the spoilers I will be including will be heavily problematic, and 2.) hopefully if I spoil the book for you and you haven’t read it yet, you’ll decide to spend your hard-earned money on some other book (how about If I Was Your Girl instead?).
Let’s start with all of the transphobia in the book. Logan, our narrator, makes a pretty big deal out of the fact that he doesn’t see Sage as a girl, and even when he does recognize her as a girl, he does it in a way in which he makes it clear that she is a “different” kind of girl or “not fully” a girl. This is never resolved. Logan never gets over this. The only redeeming thing Logan has going for him when it comes to Sage’s gender is that he almost never uses incorrect pronouns for her… EXCEPT for that one time out of spite where he uses “she/he/it” to refer to her. He makes it clear that he says this because he’s angry, but he never apologizes for this, and this is a problem because it’s really not okay to misgender someone just because you’re angry with them. Sage is never recognized as the full woman that she is throughout the entire book, and it’s rather sickening.
Additionally, there is a massive amount of focus on Sage’s appearance throughout the book. Logan sees her as this tall, strange-looking girl with a deep voice when they first meet, and even though at this point she is passing without a hitch and Logan doesn’t know that she’s trans, he still can’t help but point out how different she is and how some of her behaviors are things that other girls would never do. A lot of these behaviors are coded as being “guy behaviors” and try to connect the idea that Sage isn’t really a girl back to the way she behaves. On top of that, after Sage comes out to him Logan will not stop scrutinizing Sage’s body in an attempt to find the “masculine” parts of her. This includes obsessively staring at her crotch in order to try to locate her penis as well as spending multiple pages talking about how shocked he is to find out that OH MY GOD THIS TRANS GIRL HAS REALLY BIG BOOBS AND THEY’RE REAL HOW IS THIS A THING WHY DO I LIKE THESE BOOBS (side note: you know that a book is written by someone who has never in their life worn a bra if they make a huge deal out of 36B being a gigantic size when, relatively speaking, it’s really not because that size is for roughly a 36-inch underbust and a 38-inch overbust, which is only a 2-inch difference. In fact, most of the people who wear that size are most likely wearing the wrong size bra. Check out r/ABraThatFits for more information on proper bra sizing.) While he hadn’t viewed her as such before she came out, Logan also refers to Sage as “burly” and discusses features that now look masculine to him that he didn’t see that way previously. Overall, this kind of scrutinization of Sage’s body comes off as obsessive and creepy, and it’s so not okay. Once again, this is something that Logan does not get over at all.
The discussion at the end of the book about whether Sage should “go back to being a boy” was also incredibly offensive. Sage is a girl. Being a girl wasn’t her choice; presenting as one was. Sage’s sister Tammi, whom I liked up until this point, decides that because of how Sage is treated for being trans, she shouldn’t have been supportive and it’s her fault that Sage is getting beat up by random strangers because Tammi wanted to have a sister, wanted her parents to let her do things and scrutinize Sage instead, and decided she really shouldn’t have encouraged Sage the way she had.
No. No no no no no.
The only supportive person Sage had in her life was Tammi. Tammi was the only person who saw Sage as her sister and not as “something” else. What is the author thinking by taking that last little shred of support away from Sage? Why would you do this? This is beyond disgusting and an excellent example of what not to do, be it with a character you are writing or an actual human being.
The set-up for Logan to “convince” Sage that she shouldn’t de-transition was eye-rolling. Logan has not been supportive and he still hasn’t learned a damn thing about trans people. Why is he the character doing this, exactly? Oh, yeah. Because he wants to redeem himself. The execution here fell incredibly flat — trans people do not need cisgender, transphobic white dudes telling them who they should be. They just don’t. Logan is out of his depth and out of his lane.
Much of the language used to describe trans people in this book is also offensive. “Transgendered” is a verb. Trans people are not verbs. Do not use this word. “Really a boy” is bullshit. Sage is not a boy. Sage is a girl. Additionally, using that phrase to come out is incredibly unrealistic — no passing trans person is going to look at another person and say “I’m x-gender-that-I-was-assigned-at-birth.” It’s just not going to happen because the person doesn’t actually believe that they are that gender they were assigned.
Logan is extremely homophobic and also pretty damn violent when it comes to learning that Sage is trans. First off, the very first thing he says about “what’s the worst that could happen?” when pursuing Sage, before her big “trans reveal” is that he found out what the worst could possibly be. He actually said, as a narrator speaking in the past tense, that what had happened — Sage being trans — was the worst possible thing that could happen. He was so focused on her genitals that even though he had real feelings for her, he could not view her as a whole person on her own and that her being who she is was actually terrible for him. Oh, poor Logan.
The literal first thing he does when he learns that Sage is trans after he kisses her is to run off and vomit. Real nice, Logan. He then spends several pages (and many other points throughout the book) ruminating over the fact that kissing a trans person might make him gay, going so far as to using the f-slur and thinking about putting her in the hospital and calling her a “sicko.” Then when some guy actually does that to Sage later, he can’t possibly imagine why someone would want to do that to her. Really now? because 200 pages ago, Logan, you were literally contemplating the exact same thing.
Let’s take a second to discuss the choice of setting. I grew up in a town that was half the size the one Logan lived in, so I can say with quite a bit of confidence that the transphobia and the homophobia present in the book’s setting was realistic. Having said that, if Sage’s parents really wanted to make sure that no one they knew would find out Sage was trans, then why the fuck did they pick a small town to move to?! Sure, they knew no one there when they moved, but they’d meet people eventually, and if someone did out Sage to others, it would spread through that small town like wildfire and then everyone would know. If they really wanted to keep it quiet, they should have picked a large city where they know nobody because gossip does not spread in a large city like it does in a small town. In a large city, a few people will know, but hardly any of them are going to say anything about it, and it’s nearly impossible for everyone to find out about something. In a small town, though? Every single person is going to find out about the latest gossip in the span of a week. And then what do you do? Do you just keep hopping from small town to small town for the rest of your life? This decision boggles my mind. To be fair, based on Sage’s lack of knowledge about small town life, it’s possible that her parents didn’t know what a small town would be like, either. This decision just feels so, so unrealistic to me though. You don’t move a child that sticks out like a sore thumb to a homogeneous, transphobic, homophobic, microscopic town in hopes that they’ll blend in and stay out of trouble. You just don’t. I feel like the setting was placed as it was just so that transphobia and homophobia (and conservativism in general) would be more rampant so that the author could try to hit his point home harder.
Logan is the world’s worst friend, and not only toward Sage. His “best friend” Tim, who is that one stereotypical “Asian” kid in the tiny high school, is mistreated by Logan at every turn. (Side note: I really want to know how the author, who is not Japanese, pronounces “Tokugowa,” Tim’s last name. “Tokugawa” was the surname of the military government during the Edo/Tokugawa period, and considering how large that name was I kind of wonder if he was going for “Tokugawa” instead. They are not pronounced the same.) While racism towards Tim is a problem, what’s a larger problem is how frequently Logan fat-shames Tim. Logan cannot see Tim once without commenting on his weight. Tim is fat, and while we don’t see enough of him to know for sure, it doesn’t look like it bothers him all that much. It does, however, seem to bother Logan to no end. He endlessly comments on how much and how often Tim is eating, and how fast Tim eats his food, and he seems genuinely disgusted by his friend. He also states at one point that Tim “obviously” isn’t seeing anyone without giving any further explanation, and the implication here is that Tim can’t find a date because he is fat. Spoiler alert: Tim has a happy relationship and him being fat doesn’t seem to affect it at all. After finding this out, Logan doesn’t show any sort of guilt for his negativity towards Tim’s dating life, and it’s pretty disgusting how little support he gives his friend because he is fat. Additionally, Logan makes comments about some girls being “too skinny.” These things combined with all of the focus on Sage’s body show that Logan seems to have a real problem with people not looking the way he thinks they should look, and this is pretty controlling and creepy.
Sage says that Logan is her best friend, and I find this incredibly sad because she could do so much better than him. Why couldn’t she ditch him and go find other friends? Other people at their school exist. She plopped down in front of him in class and apparently made a pretty terrible choice in friend. We don’t see how her other classmates (other than Logan’s other friends and ex-girlfriend) see her at all — who’s to say that none of them would be willing to be her friend? Logan invalidates her gender, has violent thoughts toward her, considers her gender to be the worst possible thing that could happen to him, and yet he still thinks that he is worthy of being her friend even though he never actually progresses on any of these issues except for the violence. He still doesn’t see her as a girl — he sees her as something like a girl, but not as an actual girl. Logan is selfish and doesn’t actually care about Sage — he just cares about how he looks when he interacts with her. She deserves better.
I vehemently disagree with anyone who says this book is important. I am a nonbinary trans person, and the last thing I needed was a cisgender guy “oh, maybe trans people aren’t so bad after all” story. This book invalidates the gender of trans individuals, and it serves as an incredibly poor example for cis readers as well. It teaches them that trans people are people, yeah, but it perpetuates the idea that trans women aren’t really women and that being trans is a choice, and it never fully addresses that. It never fully addresses that a straight guy being attracted to a trans girl is not gay (though Sage says this is not true, Logan’s constant ruminating over this serves to invalidate her statement). And it makes the story about the hardships of being a trans teenager all about the poor, sad, so terribly distressed cis straight white male teenager who happens to be attracted to her.
I’m embarrassed that this book won a Stonewall Award. Trans teens, your gender is valid and real, and you deserve so much better than this book. Cis teens (and all other cis people), do not take your cues on how to interact with trans people from this book. Again, have you tried If I Was Your Girl yet? That book handles all of this so much better, and it deserves to be read.
Final rating: 1 out of 5 stars