This book rocked my world! At one point when I was reading it, I started tearing up. (On the commuter train. Embarrassing.) Full review to come.
OK, here's the full review I promised. I was ready to like this book before I even opened it, because (as far as I know) it is the first YA novel set in our ordinary, regular universe with a trans girl main character. For the same reason, I was apprehensive about it. But BEING EMILY was so much more than I even hoped for. It was beautifully written (in terms of pacing, character development, and everything else I can think of.) Every single character in this book had depth. Here's a novel that goes deep, while being so engaging that I scarcely noticed what a thought-provoking experience I was having. The main character Emily is extremely likable. When the book opens, everyone knows her as Chris, a regular dude on the swim team who's into gaming. She wants to tell her girlfriend that inside she is really a girl, but she's afraid. One of the entertaining things that Emily does is run lines of code in her head that tell her how to act like a typical boy so she can playact through life (like "/run: greet teammate, 1. Speak "Hey man, how's it going?"). Emily's whole life is phony, and the only time she gets to be her real self is for a few hours before dawn, when she wakes up early so she can put on some girl clothes and go online to a transgender website.
Some of the chapters are told from her girlfriend Claire's perspective. At first I was worried that the purpose of these chapters was an info-dump on transgender facts that she was learning, but it wasn't like that at all. Claire is also a very complex, interesting, and likeable character. She is a strong-willed goth girl, and her secret life is that she's also a religious Christian. But she uses her religion to be more understanding towards other people, and never tries to tell anyone what to believe. I've never met anyone like that in real life so it doesn't sound that realistic, but in the book it really worked for me and was very believable. Her storyline was much more than just, "Will Claire accept and support Emily?"
Emily does not get beaten up in this book! I was so worried about an obligatory "trans girl gets jumped" scene that seems to be de rigeur in this genre. (And I get why that is, but it's too depressing for me.) Anyway, it never happened. Yay! The only person who gets attacked is a homophobic/transphobic loudmouth at school who Claire hits on the head with a textbook. Emily remembers a time when she was little and her father whipped her, and there's one self-harm incident, but they weren't too scary.
The part that made me get all sniffly on the train was about halfway through, when Emily has her first session with a new therapist, who worms it out of her that she is transgender, and then asks, "Do you have a name you call yourself?" Seeing this character who's been so guarded and despairing get a chance to open up was really touching.
The more Emily got to live as her real self, the happier she was. I thought that the way her parents reacted—not supportive and not accepting, yet ultimately giving their kid what she needed—was really well-done. This book also had an epilogue that told you where Emily was at three years later, which I liked. It seemed realistic that her full transition took years, which is longer than a single YA novel can easily encompass. I was so not surprised to see that Emily and Claire did not stay together for all eternity. They were very close and cared about each other a lot, but it never seemed like Emily felt that much passion for Claire, because there was too much other stuff going on in her life. I definitely learned some new things from this book, like about facial surgery and how long it takes hormones to work, and I really appreciated Claire's musings about the topic of makeup because it clarified some things I've never understood. It also made me consider deeply what does it even mean to "think like a girl," and what makes people think like a girl (training, hormones and biology, being treated like a girl, or just the feeling that you are a girl?)
I guess no review would be complete without a word of criticism, so here it is. Although I was in love with this book, and the author deftly avoided a million pitfalls, there was one brief part that I did not like. Claire is thinking about all the different kinds of people she saw at the mall, including "a woman in a wheelchair whose legs didn't work at all." (How did Claire know they didn't work at all? She didn't, she just made that up in her mind.) Then Claire thinks how grateful she is that she gets to date someone who is not disabled. This really got up my nose. It seemed like kind of a wiener slap—this thoughtful character basically says, "Being transgender is totally cool, but being disabled is a repellent tragedy." It's not that I think YA novels should be "PC" screeds, but because of its groundbreaking nature, this novel is serving an educational function. And basically I want everyone who reads a novel about transgender characters to go away feeling included and better about themselves, not alienated and worse.
Also, there was another little part where Emily visits her friend Natalie, who has already transitioned. (Natalie is a cool character, too.) They go to Natalie's monthly transgender support group, and Natalie warns Emily that the group is a little weird and one of the people is off-balance. Now, it does seem realistic to me that Natalie does not love everyone in the group and that there would be a crackpot. But this just made me incredibly nervous during the whole support group scene, wondering who were the weirdos and what was the not-OK way to be transgender. I wish we hadn't gone down that road. But, having said that, I have noticed it's hard to please everyone with a YA book about transgender themes, and I think that's because there are so few of them. There's such a huge need, and only a few books so far to fill that need. Readers get such high hopes, and high hopes always mean some disappointment. If there were a million books like this one, I wouldn't get so worked up. I'd just be like, "Whatever, I thought this issue was handled better in the one about the trans girl with spina bifada who solves crimes in space."
In conclusion, BEING EMILY was an awesome book. The cover is cool and it's all-around an attractive book. Bella Books seriously pulled off a coup in publishing it; way to go them. I could be wrong, but I think the only other YA that Bella Books publishes are a couple reprints. Little, Brown should be crying in their Wheaties that they failed to acquire this. I feel ready, willing, and able to read anything else that Rachel Gold ever writes.
PS. This book is totally clean and PG-13. It acknowledges that some teenagers have sex, but the main characters don't. Unlike this review, the book doesn't use the word wiener, or any words of that kind. I think progressive librarians and parents could feel happy about 12-year olds reading this book.