Jeff Garvin. Symptoms Of Being Human. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016.
Rating: 4.75 out of 5 lightsaber-blue eyes
If only this book had come out earlier, or if I’d waited a bit longer, I could’ve added it to my previous post. Oh well. This is another fantastic book about gender identity. As the child of a congressman in a very conservative county, Riley Cavanaugh is feeling more and more pressure as the election approaches, especially about whether or not to come out as gender fluid. Some days they identify as a girl, and some days they identify as a boy. Riley describes it as having an inner compass or dial that constantly shifts between male and female, sometimes pausing at one or the other end, and sometimes somewhere in between.
Following a therapist’s recommendation, Riley deals with the stress by keeping an anonymous blog (using the name “Alix” and a David Bowie avatar 🙂 ) about being gender fluid, and is shocked when it gains thousands of followers. On the one hand, this is extremely validating. On the other hand, all the attention is terrifying, and then an anonymous troll starts leaving comments that suggest he or she knows who “Alix” really is.
Reading Symptoms, I realized I’d forgotten to mention what an amazing high school experience Gretchen and Toni had in What We Left Behind. They didn’t have to deal with any bullying – the story even starts with everyone at Homecoming congratulating Toni for winning the right to wear pants at T’s all-girl school – whereas Riley has gotten constant grief because although they haven’t come out yet, people can tell there’s something different about them.
The most interesting choice Jeff Garvin makes is to never explicitly reveal Riley’s biological sex (there is one accidental hint when they fix their hair in a gender-specific way that pleases Mr. and Mrs. Cavanaugh). As “Alix” says in their first blog post, it’s none of anyone’s business. And as a writing technique, for the most part, this works just fine. There’s only one moment when the strategy becomes awkward:
I step out from behind my dad, and the superintendent looks from him to me with a bright smile. “And this must be your…” She pauses for a split second—but in that time, I see her smile falter just slightly.
Dad, being the consummate politician, jumps in a millisecond later, defusing the awkward moment with his usual charm. “Riley,” he says, “this is Superintendent Clemente. She’s here to hold me accountable for all my campaign promises.”
She recovers her smile immediately, but I know my dad noticed. (pg. 207)
The fact that Riley’s parents don’t know about their child’s gender identity is a major plot point, and yet somehow, Congressman Cavanaugh knows not to clarify whether Riley is his son or daughter. That just doesn’t seem realistic, considering he expects them to wear a very gender-specific outfit to every campaign function. It would’ve been better to leave that scene out.
But enough of that. Like George and What We Left Behind, Symptoms Of Being Human is an excellent exploration of gender identity. And Riley is just an awesome character. They love punk rock, periodically making up new names for an imaginary band (like Soul Sneeze and Gender Fluid Rage); has a vintage record player; did I mention the David Bowie avatar? They even suggest Mr. Cavanaugh use “Changes” as the walk-in music for a fund-raiser dinner.
I also loved Bec, with her black peacoat and “lightsaber blue” eyes, and Solo, nicknamed for his love of Star Wars (some still call him Chewie, for the furry Chewbacca backpack he never wears in public anymore). And Mike/Michelle, and Kanada, and Bennie, and Chris, and Morgan, and Herman – the members of Queer Alliance.
Hopefully, as more books like this enter the Juv/YA sphere, more children and teens will grow up with open minds and there will be more supportive schools like Toni and Gretchen’s.