Thursday, September 1, 2016
review: girl mans up by m-e girard
All Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty. But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth--that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up. ~ Goodreads
Source: ARC provided by the publisher via ALA16
What an exciting time for contemporary YA! Every book I’ve read this summer has hit it out of the park and you can add Girl Mans Up to that list.
Girl Mans Up is an important (gah I HATE using that term but it’s true & I’ll expand on why in a minute), honest and thought provoking exploration of gender identity, loyalty, friendship and family.
Pen, a 16 year old girl who likes to wear guys clothes, play video games, and likes girls, has been friends with Colby since they were 9. Mostly because he accepts her as she is, lets her be one of the guys but under his protection, keeps her off the radar of people who would bully her for not conforming to what they believe a girl should be.
But being Colby’s friend comes with a price. To be friends with Colby you must be loyal and his version of loyalty means acting as his wingman to pick up a never ending stream of girls. This has never really bothered Pen until she befriends Olivia – one of Colby’s castaways and starts a romance with Blake, a girl that Colby had picked as his next target. A girl that can see right through Colby’s bs and is more interested in Pen.
As Pen’s friendships collide along with the mounting pressure from her traditional Portuguese family to act *normal* to make her – meaning their – lives easier, Pen has to decide what is right for her and what true loyalty means.
This book does such a wonderful job on so many fronts. Pen is a flawed protagonist, who hangs with the wrong crowd and sees that it isn’t working anymore but struggles to cut the ties completely while dealing with parents that are increasingly hostile to her. She doesn’t always do the right thing the first time but she tries and tries again when she gets it wrong.
There is romance but it’s not the main focus. The friendship between Pen and Olivia was a much stronger element as was her relationship with her brother Johnny. It was a nice balance not often seen in YA. It’s also great to find more LGBQTIA that isn’t tragic. Pen has a lovely, healthy romance with Blake and cuts out a path that allows her to stay true to herself and be happy.
As for the term “mans up”. Girard attempts to flip the term and explore it’s many meanings but at times ends up feeding into the masculine/feminine stereotypes without nuance. Even so A++++ for portraying Pen in all her glorious, imperfect complexity and discussing gender fluidity in a way that I haven't read before.
Some of the repetitive slang (mostly from Blake) got irritating – like righteous and you win at everything – etc but then I remembered my dad wanting to pull his hair out when I went through my calling everything cute phase lol So maybe that’s just what teens do and I’ll overlook it.
So the preachy *this book is important part* I truly believe it’s important to see yourself represented in media and Pen’s gender fluidity, her experiences – both good and bad – will help countless teens.
I seem to be reading a lot of YA recently that brings me back to my not so wonderful teen days in the 80’s (many, many moons ago) but I knew a Pen when I was 16. I’ll call her Joss (not her real name). She was lesbian, she was butch, she was confused and she was the sweetest girl you would meet. But her parents didn’t understand her and sent her to electric shock therapy, boys in the neighborhood that had grown up with her – had been her friends – gang raped her to *fix* her. She was suicidal and ended up an alcoholic (LGBQT suicide statistics). She didn’t know anyone like her – she thought she was broken and I have to believe that books like these help. Imagine if she could have read about Pen. Sure she’s a fictional character but knowing that her experiences are real and that she wasn't alone, that she could fall in love, that she would meet people who didn’t care about what she wore or who she liked. They’ll accept her as is. That’s literally life saving.
I think this book is just as important for parents though. Pen’s parents wanted her life to be easy (understandable) so they wanted her to dress like a girl so she wouldn’t get picked on. They continuously victim blamed her when people did horrible things like cornering her in a dressing room when she was younger to see her genitals to prove what gender she was, or name calling, harassment. I can’t imagine ever rejecting a child over these things but maybe being able to at least read about it from their point of view and to see what their struggles are could help. Or I hope so anyway.
Well written, original debut. I can't wait to read more by this author.
I'll end with this wonderful quote from Pen - it was from the arc so it may change in the final copy.
"People should just be allowed to look in the mirror and see all kinds of possibilities. Everyone should be able to feel nice when they look in the mirror. They should at least be able to see themselves reflected in there, even if they look all weird."