I know I’m so late as to be nigh-irrelevant, but I have to dedicate a post to opine on Brian Katcher’s 2011 Stonewall award-winning YA novel “Almost Perfect.”
The first I heard about the book was from a college friend of mine who was a YA librarian. She vaguely sketched out why it was terrible, but we were eating burritos and I wasn’t paying very close attention. Later she posted an excellent essay about it on her blog, and I decided not to read it. She explained that, in addition to transphobia exhibited by straight-boy protagonist Logan, the climax hinged upon the trans character, an 18-year-old-girl named Sage, getting brutally assaulted, institutionalized after a failed suicide attempt, and ultimately deciding to de-transition because she thought no one would ever love or accept her for who she was.
I generally try not to judge books based on the opinions of others, but if I want to read about violence against trans women I can read the newspaper, or watch countless movies and TV shows, or listen to stories from my friends. And while I’m not triggered by such things, I still thought that reading the book would be upsetting and rage-inducing, two emotions I don’t actively seek out. So for the past couple years I’ve just gone on my merry way, grumbling when I’ve seen the book on library shelves.
Last week, though, I got a newsletter for LGBT librarians and read a review praising the author, a straight cis man, for doing research (talking to trans girls online) and managing to “avoid creating clichéd and stereotyped characters.” I wanted to write an angry letter to the editor, but while I’m happy to personally hate a book I haven’t actually read, it felt intellectually dishonest and dangerous to publicly and professionally criticize something I hadn’t yet experienced. I got a copy from the public library and girded my emotional loins.
Surprisingly enough, the book turned out to be, if not almost perfect, at least very good. The writing was clear and skillful. The setting, a dying Missouri small town, was very well fleshed out. The plot was suspenseful and perfectly paced. I liked the open discussion of class, and the experience of being in a working-poor family. And lastly I really appreciated the nuance and complexity of Logan’s emotional landscape. He was confused, and scared, and angry, and horny, and desperately unsure of himself and his motivations, which seems pitch-perfect for a bright teenage boy.
I didn’t even have much of a problem with the rampant transphobia in the novel. Yes, Sage discloses that she’s “actually a boy.” Logan freaks out, almost hits her, runs away, and vomits. He’s convinced that this makes him gay, an unforgivable transgression, and desperately tries to dial back his attraction to her. Oppressive language and ideas abound, but unfortunately that’s a perfectly typical and realistic reaction—the last thing in the world Logan would say is “Oh, I have a crush on a girl who was coercively assigned male at birth. Whatevs.” As painful and bigoted Logan’s reactions and justifications are, they are perfectly believable (though I agree with many of the arguments against this made on Honig’s blog).
The main climax of the novel is when Sage is brutally assaulted after disclosing her trans history to a boy she went on a date with. Again, tragically not implausible. It is the events following the attack that makes the novel inexcusable.
After threatening to commit suicide, Sage’s parents commit her to a mental institution, where she decides to de-transition and attempt to live as a man, saying “I realized that I’m never going to be a woman. Even if I have the surgery, I’ll be faking it…and I’ll live the next sixty years wondering if my secret will get out.”
This final plot point is why I will never recommend this book, especially not to a trans youth, and why I am livid that Katcher won the Stonewall Award. He thanks “the real-life Sages who were willing to share their personal tales,” but apparently has no qualms with then throwing them under the bus, telling other kids that being trans is too hard, that no one will ever love them, that they shouldn’t even try because they will never succeed.
Trans people are constantly told from families, friends, news stories, pop culture, and the government that we are not real, that we are sick, that no one will love and accept us as we are, that we are deserving of whatever violence comes our way. This novel reiterates these dangerous, destructive and decidedly false messages, and the open-armed acceptance it got from readers and critics indicates that these are the messages people want to hear. Sure, I’m angry with Katcher for writing it. But I might be more angry with the people who think that this is a great representation of and for trans youth, because implicitly agreeing with those messages perpetuates them.