Mk's Reviews > Symptoms of Being Human

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
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it was ok
bookshelves: queer, trans, young-adult

Read “Mask of Shadows” instead. I really did not like this book. Authors who aren't trans (an umbrella term that encompasses genderfluid) and have nothing to do with our community need to stop writing about things they know nothing about. Let's break it down.

1) The first sign that this was going to be bad came early - page 6 - when Riley gets called "it" at school and then goes to go hide in the BATHROOM. Nobody who's trans or nonbinary is ever, ever going to choose the bathroom as a place to be. Outside of locker rooms perhaps, there's nowhere scarier.

2) I get that the author thinks it's radical to not include Riley's pronouns and that it will make the reader think. Here's the thing though. People use pronouns when they talk. And when those pronouns don't match up with how you feel, it stings. To not show that really real pain because you think it's a cute literary device does trans people a disservice.

3) While we're on the subject of pronouns, Riley mispronouns people all the time, and then corrects themselves based on revised assumptions that still very well might be wrong. Go to any queer or trans support group and the first thing you'll see is people introducing themselves with both their name and pronouns. Don't know someone's pronouns? Just ask. Politely. It's easy. Leaving this out takes away an opportunity for the author to teach readers how to be better allies.

I really hope this book fades into the background and doesn't end up on LGBTQ book lists for teens. As a trans librarian who works with young people, this is me begging the other librarians and educators reading this to not give this to the teens you work with. There are better things out there.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 27, 2016 – Shelved
March 27, 2016 – Shelved as: young-adult
March 27, 2016 – Shelved as: trans
March 27, 2016 – Shelved as: queer
March 27, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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Roberta R. (Offbeat YA) I'm torn now. Can you point me out to any other YA title that "does it well" as far as genderfluid goes?


message 2: by Mk (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mk Thanks for asking. Lizard Radio is the one that comes to mind in terms of a nonbinary protagonist. It's not realistic fiction, which makes it a bit different. However, since the main thing Symptoms potentially accomplishes is promoting empathy, I'd argue Lizard Radio does that just as well.

While there are an increasing number of good books out there about binary trans characters, you're right that there's very little on nonbinary and gender fluid folks. Still, I don't want us to get into the habit of giving out inaccurate books on a topic just because there aren't other, better books written yet. As Symptoms does get right, Tumblr is a good resource.


Roberta R. (Offbeat YA) Sorry, I've only come across your reply today! Thank you, I'll have a look at Lizard Radio.


message 4: by DAdams (new) - added it

DAdams From one librarian to another, thanks for this thoughtful review!


message 5: by Alex (new) - added it

Alex I'm also a librarian who works with teens and so I really appreciate your perspective on this title!!! I was initially pretty enthusiastic about it, but now that I'm seeing more of what the trans and genderfulid communities are saying, I am doing a lot of rethinking. If you don't mind me asking, do you have any titles to recommend instead?


message 6: by Mk (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mk Thanks for reconsidering, Sarah! Lizard Radio is the one that comes to mind in terms of a nonbinary protagonist. It's not realistic fiction, which makes it a bit different. However, since the main thing Symptoms potentially accomplishes is promoting empathy, I'd argue Lizard Radio does that just as well. While there are an increasing number of good books out there about binary trans characters, there's very little on nonbinary and gender fluid folks. Still, I don't want us to get into the habit of giving out inaccurate books on a topic just because there aren't other, better books written yet. As Symptoms does get right, Tumblr is a good resource.

Binary trans titles I like: A Boy Like Me. Some Assembly Required (nonfiction). I am J. Luna (though not everyone agrees with me on this). Beauty Queens (minor character is trans, and it's treated as not a big deal). Note most of these are about transmasculine folks, and all but I am J are about white people. That's reflective of a gap in what's being written.

Thanks again for your thoughtfulness.


message 7: by Alex (new) - added it

Alex I haven't read Lizard Radio, or A Boy Like Me so I'll put those on my list. And I totally agree that there is a fine line between being like "here is an impErfect book but at least it's SOMETHING" and recommending books that just aren't up to par. Thanks so much!!


Mira Meteo I agree with number 3 so much. As a feminine-appearing non-binary person who prefers neutral pronouns, the fact that "he or she" was continually used instead of asking was a bit painful to read. It was fine the first time since assuming gender is a trap even trans people manage to fall into, but it was never corrected. Quite bothersome.


Kody Your number one made me laugh out loud. So real.

I feel conflicted about (2) the studious concealment of Riley's sex assigned at birth/the gender others were perceiving Riley as. As you say, that's such a core piece of the actual experience of misgendering and societal pressure (or at least, has been for me). But I also respect the inclination to not satisfy reader curiosity about that, and the point it makes.

3) was so painful and cringe-y, but I feel conflicted about that, too. When I was a teenager in the process of coming out as trans, I thought I knew things because of my personal experience-- and I did know some things. But I hadn't actually engaged deeply in the process of unlearning cissexist bullshit. So as painful as it was to read, it didn't necessarily seem inaccurate to me.

Ultimately, we just... need more books! Books about binary trans folks aren't going to meet the same needs, I think.

Anyway, appreciating your review for articulating some of the things that were bugging me about this but couldn't quite put into words.


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