Review: This Book Is Gay by James Dawson

Whether you fancy boys or girls or both, whether you feel like a boy or a girl on the inside…you’re just you, right? With laugh-out-loud with and wisdom James Dawson smashes the myths and prejudice surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity and tells it how it really is. Us human beings are a complicated bunch and not one us should be labelled wrongly, just because we don’t fit somebody else’s idea of normal. Including hilarious illustrations from Spike Gerrell, this book is not Gay, Straight or Bi. It is about the extraordinary, unique and totally normal person that is you, me, your best friend and their cousin. It’s a book about us. James Dawson is an acclaimed YA writer and former PSHCE teacher. With testimonials from people across the gender and sexual spectrums, this frank, funny and fully inclusive book explores everything – from sex to politics, identity, stereotypes, how to pull, how to come-out, and much more.

Well, goodness, that was a lot of blurb, and I wouldn’t normally include that much but 1, this is a very unique book – it’s a non-fiction book aimed at young adults, giving advice and information about a potentially very difficult time, but it’s also very funny, entertaining and positive too, full of a huge range of different topics…and 2 – I wholeheartedly endorse everything in that blurb! I’ve now read and enjoyed three of James’ YA novels, Hollow Pike, Cruel Summer and, most recently, Say Her Name (listen to September’s episode of Adventures With Words Young Adult Edition to hear more about it). Something that I’ve really noticed throughout James’ books is his very accurate portrayal of young people, which I’m sure is at least partly due to the fact that he was a teacher for some time before he become a full-time writer. Here, he’s bringing that expertise to the fore in what I can only judge to be a roaring success.

Chart showing when people first question their sexuality, by Spike Gemmell
Chart showing when people first question their sexuality, by Spike Gemmell

This Book Is Gay is James’ second non-fiction book for teens, following Being A Boy, a manual for boys navigating the difficult time of puberty because, let’s face it, the majority of people who are the face of PSHE/sex ed in schools are female – at the time, I recommended Being A Boy to many female PSHE Coordinators who found it funny, honest and extremely helpful, as well as constantly in demand from the school library. I really hope that just as many of them will be getting copies of This Book Is Gay for their schools, because, if Being A Boy was important, this book is essential for young people.

From the start, this is a no-nonsense, compassionate, honest, funny, brilliantly written, incredibly comprehensive book all about the ups and downs of being LGBT* (the * stands for people who are curious, unlabelled, or not wishing to have a label… – we said it’s inclusive). Among issues covered are stereotypes, STIs, bullying and homo/transphobia, dating, apps, religious views on LGBT* and even countries to definitely not book for a holiday abroad (seriously, something potentially deadly important to consider).

Most of the chapters in the book cover ideas that I was familiar with in a general sense, but, given that I was a PSHE Coordinator and sex ed teacher, like James, for a number of years, it would have been embarrassing if they hadn’t been. However, some things were new or looked at from perspectives that I wouldn’t have considered, for example practical ideas like dating or ‘nesting’ (moving in together). There’s so much variety in terms of topic, but, because of the style, at no point does the book feel too detailed, patronising or overwhelming. It’s really accessible, very welcoming but still really informative. It’s such a difficult balance but I think that balance has been struck perfectly here, especially with the use of ‘real testimony’ from many respondents to surveys carried out by James, so as to better reflect the huge breadth of the LGBT* community.

Did it matter that I read this as a cis-gender, straight adult, as opposed to a LGBT* teen? Not in the least. One of the points James makes, very eloquently, in This Book Is Gay, is that those things are labels. In some ways, having labels is very helpful, because it means we can form an identity and be part of a community, but our gender and sexuality is only one part of who we are over all; we’re all human. Therefore, we all need to have an understanding of each other and our different experiences of the world. This Book Is Gay will go a huge way towards providing that, wherever you’re coming from.

Every school should have a copy (more than one copy!) of this book, available for any teenager to read without embarrassment. Every teacher should read it, as should parents and carers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to Lady Gaga.. “I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way…”

This Book Is Gay is out now in paperback from Hot Key Books, at £7.99 I purchased an advance copy at an event with James Dawson and David Levithan at Waterstones Piccadilly; thank you for signing it for me, James!

Kate @magic_kitten