Review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

Two boys. Two secrets.

David Piper has always been an outsider. His parents think he’s gay. The school bully thinks he’s a freak. Only his two best friends know the real truth – David wants to be a girl. 

On the first day at his new school Leo Denton has one goal – to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in year eleven is definitely not part of that plan. 

When Leo stands up for David in a fight, an unlikely friendship forms. But things are about to get messy. Because at Eden Park School secrets have a funny habit of not staying secret for long…

The Art of Being Normal is almost certainly one of the most important books I’ve ever read, and indeed will ever read. It’s rare to come across a book which breaks through so many apparent taboos, showing just how ridiculous and outdated they are, and does it with such excellent prose, well-rounded and relatable characters and a cracking plot. Lisa Williamson has created a perfect storm in book form, which I have recommended to young adult and adult readers alike at every opportunity.

There are certainly more books for young adults being written now which feature young people who are gay as main characters or as an integral part of an ensemble cast. I’m definitely in favour of this – I believe young people should be able to read about as diverse a group of characters as they could meet in real life. The Art of Being Normal goes into newer, far less traveled territory, by exploring the life of David, a teenager born as a boy but who knows he is truly a girl. It’s also a story of friendship, as an incident in the school canteen throws him into the path of Leo, a mysterious, tough, new boy in the year above, who sticks up for him.

Almost no one feels quite ‘normal’ as they go through their teenage years, and almost everyone has things they’d like to change about themselves, or go through phases where they feel uncomfortable in their own skin, especially whilst wading through the hormone-ridden swamp of puberty. Now, imagine that being compounded by the feeling you’re actually in the wrong gender body completely – if you haven’t already experienced that first hand, of course. And not forgetting, of course, the pressure to conform to traditional gender roles and stereotypes… Add that into the mix and you have a big pile of confusion and not much chance of finding a place where you fit. That’s where David is at the beginning of the book, with only his two closest friends to confide in, terrified that the wrong people will discover his secret.

I absolutely fell for David as a character. He is utterly believable; a nervous, gawky teenager, plagued by doubts yet with a great sense of humour – his voice felt completely real to me, as did all the characters I encountered while following his journey. In creating such a sense of realism, Lisa doesn’t shy away from including the bad with the good; the bullies at David’s school, his fears about his future, and also revelations about Leo and his past. Lisa was inspired to write The Art of Being Normal after working in The Tavistock Centre, where teens can come to talk about being transgender. I’m sure that helped in terms of research but I think it also shows in her approach to the topic. She pulls no punches writing about difficulties but also doesn’t sentimentalise – there’s no magic wand here, although there are positive outcomes. It’s also very funny – David experiments with flamboyant outfits and keeps cutting in a scrapbook and there are some great scenes with Leo and his love interest Alicia, as Leo struggles to keep his past at Cloverdale a secret.

I enjoyed reading The Art of Being Normal from start to finish. With recent calls for more diverse books from Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, James Dawson and social media campaigns like @WeNeedDiverseBooks, this is an incredibly important step towards a more accurate representation of the real world in young adult fiction. It’s also extremely effective in demonstrating that there’s nothing sensational or scandalous about being trans, despite what tabloid media might want us to think. This is a book that everyone should read. I can’t wait for what comes next.

The Art of Being Normal is out now in hardback from David Fickling Books

I was very lucky to have an Advance Reading Copy; thank you to David Fickling Books for providing it.


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