Published by HarperCollins on September 6th 2016. Hardcover: 384 pages.
Genres: Young Adult, Realistic Fiction, Diverse Characters & Stories, LGBTQIA
All Pen Oliveira 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.
Pen makes tough choices, has her friends’s backs, and is done feeling bad about who she is. 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.
Girl Mans Up is an important queerbook in the YA realm. It seamlessly addresses both gender and sexuality, weaving the two together into the beautiful, fierce character of Pen while still acknowledging the fact that they are two different spectrums entirely. Throughout the entire story, Pen wrestles with feeling like she doesn’t quite fit. She knows who she is, she knows who she wants to be, but at every single turn she feels that she cannot exist. It comes from the laughter when she goes out in public “dressed like a dude”. It comes from her parents every time she does something that they disapprove of. It comes from when she looks at herself in the mirror. Who Pen is confuses her–where her gender and her sexuality meet is a complex, complicated place to live. And yet Pen persists despite of expectations. She continues even when she feels others staring. She has confidence in herself, even when she is not sure where and how she fits. That is what I appreciated the most. The fact that she says “I need to take a leak.” The fact that she plays videogames. The fact that she is loyal. The fact that she makes mistakes. The fact that she is an AUTHENTIC HUMAN. She is beautiful, she is fierce, she is REAL.
It’s not every day that a book will simultaneously make you super angry, break your heart, and get you to jump up with your fist raised yelling “HUZZAH!”. But this book managed to make me do all three.
Colby. Pen’s “best friend”, the dude that has always accepted her as she is, has now turned into a complete and total tool. (Don’t worry, this is not a spoiler–he acts this way for the entire book). Every thing he says, every time he is on the page, he made me so incredibly angry. Though he preached loyalty in friendship, he is one of the worst “friends” I have read in a long time. He treats Pen horribly, he treats other teenage girls horribly, and he really has no regret about it. Everyone knows a Colby, though. Most people have had a Colby in their lives, which is why seeing an authentic Colby character on the page allows for readers to get angry at people like Colby in a safe environment. Because trust me, you will get angry. It will make your blood boil that someone could treat anyone that way. He may take top prize for my least favorite character in a book, period.
Pen’s parents are characters that are so realistic that they will just break your heart. They are traditional parents with a strong cultural inheritance (Portuguese). While this representation is very realistic of traditional families with cultural ties, it will break your heart. Because Pen does not conform to traditional gender roles and expectations, her parents–specifically her mother–treat her and talk to her in a way that literally made me cringe. Their strong traditional cultural inheritance does not allow for gray spots when it comes to gender expectations, and that really plays harshly on the family dynamics. This is, unfortunately, a sad and harsh reality for many teenagers, so portraying a family with these dynamics, however heartbreaking, is truly important.
The Jumping and Fist-Raising
Pen and Johnny, Pen and Olivia, Pen and Blake–All of these characters and these relationships (brother-sister, friendship, romance) are the true bright spots in this story. Because Pen has support, and she finds more support, and she gives support. These friendships and relationships are positive (though not always pleasant and perfect) in a world filled with so much negativity. And that is beautiful and worth jumping up and raising your fist about.
And also retro gaming, which is just quirky and awesome and I appreciated it greatly. 🙂
“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.”
There is a lot packed into this beautiful story, and I think that is why this book is so great. M.E. Girard addresses the complexities of real life. All of these characters are real people. You know them. They exist in this book, they exist in YA cannon, and they exist in real life. That’s what makes them so relateable. That’s what makes them so authentic. This is a glimpse into people’s lives, the beautiful and the ugly. But it is real. This is someone’s experience. Pen exists in real life. And she deserves to see herself authentically in a book (and he does too). THAT is why this book matters.