Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Review: Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain HillRethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill (reading copy) - In her unique, generous, and affecting voice, nineteen-year-old Katie Hill shares her personal journey of undergoing gender reassignment.

Have you ever worried that you'd never be able to live up to your parents' expectations? Have you ever imagined that life would be better if you were just invisible? Have you ever thought you would do anything--anything--to make the teasing stop? Katie Hill had and it nearly tore her apart.

Katie never felt comfortable in her own skin. She realized very young that a serious mistake had been made; she was a girl who had been born in the body of a boy. Suffocating under her peers' bullying and the mounting pressure to be "normal," Katie tried to take her life at the age of eight years old. After several other failed attempts, she finally understood that "Katie"--the girl trapped within her--was determined to live.

In this first-person account, Katie reflects on her pain-filled childhood and the events leading up to the life-changing decision to undergo gender reassignment as a teenager. She reveals the unique challenges she faced while unlearning how to be a boy and shares what it was like to navigate the dating world and experience heartbreak for the first time in a body that matched her gender identity. Told in an unwaveringly honest voice, Rethinking Normal is a coming-of-age story about transcending physical appearances and redefining the parameters of "normalcy" to embody one's true self.
From Goodreads.

I'm pretty lucky to have had the opportunity to read this book. As you may know, I am a children's bookseller. Simon and Schuster Children's Books contacted my head of department about two memoirs written by two transgender authors that were published by S&S in the US that they were thinking of publishing. They were going to send her a copy of each, to get an idea of what a children bookseller thought of them, and because she knows how much I enjoy and promote LGBTQ YA, she thought I might want to read them and get back to S&S with my thoughts.

The first of the two is the fantastic Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition, in which Katie Rain Hill tells the story of her life as a transgender teenager. Hill wrote this book at 19, and tell us about when she was a child, realising that her body didn't match up with how she felt inside and the depression and bullying she suffered, to coming out to her mother as a teenager and her path of transitioning to the young woman she is today. We also learn of the LGBT support groups that helped her, how through them she herself became a LGBT advocate which led to some time in the media spotlight along with her then boyfriend - who is also trans - Arin.

Hill's story is a moving one. She didn't have a very happy childhood. The first few years of her life weren't so bad, but once she realised that she was a girl and not a boy, she fell into misery that became depression. She went to various doctors and therapists, and was prescribed a number of antidepressants, but nothing really worked. She tried explaining things to her mum, but she didn't really understand what was wrong with her. At first she thought she was gay, because she was attracted to boys, but even that didn't feel right to her. Her mum, at the time, told her everything would be ok, but would ignore the situation afterwards. On top of that, Hill was very badly bullied for her femininity. Things got so bad for Hill that at eight-years-old, she attempted to take her own life. Reading that was so unbelievably sad, seeing a child so unhappy, so confused, she thought it would be better to die. But things were going to change for Hill. Time after time of Googling, trying to find out what was wrong with her, she finally came across an article about a transgender teenager, and things finally clicked into place. She wasn't alone. There wasn't anything wrong with her. She was transgender.

I don't want to talk too much about what Hill recounts in the book, because this is definitely a book you should read for yourself. What I loved about this book is how accessible Hill makes it. As a reader of a lot of LGBTQ YA, I feel I've got a pretty good grip on transgenderism for the most part, but it was still really eye-opening to read the actual story of a real transgender person. I think the closest I have got otherwise is reading middle grade novel George by Alex Gino, the only novel I've read so far written by a transgender author who know exactly what being transgender as a child is like. But it was wonderful - and incredibly inspiring - to read Hill's own real story. Hill writes with such honesty, but also with an openness; it doesn't feel just like Hill is writing about her story because more people should learn about transgenderism, but also because she's happy to talk about her life. There's a lightness to her writing, that even when recounting the darkest of times, you can feel how happy she is in her skin now - that she got through it to become this remarkably strong, intelligent, and brave young woman.

I believe this is the first memoir I have read, and this played it's part in my enjoyment of the book. This isn't a story, it's Hill's account of her life so far and her path to transition. But I felt we were told a lot that I would like to have actually seen on the page. But this is a book of recounting events, not following along a narrative in a novel. Although we hear about the various significant events of Hill's life in detail, we're told about these situations, rather than "witnessing" them as we would in a novel. I think what made it difficult for me was having 19-year-old Hill talking about, for example, the suicide attempt when she was eight; it was an older voice talking about the feelings of a child, rather than the voice of a child that we might get through a novel. It's a small thing, but kept me from emotionally connecting to Hill's story as much as I wanted to. As I've already said, it was very sad, and difficult to read, but I as upset by it as I imagined I'd be before reading. But this is a personal style preference, and not a criticism of the book.

I also had some tiny issues with Rethinking Normal. It feels like it's written with a subtle agenda, which of itself is understandable; Hill wants to promote understanding and acceptance of transgender people while telling her story. But it felt slightly forceful to me. I do think there is a difference between reading a book and learning from it, and having a book set out to teach you something. However, as I said, this is quite subtle, so I was able to get past it to read the whole book, but it did niggle at me.

Overall, Rethinking Normal is an amazing story, and one I highly recommend. I'm really looking forward to reading the second memoir I have, Some Assembly Required, by Hill's friend and ex-boyfriend, Arin Andrews.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for the reading copy.

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Published: 29th September 2015
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Katie Rain Hill on Twitter

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