By Kristin Elizabeth Clark
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR (Macmillan)
Kristin Elizabeth Clark certainly has ambition. Her debut novel, FREAKBOY, tackles the gender spectrum - in verse. I love novels in verse and I love novels that address LGBTQ issues. I had very high hopes for FREAKBOY, which can be a bad thing for a book. But I think Clark met her ambitions.
Brendan Chase is a fairly normal guy. He's on the wrestling team (and isn't that good) and has a girlfriend (who is a better wrestler than him). He loves Vanessa, knows that he likes girls in that way. At the same time, he likes girls in another way. But as he starts to explore his feelings, he also rejects the easy explanations. Because being a guy doesn't feel wrong all the time.
His quest leads his path to intersect with Angel's. She's got it pretty together and is volunteering at a local youth center to help other kids out. Her path was hard, but she's making it. At first her story seems tangential, but I liked how her and Brendan's stories became more and more involved. (After getting a little frustrated that it seemed like the two were just going to keep barely brushing by each other.) I also liked that their relationship was platonic.
It's a mentorship in some ways, a friendship in more, and a type of relationship that's rarely seen in fiction. Angel is a transgender woman, something she knew about herself from a young age. Her certainty offers a counterpoint to Brendan's uncertainty. No one's journey to their identity is the same,
Meanwhile, FREAKBOY also explores the point of view of Vanessa. She loves Brendan, but doesn't like that he's keeping secrets from her. I liked that FREAKBOY doesn't villainize Vanessa. She fights to save their relationship, but she also has valid reasons to end it. She is her own person, with her own desires for a relationship, and she is entitled to those.
I think that poetry was a good choice for telling the stories in FREAKBOY. Brendan, Angel, and Vanessa are struggling with things that are hard to say, emotions that don't verbalize well. The poetry has an authentic flow to it. It's not stiff and halting, but organic. I do wish there had been a bit more differentiation between the three voices, but I could usually tell whose point of view a poem was expressing even without the headings.
FREAKBOY is the debut of a great talent and one that begins to fill a void in YA literature. It's different, but it feels like a logical step from predecessors like Ellen Hopkins and Catherine Ryan Hyde. I look forward to Clark's next book, because I can't wait to see what she writes as she grows as an author and storyteller.