BY SUSIE WILSON
The American Library Association's John Newbery Medal is to young adult fiction what the Oscar is to the motion picture industry: the highest award the industry can bestow.
Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest won this year's Newbery award, and while reading about it, I found another prize-winning book for teens: Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher. The book received the ALA's 2011 Stonewall Children's and Young Adult Literature Award, given to "English language books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience."
Since I'd never read a book about a transgendered teen, I decided to take the plunge. Almost Perfect is set in "the American heartland": a small Missouri town. (The author lives and works as a school librarian in the state.) Its narrator, 18-year-old Logan Witherspoon, is a junior at the town's only high school and lives in a trailer with his mom, a single parent who works as a waitress. Logan's sister goes to the state university, and Logan's mother hopes he will follow in her footsteps.But Logan isn't feeling good about anything, because he's just broken up with his girlfriend, Brenda, and is sad and disillusioned about life. He is sure that Brenda was the only girl for him. While patiently trying to rationalize why she didn't want to have sex with him, he learns that she cheated on him with another guy.
Into Logan's vulnerability, confusion, and sadness strides Sage Hendricks, a new girl in town who, for reasons Logan can't fathom, appeals to him. Her résumé is somewhat odd: She has been home schooled until high school and has an overly strict father who won't let her date. (Her younger sister is allowed to date.)
Their friendship grows. But Logan wonders if he can confine it to just that when he feels attracted to Sage when he sees her in a bikini at the local pool. Sage also begins to push beyond the self-imposed boundary. Logan kisses Sage when they are together, and she returns it. Pulling apart, Sage says, "Logan ... the reason I can't date ... the reason we can't kiss ... the reason I was home schooled, I ... I'm a boy."
While Logan recoils from this information, Sage explains that she wanted to be a girl ever since watching her mother dress her older sister in frilly pink dresses. Disgusted with himself for being attracted to Sage — and worrying that if anyone ever found out, he would be called "a fag" — Logan ends the relationship. But not before Sage tells him that she has taken hormones, brought in illegally from Mexico, to create her breasts, and that she can't have the operation to complete the sex change, because it costs $30,000 and her father refuses to pay for it, since he's furious about her decision to become a girl.
Logan beats himself up for abruptly leaving the relationship. Like magnets, they come together for a night of lovemaking in his sister's dorm room at the university. As Logan remembers: "Sage. Me. Naked. Well, I was naked. Sage had never removed her shorts.
Things had started slowly. Touching. Kissing. More touching. Then ... the sweat, the touch of her mouth, the prick of her nails, the noise of the bed as it scooted across the floor."
Later, reminiscing, both agree that they had lost their virginity.
If anything, Almost Perfect gets more intense with Logan's decision to break up with Sage again. We learn about his lies to his sister about the relationship and his pangs of remorse; the vicious beating Sage endures from a guy she hooked up with after the breakup; Sage's father's attack on Logan; and Sage's decision to return to being a male, which Logan begs her not to do. We also learn of Sage's threat to commit suicide, which she had tried once before.
Logan thinks he has learned a lesson and can resume the relationship: "Sage just wanted to be herself. To be something that half the people on the planet become when they're born. She just wanted a little acceptance, a little understanding. And because she had the gall to look in a mirror and say, ‘I am a woman,' she had been rejected by her father, denied a normal childhood, abandoned by a boy she thought cared for her and had her bones broken and her face smashed..."
Sage has had enough of Logan's changes of heart and, sadly, although she cares for him, sends him away after he visits her in a psychiatric hospital. Sage does not commit suicide or return to her former gender -- but the relationship ends, Logan graduates and goes off to the local university, and Sage to another out of state.
I had to keep reminding myself that Almost Perfect is a novel, not nonfiction. Yet in his acknowledgements, Katcher says that he used the online stories of many "real-life Sages" to form the core of his book.
Recently, I learned about the study "Injustice at Every Turn," compiled by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which reports that over half of transgendered teens try to commit suicide. Many of these teens undoubtedly face the same struggles as Sage.
A good first step toward improving relationships between transgendered and non-transgendered youth is for parents and educators to read and discuss a book like Almost Perfect with teens. Small steps like this one might reduce the loneliness that many transgendered youth feel before they think of suicide as a way out of their misery.
I guess it would have been too much for the ALA to award the Newberry medal to Almost Perfect. That's too bad, since school libraries would be more likely to purchase it, parents more likely to give it to their teens, and sex educators more likely to use it in their classes. (Of course, some school administrators and parents may have problems with a book that has a transgendered heroine and a mildly explicit sex scene, even if it had won the Newbery award.)
Many might believe that Almost Perfect is only for gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and transgendered teens. But it is a book for all teens. It also would help all of us know what it's like to be a transgendered teen and feel his or her fear, pain, and desire for acceptance. There are many human lessons in Almost Perfect – lessons about dignity and acceptance, respect and understanding, fear and courage, empathy and compassion, and friendship and love.
Perhaps someday a book about a transgendered teen may win the Newbery medal. In the meantime, there is Almost Perfect.
ALSO BY SUSIE WILSON