A while back Lorimer Children’s and Teens, a Canadian publisher focusing on books for reluctant readers, sent me a few books from their Real Love series. The Real Love series are hi-lo YA novels about LGBTQ+ teens, written by Canadian LGBTQ+ authors. There’s a focus on romance, but also on identity as it relates to gender, sexuality, race, and more. (Hi-lo refers to books that have high level concepts but low reading level. Picture a book with the kind of themes you’d expect to find in an older age range YA book, but with the reading level you’d expect in a book for lower end middle graders).
Hi-lo books aren’t what I’d usually read for myself, but I know how important they are, especially for marginalized kids and teens. There are a wide variety of reasons these readers might need books at a lower reading level than is ordinarily assigned to their age: learning disabilities, having been out of school, learning English as an additional language, and more! So when I picked up You’re You by Vancouver-based author Mette Bach, I was anticipating more as an academic exercise, to assess it as part of a potential library collection or for appropriate teen readers. But to my surprise I actually really enjoyed it!
Freyja, the main character, is a well fleshed out young person. She’s a grade 12 student with a passion for social justice, stubbornness, and black and white thinking about insiders and outsiders. Bach shows that the root to this way of thinking is her history of bullying. I recognize this type of emerging activist who is young enough to think they know everything and just wants to save the world. (Hell, I have been that person, although I was never much of an activist). She wants to be a leader but doesn’t know how to be a humble and open one. She felt like a very real teen to me!
After Freyja’s girlfriend breaks up with her, she decides to try something new and volunteer at the food bank. There is a lot of cool stuff in the book about food justice that I think teens interested in activism would be really into. At the food bank, in addition to learning about food justice, Freyja meets a guy named Sanjay. Sanjay gets her more than her ex ever did. Freyja and Sanjay get to know each other at the food bank, and then as friends outside of volunteering. Freyja begins to feel confused about what kind of feelings she has for Sanjay.
Not surprisingly, Freyja identifies as a lesbian — an orientation that ties in perfectly with her binarist mindset. Potentially falling for a guy challenges her whole sense of self and her dedication to queer politics. She struggles with internalized biphobia and not feeling queer enough. Once word gets out about even just her friendship with Sanjay, she faces biphobia from her fellow GSA members at school. This comes at the same time as the members are pushing against her forceful leadership. Ouch.
I would love to see more queer stories like this that show LGBTQ+ people’s fluidity from one identity to another, especially from gay/lesbian to bisexual/pansexual. In real life I know so many people who have experienced a change in their sexuality or who have realized their initial monosexual queer identification isn’t the best fit. I include myself in that second category! I also know plenty of people who originally identified as bisexual and now identify as gay. It feels very unauthentic to life, especially when we’re talking about young people, to expect them to have their gender and sexual identities all figured out!
But these identity journeys are hardly ever represented in fiction. When they are, too often they are knee-jerk labelled as harmful without paying attention to the nuances and truth of these stories. I’m thinking particularly here about Ramona is Blue by Julie Murphy. And when I ask for stories about fluid identities I do not mean “gay for you” or “lesbian fixed by the right man” stories, which are both biphobic as they ignore the validity and existence of bisexual identity — the later being lesbophobic as well!
Overall I would highly recommend You’re You! My only criticism is the fact that Freyja, a white character, has dreadlocks and this cultural appropriation isn’t addressed in the book. Honestly it’s fitting for her character to have dreads and not realize there’s a problem at the beginning of the book. But it would have been great if she could have grown to realize this, just as she learns about how to be a compassionate leader, about bisexuality and biphobia, and food justice.