"As for wondering if it's okay to be who you are--that's not a symptom of mental illness. That's a symptom of being a person."
-Jeff Garvin, Symptoms of Being Human
As a scholar interested in the way that gender is represented within young adult books, I'm always on the look out for any book that breaks gender binaries, and this book definitely fit the bill. While browsing at Barnes and Noble one day (a frequent occasion for me), this book caught my eye because it featured a genderfluid protagonist, something that isn't seen often (if at all) in young adult literature. So I obviously had to read it to see if it was any good, right? Right.
Symptoms of Being Human follows the story of Riley, a genderfluid teenager who begins an anonymous blog at the prompting of their therapist, to help deal with anxiety. But the blog takes off in a way that Riley could have never imagined, quickly gaining hundreds of followers overnight, not all of them wishing Riley well. Someone at Riley's new school knows Riley's secret and is threatening to expose them; Riley must decide between shutting down a blog that has become a lifeline for others, or to risk everything and finally come out and take a stand in their ultra-conservative community.
So I loved this book. I absolutely loved it. I thought that Jeff Garvin did a fantastic job writing a realistic account of not only genderfluidity (from my own limited knowledge and perspective), but also realistically portrayed anxiety and panic attacks. Holistically, I think Garvin created a story that many different teens can relate to, one that might be important in showing them that they aren't alone, that others are experiencing the things that they do. Sometimes when authors deal with these kinds of issues it can feel fake or like the book is doing too much, but in this case, I think the elements that Garvin combined worked really well together, not only making the story accurate, but also engaging. I was rooting for Riley throughout the entire book, and I didn't wan to put the book down until I knew Riley's fate.
The other thing I really enjoyed about this book is that Riley is never assigned a gender identity besides genderfluid. There are perhaps a few instances where the reader might be able to deduce the gender that Riley was "assigned," but nothing in Garvin's language actually gives it away, and that's definitely not an easy thing to do. I've tried to write stories where the characters aren't gendered, and there are so many little things that you don't really think about being stereotypically assigned to one gender or another until someone else reads your story and points it out. I applaud Garvin for working to eliminate that within his book, and except for a few small (very, very small) scenes, for instance getting dressed for one of Riley's dad's fundraisers or the ending scene of the book, I think the book 100% sticks to Riley's identity. And I think that makes this book even more deserving of praise.
All in all, a great read that I would highly recommend, and one that I might just read again.