Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Gender fluid teenager Riley Cavanaugh starts an anonymous blog at the suggestion of their therapist. Even this anonymous version of coming out takes Riley some time—as well as a major crisis and a suicide attempt, a change in high schools and a cautious seeking of new friends while dressing as gender neutrally as possible.
Riley poses as Alix online, discussing what it is like to experience both bullying and gender dysphoria. Immediately, an online community forms around the blog, with both transgender and gender fluid teens seeking Alix’s advice. When the blog is recommended by ‘QueerAlliance.org,’ a spectaculator number of follower results. Of course, the trolls, with their messages of hate and attempts to humiliate, appear as well.
Anxiety, already a problem for Riley, deepens when some of the troll comments indicate that an anonymous commenter knows Riley’s real identity—the child of a Congressman who is running for reelection in very conservative Orange County, CA. In fact, this particular troll hints that they attend the same high school.
Riley is under pressure to delete the blog and go into hiding. But hiding has not worked thus far. Summoning courage and with the help of two new allies—Bec (who may be more than just a friend) and Solo, who has the ability to walk a line between the popular and the outcast—Riley pushes through ‘the gauntlet’ to face both hate and violence.
High school housekeeping: There are many reasons I enjoyed Symptoms of Being Human. An odd one that others may not relate to is that Riley is in Fullerton, CA, which is near Anaheim Hills, which is near Villa Park. I grew up in Villa Park and thought that Riley’s high school—Park Hills—might be a mashup of the names of the two ultra conservative cities. Much more significant is that as a teacher librarian, in the last year before I retired, I was on the prowl for YA fiction (nonfiction was less difficult to find) that represented transgender and gender fluid teens in a sympathetic manner. I found very little. I read adult books, and was very hopeful for one in particular. But ultimately, it wasn’t going to work for teens or for a school library for many reasons although it was a beautiful work of literature. So—happy to see YA work on the scene.
As I often mention, I enjoy books when I enjoy the writing itself. Symptoms of Being Human has some lovely bits (I think I picked that phrase up in Ireland last week). Here’s one, a description of Park Hills High at lunch: “When the bell rings at the end of French, I’m the last one out of the classroom. The quad is already crawling with students, all of them swarming toward the outdoor eating area like ants descending on the remains of a discarded popsicle.” And this: “I don’t know whether to fall onto my bed and bury my face in my pillow or jump around the room, squealing like a guinea pig on meth.” There are lots more—enjoy discovering them when you read the novel.
Reading Symptoms of Being Human validates my reading ‘plan’: buy books at every bookstore and author event you go to, even if you have a ton of unread books at home. Then every time you’re ready to start a new book, you have a hundred of them in the house to choose from and can grab what best fits the moment. I bought Symptoms all the way back in March at the Ontario Teen Book Fest. I’ve been reading fantasy for awhile on the recommendation of one of my sons. But since I was going on a trip to Ireland to see the country where my Catholic progenitors hailed from, and since one of my family names is Cavanaugh (spelled with a ‘C’ like Riley’s last name), I figured it was a sign that now was the perfect time to read Riley’s story. I was right.