Sep 6, 2016
Today is the publication day for Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard, one of this fall’s bumper crop of YA books about LGBTQ teens — and this one’s special to me. Let me tell you why.
In late July 2013, I taught at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writers’ Retreat. This was a weeklong residential retreat for a dozen writers, and my group focused on YA and genre fiction. I was given the task of selecting my writers from a pile of applications that I received several months before the retreat. I think I got about fifty applications for the dozen slots I was allowed to fill.
The first application I read was M-E Girard’s, and it was so good I knew immediately that it was going to be published someday.
M-E’s application was an early draft of what is now titled Girl Mans Up. It’s changed a lot since the early draft we workshopped at Lambda, but the heart of the book remained consistent through every draft. That heart is Pen’s voice. That’s what drew me to the manuscript in the first place, because it’s funny, wry, real, and completely endearing.
Girl Mans Up is about a 16-year-old Portuguese Canadian girl named Pen Oliveira. Pen’s dealing with a lot: a traditional family that doesn’t get why she prefers to wear boys’ clothes over girls’ dresses; a best friend who’s kind of an asshole yet seems to accept her for who she is; and a cute girl who might actually like her. The book is about family, loyalty, and first love. Pen navigates her way through the maze of her life while learning to own the person she always has been.
Pen is the kind of girl that a lot of people might describe as a stereotypical lesbian, because she looks boyish and has a more masculine than feminine demeanor. Stereotypes, however, always ignore or deny deeper truths. Many queer women in every generation have had masculine appearances or looked “butch.” This word is about more than surface appearances, though. Butch has been an identity for many, a source of pride, and a historically significant means of carving out a life in heteronormative society.
When I tweeted about Girl Mans Up last year and mentioned that this was a story about a butch queer girl, I soon saw some responses that dismissed butchness as an identity. Some people believe that butchness is solely a stereotype that no longer exists. This is wrong. Many queer women today do identify as butch. Many others are gender-nonconforming and use other terms to describe themselves: androgynous, stud, dapper, tomboy, boi, genderqueer, etc. Every woman has the right to choose her own identity and her own terms. There are countless ways to be a woman, and they don’t all center on traditional femininity. This is OK. It doesn’t equal a rejection of traditional femininity. It is an opening up of the category of woman.
One of the reasons I think Girl Mans Up is so wonderful is that Pen’s story is about choosing her own terms, on her own terms. This is a story about identity that is all too often erased or ignored, but M-E Girard has told it with a light touch. She is not heavy-handed in her approach. She invites you to see the world through Pen’s eyes, to see beyond the stereotypical ways that many people view Pen.
For readers who don’t know any gender-nonconforming women, I’m sure that Girl Mans Up will give you a much-needed window into the life of someone who isn’t like you. If you’re a reader who knows women like Pen, you’ll see a familiar face on the page — and that’s a rarity in fiction, especially YA. And if you are a gender-nonconforming woman, I hope that Pen’s story will resonate with you.
I really love this book, not only because it tells a story that’s especially hard to find, but because M-E tells it so well. You should read it to know Pen, but you should also read it because it’s a warm-spirited, generous-hearted, funny (did I mention funny?) and romantic story about coming of age. Get it now at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, iBooks, or IndieBound. Or ask for it at your local library!