If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo

As soon as I learned about this book, I wanted to read it. And as soon as I saw it on display in the YA room of a local library, I checked it out and started reading a few days later (because I wasn’t yet done with a different book). As I quickly read this book, I smiled a lot, I got angry, I got worried, I laughed a little, I got teary-eyed, and I didn’t want it to end.

Those are signs of a really good book, aren’t they?

Before, during, and after reading, I noticed some reviews of the book. I usually don’t let reviews sway my decision to read unless the average rating is low (it wasn’t). I usually read the description, and if it interests me (which it did), I add it to my to-read list. It was hard to miss these first few reviews because they said that this book was important (often in capital letters or boldface). I’m going to agree and later give my reason for agreeing, but first a brief synopsis.

The first-person narrator of If I Was Your Girl is Amanda Hardy. She has just moved to Tennessee to live with her father and start her senior year. Though she has a wonderful mother, she was bullied and suicidal at her previous school and needed to get away to somewhere where people didn’t know her past. She easily makes friends at her new school and starts dating this great guy named Grant. Throughout the book, Amanda worries about revealing the secret… that she used to be Andrew.

I instantly adored Amanda’s voice. She is a character that I rooted for from the get-go. She is likeable and caring and smart and vulnerable and strong and genuine—overall, she is thoroughly real. Reading her narration felt like she was sitting beside me telling her story. Even in the flashbacks before her transition and move, she was always Amanda. Paraphrasing a friend of hers from late in the book—after her past has been revealed—I couldn’t imagine Amanda as anyone other than Amanda. And that’s how it should be.

It is not a spoiler for me to reveal that Amanda’s past is revealed because this is a piece of fiction, and the conventions of fiction—and YA fiction in particular—demand that her past get revealed. It raises the stakes of the book to a logical climax and beyond. The method by which it is revealed has been used in YA books and movies before, and I felt genuinely heartbroken for Amanda at that moment. And I felt genuinely proud of Amanda for the self-acceptance she had developed by the book’s end. I won’t call it a resolution because in life, we keep living with some things not fully resolved, but where author Russo chose to stop the story was perfect.

Some other reviews criticize that the basic plot framework of the book is interchangeable with many other YA “new kid in school has a secret” books. Here, I disagree and claim that this is one of several strengths of the book because it makes Amanda’s story even more comfortable instead of making it feel like a hard-hitting “issue” book. Whether we are male, female, trans, cis, gay, straight, or anything else, we all deserve our own YA books because we’re all important people with important lives and important stories to share.

So why did I—a middle-aged, cis, straight, white male—choose to read a YA book about a trans girl? First off, I read YA not only because I write YA, but because I find that teens are struggling with their identities and roles in this world, and that time of life leads itself to much more interesting stories that better reflect life and its lessons. But more importantly, I’ve been a high school teacher for twenty years, and I have had and will have students going through situations similar to Amanda’s. I want to be as sensitive as possible to the individual needs of all of my students. I can’t walk completely in their shoes, but I need—we all need—to understand all the shoes that are out there.

In a note from the author, Meredith Russo admits that she “cleaved to stereotypes” to make the story work. She explains further, but an explanation isn’t necessary because all authors do whatever makes the story work best. If we wanted to tell an actual person’s true story, we’d be writing a memoir or a biography instead of fiction. Real life doesn’t follow plot conventions we expect when reading fiction, so I commend Russo for making “Amanda’s trans-ness as unchallenging to normative assumptions as possible.” It is not to diminish all the different and important stories of others, but to give readers an opportunity to understand. In a first-person narrated book, the reader is in the narrator’s mindset. If a reader—any reader—can take those first steps beside Amanda’s shoes for almost 300 pages and can understand and empathize, isn’t THAT something important? And therefore, isn’t this an important book?

Yes it is.

For almost 300 pages, you were the girl, Amanda, that I heard and believed, and I’m not forgetting your voice any time soon. If I Was Your Girl deserves FIVE STARS and will be on my year-end list of favorite books.

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If I Was Your Girl is available at Amazon.

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