The Art of Being Normal: A Novel

The Art of Being Normal: A Novel

by Lisa Williamson


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A young adult novel about two transgender teens who figure out how to navigate life with help from each other.

"A life-changing and life-saving book." Philip Pullman

On the first day at his new school, Leo Denton has one goal: to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in his class is definitely not part of that plan—especially because Leo is a trans guy and isn't out at his new school.

Then Leo stands up for a classmate in a fight and they become friends. With Leo's help and support, the classmate, who is a trans girl, prepares to come out and transition—to find a new name, Kate, and live a truth that has been kept secret for too long. Kate and Leo are surrounded by bigots, but they have each other, and they have hope in their future.

The Art of Being Normal: A Novel by Lisa Williamson is an uplifting story about two teenagers set in the modern day in the United Kingdom. The author was inspired to write this novel after working in England's national health service, in a department dedicated to helping teens who are questioning their gender identity.

This novel, which won awards in the UK, is a first-person narrative about two transgender students, and is ideal for cisgender (cis) readers—people who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth—to learn more about gender identity and what it means to be transgender.

A Margaret Ferguson Book

Praise for The Art of Being Normal:

The Art of Being Normal is a deeply powerful, important story that also happens to be a blast to read. You’ll fall in love . . . right away, your heart will bleed at some moments and melt at others, and you’ll root for them until the bitter end.” —Bill Konigsberg, Stonewall Award–winning author of Openly Straight and The Porcupine of Truth

“The book alternates between [both characters'] viewpoints, but readers don’t find out what they have in common until Leo’s burgeoning romance gets derailed. . . . Debut author Williamson does a good job of depicting British class realities and [the characters'] struggles with family, bullying, friendship, and bravery. While the book doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of being a trans teen, it offers hope and the sense that even if you can’t get everything you want, you can get what you need.” —Publishers Weekly

“Two British transgender teens try to come to terms with their lives while facing serious bullying in their school. . . . Williamson has worked with teens grappling with their gender identities, and she folds practical information, about hormonal therapy to freeze puberty, for instance, as well as empathy into her story. A welcome, needed novel.” —Kirkus Reviews

“An important addition to collections for its first-person perspectives on the experiences and inner lives of transgender teens.” —School Library Journal

“Williamson presents a fresh perspective in contemporary LGBTQ drama by presenting two heroes in different stages of transitioning and further bringing the teens to life through their foibles and family dramas. . . . The best part is that it is a friendship tale; romance plays a role in the story, but it is not the focus. This is a wonderful addition to any teen collection.” —VOYA, starred review

Praise for the British edition of The Art of Being Normal:

"A passionate and gripping tale. Five stars." —The Telegraph

"The Art of Being Normal deserves to attract attention not only for its sensitive portrayal of life as a transgender teenager but for the author's aptitude for crafting vivid, engaging and convincing characters who keep you rooting for them through the many testing obstacles she puts in their way." —The Guardian

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250144270
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 04/10/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 117,985
Product dimensions: 5.59(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.94(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Lisa Williamson splits her time between acting and writing. She was inspired to write The Art of Being Normal after working in England's national health services in a department dedicated to helping teens who struggle with gender identity issues.

Read an Excerpt

The Art of Being Normal

By Lisa Williamson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Lisa Williamson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-30239-9



When I was eight years old, my class was told to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Then our teacher, Ms. Box, went around the room asking each of us to stand up and share what we had written. Zachary Olsen wanted to play soccer for England. Lexi Taylor wanted to be an actress. Harry Beaumont planned on being prime minister. Simon Allen wanted to be Harry Potter, so badly that the previous term he had scratched a lightning bolt onto his forehead with a pair of scissors.

But I didn't want to be any of these things.

This is what I wrote:

I want to be a girl.



My party guests are singing "Happy Birthday." It does not sound good.

My little sister, Livvy, is barely even singing. At eleven, she's already decided family birthday parties are totally embarrassing, leaving Mum and Dad to honk out the rest of the tune, Mum's reedy soprano clashing with Dad's flat bass. It is so bad Phil, the family dog, has retreated to his bed. I don't blame him; the whole party is pretty depressing. Even the blue balloons Dad blew up look pale and sad, especially the ones with Fourteen Today! scrawled on them in black marker. I'm not even sure the underwhelming events unfolding before me qualify as a party in the first place.

"Make a wish!" Mum says. She has the cake tipped at an angle so I won't notice it's wonky. It says Happy Birthday David! in bloodred icing across the top, the day in Birthday scrunched up where she must have run out of room. Fourteen blue candles form a circle around the edge of the cake, dripping wax in the buttercream.

"Hurry up!" Livvy says.

But I won't be rushed. I lean forward, tuck my hair behind my ears, and shut my eyes. I block out Livvy's whining and Mum's cajoling and Dad's fiddling with the settings on the camera, and suddenly everything sounds sort of muffled and far away.

I wait a few seconds before opening my eyes and blowing out all the candles in one go. Everyone applauds. Dad pulls on a party popper but it doesn't pop and by the time he's got another one out of the package Mum has started taking the candles off the cake, and the moment has passed.

"What did you wish for? Something stupid, I bet," Livvy says, twirling a piece of golden-brown hair around her middle finger.

"He can't tell you, silly, otherwise it won't come true," Mum says, taking the cake into the kitchen to be sliced.

"Yeah," I say, sticking my tongue out at Livvy. She sticks hers out right back.

"Where are your two friends again?" she asks, putting extra emphasis on the two.

"I've told you, Felix is at Math Camp in Florida and Essie is visiting her dad in Leamington Spa."

Leaving me festering alone in Eden Park all summer, I add silently.

"That's too bad," Livvy says with zero sympathy. "Dad, how many people did I have at my birthday party?"

"Forty-five. All on roller skates. Utter carnage," Dad mutters grimly, ejecting the memory card from the camera and putting it into his laptop.

The first photo that pops up on the screen is of me. My eyes are closed midblink and my forehead is shiny.

"Dad," I moan. "Do you have to do that now?"

"Just doing some red-eye removal before I e-mail them over to your grandmother," he says, clicking away at the mouse. "She was so sad she couldn't make it."

This is not true. Granny has bridge on Wednesday evenings and doesn't miss it for anyone, especially her least-favorite grandchild. Livvy is Granny's favorite. But then Livvy is everyone's favorite.

Mum returns to the living room with pieces of cake on plates and sets them down on the table.

"Look at all these leftovers," she says, frowning as she surveys the mountains of picked-at food. "We're going to have enough pigs in a blanket and brownies to last us until Christmas. I just hope I've got enough plastic wrap to cover it all."

Great. A fridge full of food to remind me just how wildly unpopular I am.

After cake and intensive plastic-wrap action, there are presents. From Mum and Dad I get a new backpack for school, the Gossip Girl DVD box set, and a check for one hundred pounds. Livvy gives me a box of candy and a shiny red case for my iPhone.

Then we all sit on the sofa and watch a film called Freaky Friday. It's about a mother and daughter who eat an enchanted fortune cookie that makes them magically swap bodies for the day. Dear World, if only it were that straightforward. Dad nods off halfway through and starts snoring.

That night I can't sleep. I'm awake for so long my eyes get used to the dark and I can make out the outlines of my framed posters on the walls and the tiny shadow of a mosquito darting back and forth across the ceiling.

I am fourteen and time is running out.


It's the last Friday of summer vacation. I have been fourteen years old for exactly nine days.

I'm lying on the sofa with the curtains closed. Dad's at work (he's an accountant) and Mum is with a client (she works from home as a Web site designer). Livvy is at her best friend, Cressy's, house. I'm watching an old episode of America's Next Top Model with a package of double chocolate chip cookies balanced on my stomach. Tyra Banks has just told Ashley she is not going to be America's Next Top Model. Ashley is in tears and all the other girls are hugging her even though they spent almost the entire episode going on about how much they hated Ashley and wanted her to leave. America's Next Top Model house is nothing if not brutal.

Ashley's tears are interrupted by the sound of a key turning in the front door. I sit up, carefully placing the cookies on the coffee table beside me.

"David, I'm home," Mum calls.

She's back early from her client meeting.

I frown as I listen to her kick off her shoes and drop her keys in the dish by the door. I quickly grab the crochet blanket at my feet, pulling it up over my body and tucking it under my chin, getting into position just before Mum walks into the living room.

Immediately she pulls a face.

"What?" I ask, wiping cookie crumbs from my mouth.

"You might want to open the curtains, David," she says, hands on hips.

"But then I won't be able to see the screen clearly."

She ignores me and marches over to the window, throwing open the curtains. The late-afternoon sun floods the room, making the air look dusty. I shield my eyes.

"Oh for heaven's sake, David," Mum says. "You're not a vampire."

"I might be," I mutter.

She tuts.

"Look," she says, gesturing toward the window. "It's beautiful out. Are you seriously telling me you prefer lying around in the dark all day rather than being outside?"


She narrows her eyes before perching on the sofa by my feet.

"No wonder you're so pasty," she says, tracing her finger down the side of my bare foot. I kick her hand away.

"Would you rather I lie in the sun all day and get skin cancer?"

"No, David," she says, sighing. "What I'd rather is see you doing something with your summer vacation other than staying indoors watching TV for hours on end. If you're not doing that, you're holed up in your room on the computer."

The phone rings. Saved by the bell. As Mum stands up the blanket snags on her wedding ring. I reach to grab it but it's too late, she's already looking down at me, a quizzical expression on her face.

"David, are you wearing my nightie?"

It's the nightie Mum packed to take to the hospital when she had Livvy. I don't think she's worn it since; Mum and Dad usually sleep naked. I know this because I've bumped into them on the landing in the middle of the night enough times to be scarred for life.

"It's so hot out, I thought it might keep me cool," I say quickly. "You know, like those long white dress things Arab men wear."

"Hmmmmm," Mum says.

"You'd better get that," I say, nodding toward the phone.

* * *

I keep the nightie on for dinner, figuring it'll be less suspicious that way.

"You look like such a weirdo," Livvy says, her eyes narrowing with vague disgust.

"Now, Livvy," Mum says.

"But he does!" Livvy protests.

Mum and Dad exchange looks. I concentrate really hard on balancing peas on my fork.

After dinner I go upstairs. I take out the list I made at the beginning of summer vacation and sit cross-legged on my bed with it spread out in front of me.

Things to achieve this summer, by David Piper:

1. Grow my hair long enough to tie back in a ponytail

2. Watch every season of Project Runway in chronological order

3. Beat Dad at Wii Tennis

4. Teach my dog, Phil, to dance so we can enter Britain's Got Talent next year and win 250,000 pounds

5. Tell Mum and Dad

I had one glorious week of being able to scrape my hair into the tiniest of ponytails. But school rules dictate boys' hair can be no more than collar length, so last week Mum took me to the barber to have it cut. Points two and three were achieved with ease during the first two weeks of the break. I quickly realized four was a lost cause; Phil isn't a natural performer.

Five I've been putting off. I've practiced plenty. I've got a whole speech prepared. I recite it in my head when I'm in the shower, and whisper it into the darkness when I'm lying in bed at night.

I've tried writing it down too. If my parents looked hard enough they'd find endless unfinished drafts stuffed in my desk. Last week though, I actually completed a letter. Not only that, I nearly pushed it beneath Mum and Dad's bedroom door. I was right outside, crouched down by the thin shaft of light, listening to them mill about as they got ready for bed. All it would take was one push and it would be done; my secret would be lying there on the carpet, ready to be discovered. But in that moment, it was like my hand was paralyzed. And in the end I just couldn't do it and went racing back to my room, letter still in hand, my heart pounding like crazy inside my chest.

Mum and Dad like to think they're really cool and open- minded just because they saw a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert once and voted for the Green Party in the last election, but I'm not so sure. When I was younger, I used to overhear them talking about me. They'd speak in hushed voices and tell each other it was all "a phase," that I would "grow out of it," in exactly the same way you might talk about a child who wets the bed.

My friends Essie and Felix know of course. The three of us tell each other everything. That's why this summer has been so hard. Without them to talk to, some days I've felt like I might burst. But Essie and Felix knowing isn't enough. For anything to happen, I have to tell Mum and Dad.

Tomorrow. I'll definitely tell them tomorrow.

I climb off the bed, open my door a crack, and listen. Mum, Dad, and Livvy are downstairs watching TV. The muffled sound of canned laughter drifts up the stairs. Although I'm pretty sure they'll stay put until the end of the program, I lock my door. Satisfied I won't be disturbed, I retrieve the small purple notebook and tape measure I keep locked in the metal box at the bottom of my sock drawer. I position myself in front of the mirror that hangs on the back of my bedroom door, pull the nightie off over my head, and step out of my underpants.

An inspection is due.

As usual, I start by standing against the door frame and measuring my height: 168 centimeters. Again, no change. I allow myself a tiny sigh of relief.

Then I press my palms against my chest. I will it to be soft and spongy but the muscle beneath my skin feels hard like stone. I take the tape measure and wrap it around my hips. No change. I go straight up and down, like a human ruler. I am the opposite of Mum with her fleshy curves — hips and butt and boobs.

I move up closer to the mirror, so close to the glass I have to fight to stop myself from going cross-eyed. I lift my chin and run my fingers over my Adam's apple, then over my chin and cheeks. Some days I swear I can feel stubble pushing up against my skin, sharp and prickly, but for now the surface remains smooth and unbroken. I pout my lips and long for them to be plumper, pinker. I have my dad's lips — thin, with a jagged Cupid's bow. Unfortunately I appear to have inherited pretty much Dad's everything. I skip over my hair (sludge brown and badly behaved, no matter how much gel I use on it), eyes (gray, boring), nose (pointy-ish), and ears (sticky-outy), instead turning my head slowly until I am almost in profile, so I can admire my cheekbones. They are sharp and high and probably the only part of my face I like.

I move downward to my penis, which I hate with a passion. I hate everything about it: its size, its color, the way it has a complete mind of its own. I discover it has grown an entire two millimeters since last week. I check it twice but the tape measure doesn't lie. I frown and write it down.

I inspect my hands and feet last. Sometimes I think I hate them the most, maybe even more than my private parts, because they're always there, on show. They're clumsy and hairy and so pale they're almost translucent. Even worse, they're huge and getting huger. My new school shoes are two whole sizes bigger than last year's pair. When I tried them on in the store I felt like a circus clown.

I take one last look in the mirror, at the stranger staring back at me. I shiver. This week's inspection is over.


"Leo!" my little sister, Tia, calls.

I close my eyes and try to block her out.

It's hot. It's been hot for days now. I've got the windows and doors open and I'm still dying. I'm lying on my twin sister, Amber's, bunk trying my hardest to keep cool.

At night I sleep on the bottom bunk because Amber says she gets claustrophobic, but when Amber's not around I like to hang out on the top. If you lie with your head at the end closest to the window, you can't see the other houses or the garbage cans or the crazy old lady from across the way who stands in her front yard and yells for hours on end. All you can see is the sky and the tops of the trees and if you concentrate really hard you can almost convince yourself you're not in Cloverdale anymore.

"Leo!" Tia yells again.

I sigh and sit up. Tia is seven and a complete pain in the neck. Mam let her have a pair of high heels for her last birthday and when she's not watching TV she clomps around the house in them, talking in an American accent.

Tia's dad is Tony. He's in prison, doing time for fencing stolen goods.

My dad is Jimmy. He left when I was a baby. I miss him.

"Leo, I'm hungry!" Tia wails.

"Then eat something!"

"There's nothing to eat!"


She starts to cry. It's earsplitting. I sigh and heave myself off the bunk.

I find Tia at the bottom of the stairs, fat tears rolling down her face. She's short for her age and paper clip–skinny. As soon as she sees me her tears stop and she breaks into this big dopey smile.

She follows me into the kitchen, which is a complete mess, the sink piled high with dishes. I search the cupboards and fridge. Tia's right, there's nothing to eat and God knows what time Mam's going to be back. She left just before lunch, saying she was off to the bingo hall with Auntie Kerry. There's no money in the tin so I take the cushions off the sofa and check the inside of the washing machine and the pockets of the coats in the front hall closet. We line up the coins on the coffee table. It's not a bad haul — four pounds.

"Stay here and don't answer the door," I tell Tia. She'll only dawdle if I take her with me.

I put my hoodie on and walk fast, my head bowed, sweat trickling down my back and sides.

Outside the store there's a bunch of guys from my old school. Luckily they're distracted, mucking around on their bikes, so I yank my hood up, pulling the drawstring tight so all you can see are my eyes. I buy bread, soda, dishwashing soap, and a chocolate Swiss roll that's past its expiration date.

When I get home I put the Tangled DVD on for Tia and give her a glass of soda and a slice of the Swiss roll while I wash the dishes and stick bread in the toaster. When I sit down on the sofa she scampers over to me and plants a wet kiss on my cheek.

"Thanks, Leo," she says. Her mouth is chocolaty.

"Get off," I tell her. But she clings to me like a monkey, and I'm too tired to fight her off.

Later that night, Mam is still out so I put Tia to bed. Amber's staying over at her boyfriend, Carl's, house. Carl is sixteen, a year older than us. Amber met him at the indoor ice skating rink in town last year. She was showing off, trying to skate backward and fell and hit her head on the ice. Carl looked after her and bought her a cherry slush. Amber said it was like a scene from a movie. Amber's sappy like that sometimes. When she's not being sappy, she's as hard as nails.


Excerpted from The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson. Copyright © 2016 Lisa Williamson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Art of Being Normal 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
KateUnger More than 1 year ago
If you're looking for a great contemporary YA book about friendship, look no further. The Art of Being Normal is the story of two high school students, their struggles with identity, and the friendship that helps them through a very rough time. David has known for a long time that he is really a girl, but he is afraid to tell his parents. His two best friends know, and many of the other students at school tease him for something he said when they were in 3rd grade. Leo is the new kid, a seemingly popular/attractive guy, who comes to David's aid despite his best attempts to blend into the crowd. The two develop an unlikely friendship, or so it seems at first. This book is written in alternating chapters from David's and Leo's points of view. I developed an attachment to both characters right away. Their challenges were real, and I was routing for them right away. This is a really fun read. It's a little more complex than your typical coming of age story, which made it all the more interesting. I highly recommend it.