Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill: A Review

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[NOTE: My copy of the book is an ARC from Simon & Schuster Canada, given in return for a review. Rethinking Normal will be officially out on the 30th this month! Be excited!]

Katie never felt comfortable in her own skin. She realized very young that a serious mistake had been made; she was a girl who had been born in the body of a boy. Suffocating under her peers’ bullying and the mounting pressure to be “normal,” Katie tried to take her life at the age of eight years old. After several other failed attempts, she finally understood that “Katie”–the girl trapped within her–was determined to live.

In this first-person account, Katie reflects on her pain-filled childhood and the events leading up to the life-changing decision to undergo gender reassignment as a teenager. She reveals the unique challenges she faced while unlearning how to be a boy and shares what it was like to navigate the dating world and experience heartbreak for the first time in a body that matched her gender identity. – [X]

Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill is a book that is so difficult to review. It’s never actually easy to talk about a book that is non-fiction- especially since I don’t even read all that much non-fiction- but I will do my best to explain here why this book is one to keep an eye out for this month. (I will also argue that this book does kind of fit into our theme of the month, given that Katie talks about her early school years and her time at university.)

I will start with the easiest thing to comment on- the writing. I finished reading this one in a single day- which really is to say that Katie is an incredibly engaging writer. (If she ever writes fiction I know I’d be in line at a bookstore on the release date.) From the summary, you can probably tell that she goes through some very dark moments in her life. The book does not shy away from these moments, nor does it present those moments in an excessively gratuitous manner. She makes the choice to tell her story in a casual, achronological manner, which lends the book an air of storytelling, or the feel of conversing with a close friend. The more difficult truths of her life simply are; they are revealed at the right moments in order to fuel our understanding of her challenges, her motivations, and her actions. If I had to put just one word to Katie Rain Hill’s writing, I would describe it as “inviting”- which is probably the best thing it could be since YA non-fiction is not exactly the choice genre for its target audience, even if the book deals with important issues about a section of society that rarely gets represented or understood.

Stylistic choices aside, the thing that I really enjoyed about Rethinking Normal is, obviously, the content. First and foremost, it is her story; that is to say that, she incorporates every aspect of her life into this books. Yes, her being a trans person and her transitioning process are all central to the story, but she also talks about her romances, her friends, her writing, her aspirations, her love for Pigfarts … basically, she is uncompromisingly honest about who she is- all of her- and I really appreciated that. Not only does this allow her to bring (the more difficult) readers to a place of understanding through empathy and education, but also enables her to address various kinds of readers- readers who identify (or struggle to identify) as trans or queer for instance, or readers who identify (or struggle to identify) as allies, or even readers who are curious and would like to learn and be more informed. There is a certain confidence and strength in her own story that allows Katie to question stereotypical representations of trans narratives in the media while providing people an insight into her own experiences. For example:

Often trans narratives might focus on how- in the case of a male-female, for instance- a child born male loved pink, or only wanted to play house, and this is used to “prove” the child’s identity. I want to be clear that my love of stereotypical girl toys, such as my Easy-Bake oven or my baby doll that magically looked like it was actually drinking milk, is not what makes me female. Frankly, I think all little boys would like playing house and dress-up if they gave it a shot. What makes me female is something I felt in the core of myself: that my external body did not match up with how I felt inside, and that I was being seen by others as something I was not. I know this can be a difficult, abstract concept if it’s not your personal experience, but it was mine.

Another aspect of Rethinking Normal that I liked is how, in a way, this memoir allows Katie to reclaim her own narrative. I mean, Katie Rain Hill is not exactly Katniss Everdeen in that she is not a reluctant poster child- she believes in using her experiences and her platform to help others, but she would also like to be accepted just as she is- a girl who is, herself, growing and learning. So, although she tries her best to be informative and patient, Katie does not hide the moments that reveal her to be shocked or impatient herself. Whether it is dealing with a difficult breakup, or coming to the realization that the LGBTQ community is not exactly a utopia in itself, Katie not only narrates with integrity but also with optimism and conviction. So, yes, Rethinking Normal is a book I would recommend to teenagers and young adults.

Why You May Not Like It: I don’t know. I think I’ve spoken to the fact that it is not like other non-fiction books- it is very engaging and informative without being dry or dense. There is a brief mention of attempted suicide, but it is the truth, it happened, and I do not see how/why you can work around that. I suppose there is an instance of non-protected sex that may make you cringe (as I did), but again, this is all part of her life and I do not think it ought to be ignored.

Why You May Like It: It is well-written and it is finely balanced between “teachable” moments and moments that are honest no matter how sad or uncomfortable it may have made Katie to write. Also, it is (unexpectedly sometimes) funny and hopeful. Katie never talks down to her readers, nor does she try to place herself as morally or intellectually superior. I think this is a book that (starting at, maybe, 13-14) any age can read and appreciate. It is incredibly well-crafted and deserving of every praise.