Everyone wants something different from me. It’s like one second, I should be a better dude. I should stop being such a girly douche, and I should just man up. Then, it’s the opposite: I’m too much of a guy, and it’s not right. I should be a girl, because that’s what I’m supposed to be.

The thing is, I’m not a boy, but I don’t want to be that girl either. I just want everyone to screw off and let me do my own thing for once.

Girl Mans Up, by M-E Girard

Pen Oliveira is headed into grade eleven at St. Peter’s Catholic High, and while she’s the same person she’s always been, it feels like everyone else is suddenly taking issue with her. Her mother wants Pen to stop stealing her older brother’s clothes and to start wearing dresses and makeup—and she sees Pen’s refusal to obey as a lack of respect. Pen’s friend Colby wants Pen to keep acting as his wingman in picking up girls—and he sees any questions about his methods or behavior as a lack of loyalty.

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All of that conflict comes to a head when Pen starts talking to Blake, a classmate who works in a videogame store. Considering their difficulty with Pen’s sartorial choices—and their regular pronouncements about her “need” for a boyfriend—she knows full well that her parents won’t be happy if she brings a girl home. And as far as Colby’s concerned, Blake is off-limits—he was interested in her first, so Blake and Pen’s immediate mutual attraction is moot. Pen knows that to preserve the peace, she should back off. But she doesn’t want to.

She can choose to show respect to her family, and she can choose to be loyal to her friend… or she can choose to respect herself, be loyal to herself, and to be happy. It sounds like an easy call to make, sure—but when you’re dealing with family and a long-term friendship, it’s really not.

That’s a longer synopsis than usual for me, but it barely scratches the surface of what Girard tackles in Girl Mans Up. She looks at what it might feel like to be the Canadian daughter of Portuguese immigrants, and, more specifically, the queer Canadian daughter of Portuguese immigrants. She looks at gamer culture—and more specifically at girls and online gaming. She looks at teen pregnancy and at abortion.

She looks at friends growing up and growing apart, at friendships that are more about habit than mutual trust and affection, at friendships ending and friendships renewed. She looks at the power dynamics within groups of friends and at jealousy. She looks at hypocrisy and honesty, at playing games with one another versus being straightforward, and she looks at fear. She looks at how respect and loyalty don’t work if they’re only coming from one direction. And she very much looks at expectations and assumptions based on gender, and at the difficulties and pressures that come from society’s need to jam everyone into a neat and tidy binary system: 

I think maybe she could be my girlfriend. I don’t want to be her girlfriend, though. But there’s this part of me that totally knows I could be her boyfriend. I don’t want her to think of me as a boy, or a boy substitute, though. I want to be a boyfriend who is a girl. I have no idea how to explain that stuff to anyone, let alone a girl I like. I just wish it was already all understood.

I loved Pen. I loved her voice. I loved seeing her realize that girls—yes, very much including stereotypically girly ones!—can be just as loyal and protective and strong as guys, that female friendships are a source of strength. I loved seeing her learn to assert herself. I loved seeing her make peace with the hard things in her life, to find a way to navigate them, to move forward.

This is a stellar debut—do not miss it. I’m so excited to see what Girard does next.

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.