It’s the beginning of Jordan Sun’s junior year at Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts, and nothing is going right. She’s a musical theatre major, but despite her talent, she hasn’t been cast in the fall musical for the third year running—and because of that, her parents are thinking about pulling her out of school and enrolling her in public school back home in San Francisco. On the social front, she’s still reeling from a break-up with her long-term boyfriend—and because they were in a Relationship Bubble for such a long time, she doesn’t really have any close friends.
Then a spot opens up in the most prestigious a cappella group on campus—and acceptance into the Sharpshooters would bring not only notoriety and respect at school, but a leg-up for her future career. The only problem? The Sharpshooters are an all-male group.
So Jordan uses her theatre chops—and the fact that she’s a taller-than-average girl with a lower-than-average voice—to become Julian Zhang. And that’s only the beginning.
I love this book. I love it so much that I’ve been talking it up to library patrons even though it isn’t out for another few weeks. I love it because it takes the commonly-used—and for me, much-loved—Girl Cross-Dresses In Order To Infiltrate An All-Male Space trope, and it makes that trope feel fresh, feel surprising, and feel thoughtful. Redgate takes a familiar story and makes it suspenseful while still emotionally honest; makes it dramatic while keeping her characters’ humanity at the forefront.
I love Jordan’s voice, and that love was there from the very first sentence:
Monday morning was the worst possible time to have an existential crisis, I decided on a Monday morning, while having an existential crisis.
I love the depiction of being on financial scholarship at a school mostly populated by extremely affluent students:
There was something alienating about being on scholarship, a tense mixture of gratefulness and otherness. You’re talented, the money said, and we want you here. Still, it had the tang of You were, are, and always will be different.
I love that Redgate points out that most financial scholarships don’t cover expenses beyond tuition, room, and board—that for families like Jordan’s, due to travel expenses, of books every semester, of meals when the dining halls aren’t open, even with tuition covered, attending a school like Kensington might still be out of reach. The details of her too-small sneakers and her ongoing battles with the school-owned laptop she borrows from the library capture the physicality and immediacy and constancy of those financial struggles, and make those challenges just as much a part of Jordan’s life and identity as her quick wit or her love of theatre.
I love that she touches on race and stereotypes, how stereotypes are exhausting and hurtful even when parts of them accurately describe your experience:
My parents tracked my school performance like baseball nuts tracked the World Series. I never told people about it. A fun side effect of being Chinese is that people assume this about you already. It felt weirdly diminishing to admit it to myself, as if it simplified me to just another overachieving Asian kid with one of those moms, even if I was in fact Asian and did have one of those moms.
I love how much she grapples with privilege, both in terms of the privilege that other people have—people who have doorways where you have walls—and the privilege that she herself has:
I reread the website’s sidebar and tried to tease apart the bud of unease in my stomach. I hadn’t given it serious thought, how my act contrasted with the way some trans kids lived their lives. I was just playing a role, and trans people weren’t, so it hadn’t felt relevant, hadn’t felt like it was in the same ballpark. But it had weird echoes, didn’t it? I was on a website that trans people used for their day-to-day. I felt like I was poaching, fishing earnest resources out of this site and turning them into ruses to trick the Sharps.
And it struck me, all of a sudden, how incredibly lucky I was not to have to worry about those opinions when I walked out into the world every morning.
I love the realizations that Jordan has about the expectations that come with being seen as a girl versus the expectations that come with being seen as a boy; how she comes to understand that both identities carry burdens, but in different forms. I love that she is forced to consider aspects of gender that she’s never really considered, and how Redgate captures the legitimately hilarious trains of thought that occur when you try to unravel and understand and pinpoint specific elements of behavior and identity that you’ve previously taken for granted:
The second I set foot outside Burgess, I became hyperaware of my posture, the way I usually kept my elbows tucked in and my strides short. That wasn’t masculine. Was it? I loosened up and tried to walk like a dude, at which point I discovered I had no clue how dudes are supposed to walk. It took me the entire journey to figure out a gait that didn’t look like a velociraptor pretending to be a West Side Story character.
I love her thoughts about friendships with boys as a boy versus friendships with boys as a girl—that as Julian, she feels like she’s on even footing, whereas as Jordan she is always grappling with worry. Worry about whether or not a given boy wants to be actual friends or whether he’s angling for romance; of having to think ahead about possible rejection; how to deflect a romantic overture without hurting anyone’s feelings; planning for any number of other given contingencies:
When I wasn’t a girl, I could be sure that guys liked me for me, not for some hypothetical person they thought I could be to them.
I love that Noteworthy asks questions like “What is femininity?” and “What is girlhood?”, but that it asks and answers those questions for this one very specific person at this one very specific point in her life. Redgate never suggests that Jordan’s experiences and realizations are universal, but it’s impossible to read her story without considering and at least starting to unpack your own assumptions, your own experiences, even your own identity.
So. Pre-order this book. And while you’re waiting for release day, do yourself a favor and read both Lucy and Linh and Piecing Me Together, two MORE books about girls on financial scholarship at prestigious private schools. All three are uniformly excellent, thoughtful, big-hearted, honest, and deserve busloads of readers.
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.