In many ways, Canadian high schooler Pen Oliveira is your typical 16-year-old dude: Pen loves gaming with guy friends, raids older brother Johnny’s closet for sweet threads, and has a crush on a wild-haired girl. And if you saw her on the street, you might mistake her for a boy.
“I’m used to people staring at me, trying to figure out what my deal is,” M-E Girard writes in Girl Mans Up. “Ever since I started swiping clothes from my brother Johnny’s closet, people have been reacting differently to me. I used to wear jeans and plain T-shirts and I’ve always hung around guys, so people just figured I was a tomboy, but it’s not like it goes beyond that, and I’m sure it’s not just because Johnny’s clothes are name brand and sweet as hell. I don’t really know what people think I am, or what they think I’m not.”
Gripping, nuanced, and provocative, Girl Mans Up is Girard’s exciting YA fiction debut. The author, who specializes in “YA fiction about badass teen girls,” according to her official bio, lives outside Toronto and works as a pediatric nurse by night. She is a 2013 and 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow who got her start as a serious student of gender in a workshop led by Malinda Lo.
“[I wrote] a very wordy essay to Malinda Lo basically begging to let my sheltered Canadian butt into the Lambda retreat, and I came back exhausted,” Girard says. “I thought I was really open-minded, very open to concepts and understanding [gender], but being a nurse, having that kind of training—anatomy, physiology, psychology—this stuff doesn’t always add up. Ever since then, it’s been an insane amount of reading...especially people putting their own experiences into their own words.”
Pen doesn’t have the benefits of such an education—nor the vocabulary—to help confront the conflicting new feelings she faces at the start of junior year. She has the unwavering support of her brother, Johnny (“I let nobody else decide what kind of dude I am,” he tells her. “You shouldn’t either.”) and the more conditional support of longterm best friend Cody, a player. But her conservative Portuguese immigrant parents make home a combative environment. Meanwhile, the new school year brings a complicated crush on a girl named Blake.
“I want to be a boyfriend who is a girl,” Girard writes. “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.”
When Blake seems to reciprocate her interest, Pen has to combat the disbelief that such a thing could go right, in light of the public scrutiny she endures.
“Pen, throughout everything, is always ready for things to go bad,” says Girard. “It’s one thing when [Pen and Blake] are alone, but then when they’re going out in public, it changes everything. When is [Blake] going to realize that it’s not positive, not easy? Pen’s always aware of that danger; that’s just how she lives. Those moments give her confidence but every time she’s out in public, those thoughts are always there.”
Through this new connection and others, Pen continues to build the confidence she needs to unabashedly live the life she wants—in short, to “man up.” Girard hopes that all readers of Girl Mans Up will find themselves somewhere in her story.
“I hope that people will read a story like Pen’s and let it make them think about what it’s like for themselves or for people they come across who might not be exactly the same,” Girard says. “Many people who identify with Pen, who are genderqueer or trans, or cis and not queer at all, and that’s all completely valid. There’s something in there for everybody, if you’re willing to let it open up your mind a little bit, and not get hung up on Pen’s way being the rule for everybody.
“That’s the whole thing about queer YA,” she continues, “because there’s so few books, you might think, this is the book on this kind of identity, here’s all the rules. But no, these are just people. People are imperfect and don’t have the same amount of knowledge. It’s just this person’s story.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.