It’s halfway through her junior year, and 17-year-old Etta has been frozen out by her best friends, the Disco Dykes, because she had the gall to date a boy. She loves dance, but buried her pointe shoes in the backyard after coming to the realization that she will never be the right size or color for ballet. She’s struggling to recover from an eating disorder, but her doctor never gave it a name. As she puts it: “Not gay enough, not straight enough, not sick enough, not healthy enough. I am Etta Not Otherwise Specified.”
Then she starts getting to know another girl in her ED support group. On paper, they have nothing in common—Bianca is straight, white, poor, and Christian; she’s 14 years old, a supremely talented singer, and really, really sick—but in real life, they might be able to save each other. It’s not a new premise, but due to the strength of Etta’s voice and the complexity of the various relationships and issues and characters, Not Otherwise Specified reads fresh but also comfortable, tells a story that questions as well as affirms, that comforts without platitudes, that has a musical theater story arc but still feels realistic.
Two areas where it really shines:
Sexuality. Etta is bisexual. Her ex-friends know this—they have always known this—but somehow, when she actually dates a boy, she crosses a line. They treat her like she’s a sell-out, like she’s somehow trying to have the best of both worlds, when she actually doesn’t feel like she is accepted by either. So much of the LGBTQ+ YA I’ve read has been about gay teens dealing with largely straight communities; this is one of the few I’ve come across that has dealt with tension and homophobia within a community of gay teens.
Religion. Books that deal with religion and sexuality often end up relying on extremes and straw men in order to make a point. Not so here. Bianca’s struggle to reconcile her love for her brother (who is gay) with her love for her God is messy, emotionally chaotic, and confusing. Etta’s ability to put Bianca first—she doesn’t take Bianca’s mixed feelings personally because she understands that they aren’t about hate or bigotry or judgment—is almost heart-breakingly generous and protective. Bonus: Bianca and Etta are able to JOKE about the stereotypes people attach to them, which is funny, yes, but also serves to highlight how ridiculous it is to paint people—individuals and groups—with too broad a brush.
Last week was a hard one for the YA community, and to be honest, I rather suspect that this one will be difficult, too. If I’ve managed to pull one major takeaway from the ongoing conversation*, it’s this: Thinking in terms of binaries is a luxury. It’s also simplistic, lazy, and isn’t an honest reflection of our world.
At its heart, that’s what Hannah Moskowitz’s Not Otherwise Specified is about. If you’re looking to do some healing, it’ll be a good place to start.
*In this case, the word “conversation” is generous.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.