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The Passing Playbook, by Isaac Fitzsimons

21 reviews

perpetualpages's review

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challenging emotional hopeful inspiring lighthearted reflective medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


CWs: Allusions to past bullying, death threats, and school lockdown; religious fanatacism and homophobia in the guise of religious rhetoric; misgendering; transphobia and outdated transphobic terminology (from side characters); and some brief (non-graphic) references to overdose and child death

 I love trans lit so much, and this book serves as perfect reminder as to why that it is.

The Passing Playbook is a much needed story, not simply because of the time we find ourselves in with anti-trans legislation at an all-time high, but because it explores transness in ways that we rarely get to see, even with the growing influx of queer books being published every year. Stories like this remind me of why we need trans fiction, and how much more about the quote-unquote "trans experience" there still is to explore.

Rarely do we get to see younger trans protagonists, and especially those who are medically transitioning with the full support of their parents. I have never read a story with main character who's on hormone blockers, who uses testosterone gel, who is actively trying to be stealth at school and pass for his own safety. And what I love most is that the story doesn't linger on those aspects of transitioning or passing, but gives the reader enough information to know why these things are at the forefront of Spencer's mind while also giving just enough detail to allow readers to do their own research if they're curious to know more. It's a story that doesn't subject its hero to being under a microscope for the sake of cis readers, but that also acknowledges the very real obstacles that trans people face, especially in academic settings.

I also loved the relationship between Spencer and Justice. There were some interesting parallels between them with how Spencer is "passing" as a cis guy while Justice is "passing" as both straight and as a non-religious person most of the time, so to speak, before Spencer learns more about him and his family. They both have this tumultuous past that's difficult to understand without the lived experience, and they're both trying to hide it so that they can walk through the world without having to constantly explain these potentially fraught experiences. While those experiences are definitely not one and the same, they're both coming from that place of wanting to protect themselves and wanting to be seen as more than just their labels, which connects them on a deeper level.

More importantly, the story reconciles Spencer and Justice being in two different places in terms of their identities in such a nuanced way. Spencer is out as trans to his close friends and family, and he has the support of his family, while Justice is completely closeted. While this presents a challenge for their relationship as it develops, the story never once villainizes being closeted. I think that's a trap a lot of queer stories unknowingly fall into, where the narrative seems to (unintentionally) imply that not coming out means you're not proud of yourself, you're not being true to yourself, or you're not being "authentic"—when that's not true at all. This story understands that not everyone is at the same point in their journey, and that there is no shame in keeping yourself safe and prioritizing your own protection and readiness, especially in a world that doesn't universally accept or protect queer people.

Related to that, there's a really great conversation about the connection between privilege and visibility. Passing is a privilege. Being visible and feeling confident in that visibility is a privilege. Being incorrectly assumed as cis or straight doesn't make you any less queer, and doesn't make you any less a part of the community. How then do we balance being visible and providing hope to those who might need it with also keeping ourselves safe? If we have passing privilege, how do we then use that privilege to continue uplifting our community, especially in public spaces and forums where others might be overlooked or silenced? How can we protect and support people who can't be out or who don't want to be out without demanding their visibility or performance as a prerequisite for community or respect?

Those are ultimately the questions Spencer is facing in this book. Should he come out as trans so that he and his family can publicly challenge the anti-trans law that prohibits him from playing on the boys' soccer team or should he keep his head down and protect himself in a world that has already proved itself to be unsafe for him? How does he weigh his own readiness and safety with making a stand against something that profoundly impacts his community? There is no right or wrong answer, no clear-cut solution that doesn't constitute some kind of sacrifice on our part, and sometimes that's the line we have to walk. Again, the story never villainizes or glorifies either choice, but understands on a profound level the validity and reality of both.

While I can't comment on the Autistim representation we get with Spencer's brother, my one minor note is that there were a few times where it got close to feeling like Theo's Autism was "just another thing that complicates Spencer's life." While Theo is never once positioned as a burden, nor made to perform Autism in a way that neurotypical audiences have come to expect, it did occasionally seem like he was brought into the story especially when there needed to be some additional tension. Again, I can't speak to the representation itself, and while overall I really enjoyed the loving relationship dynamic between Spencer and Theo, I did want to share that one note. I don't think the story ever quite crosses that line, but it does get close a few times.

All in all, this in an incredible and much-needed story that brilliantly balances hardship with hope. It's a book that complicates and adds to the conversations about transness that still need to happen, both within the queer community and outside of it. You should read it as an antithesis to the recent anti-trans sports laws, yes, but even MORE than that you should read it because it celebrates a trans hero navigating how to advocate for his community and himself. It's a story about soccer, friendship, first love, and learning how to be yourself, which is exactly the kind of story we need. 

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