A review by perpetualpages
Obie Is Man Enough, by Schuyler Bailar

challenging emotional funny hopeful informative inspiring reflective fast-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? It's complicated

4.5

CWs: Bullying and physical assault; transphobia, deadnaming, and misgendering; transphobic, homophobic, and sexual slurs; some internalized transphobia and ableism; grief and death of a grandparent.

How do I even begin to describe my love for Obie is Man Enough? This middle grade debut is one that I know is going to change and save so many lives. I can say that with absolute certainty and with all the confidence in the world, because Schuyler's work as a trans activist has changed *my* life for the better, and that same work is not only celebrated but furthered in this incredible story.

I should start by saying that Obie is Man Enough is a challenging story at times. But what's important is that Obie's transness is never positioned as the challenging part. The story definitely explores transphobia and bullying, specifically, in unequivocal and realistic ways. While those scenes can be hard to read, especially as a trans person myself, I think the inclusion of that reality is necessary, not only because transphobia is often logistically and sometimes legally sanctioned (or even encouraged) in public spaces, but because "representation" doesn't just mean depicting the good things or the easy things.

Sometimes people think that the most "interesting" or most "important" part of being trans is realizing your transness or coming out as trans. But Obie is Man Enough addresses the far more pressing and compelling question: how do you *live* and *thrive* as a trans person?

In order to truly honor trans joy and trans triumph—which this story certainly does—you also need to honor the systemic and personal hardships and adversity our community continues to face by acknowledging them. To be a trans kid, especially, is to constantly face down people wanting to quantify or police your transness, or wanting to aggressively reassert your assigned gender over you as a means of "dissuading" you, and this story intimately understands that challenge. I also think the inclusion of those challenging scenes—and by extension, the discussions that stem from them—is necessary because they show young readers how to respond to those types of situations, whether it's seeking help from an adult or an authority figure or familiarizing yourself with other resources and forms of support.

On that same note, Obie is surrounded by an incredible support system, which is so important. Some people might say that having a story where a young trans boy is accepted, loved, and supported by every important important person in his life is quote-unquote "unrealistic." But my challenge to those people is: Why should it be? Why is supporting trans people, especially trans youth, so often outside of the scope of our collective imagination and how can we remedy that? The author speaks more on why he made that particular choice in his author's note at the end of the book, but even aside from that, it's imperative that we have working examples and models of genuine support, allyship, and acceptance.

These supporting characters who care about Obie, who see him for exactly who he is and actively want to see him succeed and be safe, can also provide a helpful model for trans allies. As important as it is to have good and nuanced trans representation—which again, this book definitely has front and center—it's also important for allies to see what healthy, practical, and supportive responses actually look like. It's important to see examples of how the people in Obie's life levy their privilege in order to help him stay safe when it's in their power to act.

Especially considering the bullying and gatekeeping that Obie is experiencing, those safe spaces—whether they be people or actual spaces—become all the more sacred as the story progresses. Though Obie is facing so many obstacles, he is never alone in facing them down, and that's what's most important. The story empowers young readers to know their rights, to establish healthy boundaries, and to familiarize themselves with their resources. Friends and family can be allies, teachers can be allies, coaches can be allies, administrators can be allies, doctors can be allies, mentors can be allies. Learning to recognize all the different places where that much-needed support can come from can make a huge difference in a trans kid's life.

I also really appreciate how the story challenges toxic masculinity, specifically in binary-gendered sports. The book begins with Obie's old coach verbally shaming him for being "weak" and proclaiming that he'll never be "a real man" unless he can beat all the other male swimmers in his age bracket—something this coach has deemed to be "biologically impossible." Obie definitely internalizes this message and pushes himself in training with the singular goal of "proving everyone wrong" and showing everyone that he "deserves" to swim with the other boys because of his skill. But as the story goes on, he realizes that being a good swimmer—and being a guy—can't be quantified by the amount of people you beat, but rather the diligence it takes to keep on going and to commit yourself to continuously learning and growing.

The story is also a powerful testimony to the fact that change is a natural part of life, whether you're trans or not. Obie is struggling to navigate fluctuating relationships in his life. He wants to give priority to his current friends and teammates, who are supportive and nurturing, but he's also dealing with his bully, Clyde, who used to be his best friend when they were kids, and also his friend Lucy, who has distanced herself since Obie came out as trans. There's a powerful opposite-moving parallel between these three characters, because as Obie transitions and becomes more and more himself, Clyde and Lucy are also "transitioning" in their own way as they go from being Obie's friends to being estranged and disconnected. All of these characters are changing as they grow up, but the changes Obie is going through as a trans person are hyper-visual and politicized in a way that most change is not. But that's the reality of growing up: some people grow towards the light, and some people grow away from it.

Obie's biracial Korean-American identity is also an integral part of the story that is so beautifully written. A big part of Obie's masculinity—which he gets to define for himself over the course of the book—is knowing and honoring his culture on both sides of his family. There's a tenderness and honesty to the way his family dynamic is written, and I think it's so incredibly important for trans youth of color to see examples of how their gender can be valued, honored, and respected within their culture and not in spite of it. Obie's family being supportive and open shows the possibility of acceptance (and not just tolerance) to trans youth who need it the most.

Overall, this book is just an absolute triumph! It covers so many topics—transphobia, toxic masculinity, family, friendship, culture, dating, social and medical transition, allyship, forgiveness etc.—while still weaving a cohesive and dynamic plot that will keep you rooting for Obie until the very last page. My one note is that sometimes the dialogue (from the adults, especially) can come off as a little too "educational," meaning that sometimes responses are set up a little *too* transparently as a "learning moment." While I think the content of those conversations is very much necessary, I think there are one or two places where those teachable moments could have been integrated a little bit more organically. But that definitely did not take anything away from the impact this book had on me.

Obie is Man Enough is a sensational, fully realized, deeply emotional middle grade story that is full of heart and sincerity. It shows trans kids, especially, that they are loved, they are valued, they are worthy, they are powerful, and they are needed. Whether you know a young reader or have a young reader in your heart who needs this story, it is not one to be missed. 

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