Boy or Girl? Yes.
When I first saw these words written on the book’s cover, I immediately wanted to know what this book was about. I pride myself on being a pretty open minded person. Working in a high school in the year 2022, you have to be. I have encountered so many different students in my short time at the public high school I work in: boys, girls, gay, lesbian, bisexual, non-binary…the list goes on. Also, being an English teacher, students express themselves pretty openly in the writing assignments given to them. I have always been impressed with how open minded my high school is as well. Students, regardless of sexual orientation, are fiercely protected by the teachers and administration in the building. There are also some queer teachers that work at my school and they have no problem talking about their relationships and families they have created.
As for Riley Cavanaugh, the main protagonist in Symptoms of Being Human, they identify as gender fluid. There are some days where Riley feels more like a girl and other days where they feel more like a boy. In order to address the struggles that they are going through, Riley’s therapist suggests they start a blog based on how what they are thinking and feeling. The blog proves to be therapeutic to them, but things start to change when one of the blog readers threatens to “out” Riley for their true identity. Oh yeah that’s right, Riley’s dad is a congressman seeking re-election, so there’s that. Needless to say, the pressure on Riley is certainly at an all-time high.
As an individual who is certain about their gender identity, it can be hard to imagine what it can be like for individuals like Riley. Symptoms of Being Human really paints an accurate and non-judgmental picture of what a gender fluid teen would look like. As you may have gathered already, Garvin’s novel is for a YA audience, but (as I mention on my homepage) YA can be enlightening for everyone, especially regarding topics that may be confusing to some people. I also liked how this novel normalized mental health and getting treatment for it. As for someone who has struggled with it for sometime, it is always exciting for me to see when mental illness is de-stigmatized and talked about rather than being whispered about. This book enlightens readers to a life that they may not know even exist and it is also a brutally honest portrait of what it means to be a high school student…and a human being.