Whew, this book, man. It was a hard read for me at times, because the author, M-E Girard, so exactly captures the torturous social and familial pressure teens can be under, especially when they’re non-gender-conforming and trying to figure themselves out.
Pen Oliveira has a solid group of fellow-gamer buds and a loving, if traditionally-minded and conservative family. That is, until she decides to express her true identity, cut her hair, and dress in her older brother’s clothes. Suddenly, being herself means she’s not showing respect, and her formerly close friends are questioning if she’s even a girl.
Respect and loyalty are the thematic throughlines in Girl Mans Up. If Pen conforms to the expectations of her friends and her folks, she’ll prove herself worthy to them; but what about respecting herself, and loyalty to her own true identity? As Pen wrestles with these questions and conflicts with her peers and parents, she also forges new friendships — and a loving, accepting relationship with a classmate, Blake, that opens her eyes and heart to what true loyalty means.
M-E Girard skillfully captures the usual drama and angst that seem to come packaged with the teenage years, yet also layers on the very real, visceral anguish that Pen feels when she has to separate herself from the expectations of her parents and the assumptions of her childhood friends in order to become who she is truly meant to be. Girl Mans Up is an affecting, fierce portrayal of a girl coming into her own, and owning that identity.
I highly recommend this book to parents of genderqueer or non binary teens, but caution that there are mature plot threads that might not be suitable for middle grade or young teens to grapple with just yet. That said, it could spark helpful conversations around identity, consent, and self-trust. Either way, it’s an excellent read, and these characters will stay with me for a long, long time.