Symptoms of Being Human

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
Symptoms of Being Human Book Poster Image
Popular with kids
Empathetic, empowering story of gender-fluid teen.

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Kids say

age 13+
Based on 16 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Helps readers understand what it means and how it can feel to be gender-fluid or experience gender dysphoria. Explains key terms surrounding gender identity, including "cis" (short for "cisgender"), "gender binary," "gender dysphoria," and "transgender." Demonstrates different therapeutic approaches to dealing with anxiety and trauma and the power of community and support. Includes resources for gay, transgender, and questioning youths and for getting help with anxiety and depression.

Positive Messages

It isn't necessary to suffer alone -- finding community and sharing support can help you find strength. Speaking truth may be risky, but it may be more damaging to you and others to conceal secrets. Our instinctive tendency to reach for labels can keep us from seeing the full picture.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Riley seeks connection and an outlet through blogging. Riley doesn't revel in the rising reader count as an exercise in ego but eagerly reads through the comments to find out more about why they're responding and offer encouragement and resources to people in need. Riley's new friends are gems -- Riley doesn't make it easy for them to get close -- and courageous when the going gets tough. Riley's parents mean well but struggle to provide the right kind of support amid the pressures of being in the spotlight and Riley's inability to confide in them. Members of a support group embrace newcomers and prod Riley to take an activist role.

Violence

Harrowing and brutal rape scene, described with minimal specifics, is emotionally intense. Sexual harassment includes taunts and threats. Character recalls being stripped naked in a locker room at school.

Sex

Flirting and a kiss. References to sexual anatomy ("penis," "vagina") and masturbation. Sexual themes underpin harassment and violence.

Consumerism

References to retail outlets, fashion brands, candies and snack foods, beverages, toys, websites, and cars.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Secondary teen characters drink to excess. Teens joke about using narcotics. Reference to a child's suicide involving an overdose and another's suicide attempt involving whiskey and medication.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Symptoms of Being Human deals frankly with a gender-fluid teen's high school experience, from cruel taunts and a horrific rape to the difficulty of finding and maintaining close friendships. The novel helps explain what it means to be gender-fluid and sheds light on the everyday challenges non-gender-conforming teens face. There are vicious bullies -- Riley is subjected to sexually explicit verbal abuse and repeated, violent attacks -- but also inspiring upstanders. Mental health issues figure prominently, including anxiety, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. But the takeaway message focuses on being true to yourself, taking a stand, and the importance of supporting each other.

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Teen, 14 years old Written bynonbinary_bookworm February 16, 2020
Teen, 13 years old Written byPiza January 30, 2020

What's the story?

It's hard enough to find where you fit in high school, but Riley has it harder than many: Riley feels like a girl some days, a boy on others, and often somewhere in between. Riley doesn't know how to explain this to family, much less classmates, so most days Riley strives to be neutral. But it doesn't work: Bullies soon target Riley, and new friendships are hamstrung by unasked questions and Riley's uncertainty. Starting an anonymous blog seems a safe outlet for Riley's pent-up feelings, but even that gets painfully complicated when well-intentioned advice to another non-gender-conforming teen becomes a news story. Even worse, someone at school knows Riley's secret, and the pressure may be too much to bear.

Is it any good?

Like its hero, this keenly observed portrait of a gender-fluid teen desperate to live authentically defies easy categorization. It has obvious appeal for LGBTQ teens and allies, but it's also a moving depiction of anxiety anyone can relate to. SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN is a tenderly written and empathetic debut from Jeff Garvin, who remarkably avoids using any gender-specific pronouns in describing Riley and never reveals which gender Riley was assigned at birth.

The general plot line feels stale for this generation -- teen with nonconforming gender identity stays closeted, is sexually attacked, and decides to come out. But getting to know Riley could be a breathtaking experience for gender-fluid teens, who see so little of their reality reflected in mainstream media. And for friends, family, and anyone else trying to better understand gender dysphoria, Garvin writes with heartfelt compassion.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about blogging and the line between private and public. Do you feel like the words or pictures you share online are private or public? How does that perception affect what you choose to share? What privacy precautions do you take?

  • Do you notice how much gender affects the way you interact with new people? Do you know anyone like Riley?

  • Riley chooses to engage with some trolls who respond to the blog but ignores others. How do you handle haters and trolls?

Book details

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For kids who love LGBTQ and coming-of-age stories

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