We Are Totally Normal

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
We Are Totally Normal Book Poster Image
Compelling but uneven tale of teen exploring his sexuality.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Readers will learn about what it can mean to question sexual orientation.

Positive Messages

Try not to focus too much on being popular or how to fit; it can take you away from who you really are and who you want to be. It's OK not to know who you really are, but don't hurt and use partners and friends to elevate your social status. Friends will understand you and forgive you if you take responsibility when you're wrong.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Main character Nandan struggles to figure out who he is and wants to be, which makes him relatable, but he's calculating and manipulative in pursuit of popularity. His love interest, Dave, is sweet, kind, and a bit of a pushover. Other important characters act in ways that are mean, duplicitous, controlling, sexist, and unkind. Nandan is Indian American, from a single parent family, Dave is Asian. Friends are from various other ethnic/racial backgrounds. Nandan questions his sexual identity, other characters are gay and bisexual.

Violence
Sex

Past sex between opposite gender characters is referred to, consensual sex (oral and anal) between same gender main characters is described briefly and clinically.

Language

Regular use of string language, including "hell," "goddamn," "bitch," "s--t," "f--k," and "a--hole."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Pot is used in one scene and referred to in another. Main and side characters drink to excess throughout the story. Desire to get drunk to avoid feelings occurs regularly. Other than hangovers, few consequences shown.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that We Are Totally Normal, by Raul Kanakia, who transitioned during publication and goes by Naomi Kanakia, is about sexuality and social status in high school. When Nandan unexpectedly hooks up with his friend Dave, he starts to question his sexuality and what it might mean for his popularity. Positive messages about friendship and respect are muddled by characters' sometimes-mean behavior. Readers will relate to Nandan's search for connection and self-knowledge, but some may be disappointed by his internalized homophobia and hurtful choices, as well as other characters' sexism, toxic masculinity, and prioritizing status over friendship. In terms of representation, Nandan is Indian American, with a single mom, and his friends are diverse ethnically/racially and socioeconomically, some characters are gay and bisexual. Sex and hooking up are a major plot point, including oral and anal sex between consenting older teen boys. There's regular use of strong language, like "hell," "sh--t," and "f--k." Characters party and get drunk, sometimes to avoid feelings. Thi is an intense tale that has teen appeal.

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What's the story?

WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL focuses on popular and well-liked Nandan. Dave is Nandan's "project," as in, he wants to make Dave popular, too. This effort at first revolves around helping Dave hook up with a girl. But then Nandan and Dave hook up unexpectedly, and Nandan can't figure out if he's into Dave because he's actually bi or gay, or because being queer might elevate his social status. He doesn't want to talk to his shallow "friends" Potham or Ken about his confusion, and so draws closer to new friends Mari and Hen. But, Nandan keeps them at arm's length, too, in order to preserve his place with in-crowd friends, despite longing for authentic connection. Nandan does get a social boost from coming out (the popular girl invites him into her inner social circle), but lingering doubts about his sexuality cause him to break up with Dave. An awkward homecoming dance and after-party bring Nandan and Dave together again, but as he finally makes one decision he doesn't regret, will he be any closer to knowing who he really is?

Is it any good?

This unique, gritty, and very messy story chronicles what it can mean to question your sexuality. Not a typical queer love story full of romance, We Are Totally Normal, shows that not all queer folks know they are queer from an early age, and that it can be confusing and fraught trying to figure it all out. Given that Nandan and many of his friends are racially/ethnically diverse, readers also see how culture complicates Nandan's search for self-knowledge. And it stands out for representing voices and experiences of queer people of color. 

Nandan is a sometimes-sympathetic character, but as he ruthlessly navigates the social hierarchies of high school, manipulating and pushing friends and his love interest away, it may be hard for some readers to appreciate his struggles. Most of his friends are horrible, especially Potham and Ken, who call women "bitches," pontificate on how to get girls to have sex, and gaslight Nandan when he tries to be "real." There's some witty, wry dialogue, but the plot can be slow-moving and involves a series of parties where teens abuse alcohol and scheme to hook up. Though an uneven reading experience, this book has definite appeal for queer and questioning teens and their allies.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the Nandan's idea about the "T99" in We Are Totally Normal. Why is popularity so important to Nandan and other characters? What are the benefits and drawbacks to popularity shown in the book? What are your ideas about popularity?

  • Nandan's guy friends used sexist language ("bitches") and enforce toxic masculinity (avoiding emotions, sexually pursuing "girls"). How was it to read these passages? Why do you think the author included language some readers would find offensive?

  • What does the term "internalized homophobia" mean to you? What affect, if any, does internalized homophobia have on Nandan in his relationship with Dave? Does he use Dave, or are his feelings for Dave real? How do you know?

Book details

Our editors recommend

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

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