Check out Kieran's recent review of Schuyler Bailar's powerful middle-grade debut, Obie is Man Enough, a heartfelt middle-grade novel that follows a Korean American transmasculine swimmer committed to thriving in his cultural and gender identities.
Review (originally published on Shelf Awareness):
Schuyler Bailar's powerful middle-grade debut highlights the triumphs and struggles of an adolescent transgender competitive swimmer.
After Korean American Zechariah-Obadiah "Obie" Chang begins identifying as a boy, he endures transphobic epithets hurled by his coach, abandonment by his two best friends and both physical and verbal assaults in the boys' bathroom. Traumatized but proud of himself and fueled by his passion for swimming, he joins a new team and learns to face school without his old friends.
Obie frequently updates two private lists: "People who believe I'm man enough" and "People who don't." While his parents and brother remain staunch believers in his maleness, the inhabitants of both lists shift, paralleling the conflicts in the narrative and hinting at Obie's allies and changing relationships. Despite joining a new team, Obie continues to be bullied when he encounters his old coach and teammates at swim meets. When a family member dies, though, Obie discovers that his new cis male teammates support him and they swiftly become allies. Obie's myriad mentors include his Halmoni (grandmother), brother Jae-sung, beloved English teacher Mrs. Salmani, and a handful of others who gently guide him toward embracing all facets of his identity while they validate and reinforce his manhood. Jae-sung gives Obie a pep talk before his first date; Halmoni, touchingly, explains to Obie that men never used to cook, but times change. "Men can cook, too," she says, "So, I teach you." Bailar thoughtfully crafts each of the mentor relationships with humor and grace, using each person to help broaden Obie into a well-rounded character.
Bailar, the first trans athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA Division One men's team, includes a message and content warning to trans readers, a letter to cisgender readers, and a glossary of LGBTQ+ terms and mental health resources. He encapsulates the mind of a seventh-grader by punctuating the traditional narration with Obie's text conversations with peers. Additionally, Obie's journal realistically encompasses thoughtful processing, anxiety about trying on "male" swimsuits or visiting the boys' restroom and sweet wonderings about his crush. For example, when his crush remarks that Obie is different from other boys she's been with, he breathes a sigh of relief when he realizes she means "good different. Not trans different." Bailar also dovetails the book's narrative with an evolving personal essay about how Obie's Korean heritage has shaped the young man he is growing to be. It mirrors the setbacks, growth and ultimate successes Obie experiences.
Kieran writes reviews of LGBTQIAP+ middle grade and YA books for Shelf Awareness.
Want to pre-order this book? (It comes out September 7, 2021). Check out Schuyler Bailar's own site here).