If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
Amanda Hardy is the new girl in Lambertville, Tennessee. Like any other girl, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret. There’s a reason why she transferred schools for her senior year, and why she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.
And then she meets Grant Everett. Grant is unlike anyone she’s ever met– open, honest, and kind– and Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she finds herself yearning to share everything about herself… including her past. But she’s terrified that once she tells Grant the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.
Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that she used to be Andrew.
— From the book jacket of If I Was Your Girl
Amanda Hardy is starting her senior year at a new school in a new town– a hard task for anyone. After leaving her home, her mother, and her old life behind to move in with her father, Amanda is determined to keep her head down and simply make it through until graduation, when she can move to New York and live her own life.
Despite her efforts to keep to herself, she meets a boy named Grant who quickly wins her heart. Soon she is going on her first date. Having her first kiss. Feeling the flutter of a first love. But through it all, Amanda is keeping a secret. One that could threaten her relationship with Grant. The secret of why she had to move to Lambertville this year. The secret of who she once was. The secret– she’s transgender.
As a straight white female raised in a middle class Midwestern suburban home, there’s so much in the world that I’m naive about. So much I’m woefully ignorant of. I’ve never really experienced the feeling of “other” or “different”. I’ve never felt a prejudice against who I am, or what I look like, what I believe, or who I love, like so many others unfortunately have. Does that ignorance to the experience of others make me part of the problem? Have I somehow, unknowingly, contributed to a prejudice simply because I didn’t understand?
This is why books like If I Was Your Girl are so necessary in YA lit. They are important to those who find themselves reflected in the pages, giving them a sense that they are not alone. Someone else has gone through this, felt these feelings, traveled a similar path, and managed to navigate their way through. It gives hope and inspiration to those who may be struggling to find their way.
But they are equally important to those like me, who don’t necessarily see themselves in that mirror– whose access to experience is limited to within the written word. I’m a life-long learner. If I don’t know or understand something, I try to teach myself. But how do I teach myself about the experiences of people who may be different than me? Especially when I’m horribly shy and socially awkward. I’m not comfortable talking about it, so I read. I seek out stories that will educate me. I use words to immerse myself in someone else’s life for a fraction of time, to feel what they feel. It’s not the same as experiencing it first hand, but it sheds light, however small, on a feeling that may have otherwise remained hidden in the dark.
But it’s only effective as long as it’s told from a place of truth, honesty, and experience.
Nothing makes me more annoyed with a story than an author adding in a side character, whether they are LGBT or a certain race or ethnicity, who is very obviously only there to up the diversity factor. I see it so much in YA lately, and honestly, it pisses me off. They’re almost always stereotypical stock characters that have no real relevance within the story. They’re not the main characters. They don’t help drive the plot. They’re simply there as a filler. They’re not a reflection. They’re not relatable. They’re wallpaper. And they certainly don’t represent diversity in YA lit. Which is why books like If I Was Your Girl are so important.
We need these kinds of books. I need them. I need to learn. So please, educate me. Open my eyes. Allow me to explore the experiences of others, so I don’t become part of the problem. So I don’t unknowingly allow the perpetuation of prejudice. Help me to understand the world around me so I can do my part to make it a better place for all of us.
It’s obvious from the very start of If I Was Your Girl that these are not stereotypical stock characters. Meredith Russo is writing from the heart. It may be a work of fiction, but she’s felt everything that Amanda has felt. She’s lived those experiences. Maybe not exactly the same experiences in exactly the same way, but the truth is there. Every heartbreakingly raw feeling of doubt and fear and hate, laid bare for the world.
If I’d had the strength to be normal, I thought, or at least the strength to die, then everyone would have been happy.
— from If I Was Your Girl, page 3
Right away, you learn that Amanda has had to leave her home and her mother to move in with her father in Lambertville because she was attacked. She still bares the bruises of being beaten by a classmate’s father for simply using the women’s restroom. The fear and the tension that Amanda feels from it are ever present. She’s forced to question everyone’s motives, the sincerity of their statements. Are they simply being nice, or playing a cruel joke? It’s gut-wrenching to realize that there are those that have to analyze every phrase, every gesture from others out of fear.
While you only get glimpses of the bathroom attack, there’s one truly terrifying scene near the end that left me shaking, my heart racing, my mind screaming. I won’t give anything away, but it left me sick to my stomach, nearly in tears. And the most terrifying part– while this may be a fictional novel, this is someone’s reality. This is happening. And it’s not okay.
But don’t think that this book is all heartbreaking and sad. It’s not at all. Yes, there are parts that will break your heart, but there are so many more that will make it soar. It’s hopeful and beautiful and triumphant. It’s about love. Feeling the butterflies of a first kiss. Finding a first love. It’s about learning to love yourself for who you are. Even if who you are now is a lot different than who you were. It’s about finding those who will love you no matter what. It’s about living the life you’re meant to live, and living it wholly.
Hopefully you’ll pick this book up. Hopefully it will open your eyes and your heart, like it did mine. Hopefully you learn from it, like I did. And hopefully you enjoy it just as much.
Because of drinking, drug use, and some sensitive and potentially triggering content, I would recommend it for high school and beyond. And I absolutely recommend it.
Random(ish) Note: I always read the acknowledgments at the end of a book. I love how supportive the YA community is, and I get a tiny thrill when I recognize the names of other authors listed in the shoutouts. So, of course, I read the acknowledgements of this one too. In it, Russo talks about how important it was to her to keep trans people involved in every step of the process of this book, ensuring that it’s spoken with complete truth and honesty– right down to the stunningly gorgeous cover model, Kira Conley. Which makes me love this book even more than I already did. This is how you show diversity in YA. Other authors, take note.
Learn more about Meredith Russo