Girl Mans Up, M-E Girard’s young adult novel about Canadian teen Pen, is about the need to search for your own code and your own rules to live by in the face of everyone else’s expectations. Pen is not a guy, but she knows that she makes people wonder – she just wants to be free to do her own thing. She doesn’t struggle with feeling wrong in her body, but she does have a fluid gender identity that she doesn’t need to pin down.
Colby is Pen’s long-time best friend who started out accepting her when they were little and is now another voice telling her who and what to be. Colby is the alpha dog in Pen’s pack of friends, domineering and clearly not a very nice guy. Pen is his wing man and helps him get girls, but when he tries to get Blake, a girl she likes, she is conflicted. Blake is cool, a gamer who works in a video game store, and has a lot in common with Pen.
At first I worried that this novel would be all about Pen and Colby’s dysfunctional friendship, which would not have been appealing; Colby is manipulative and vindictive, a toxic misogynist and nasty bit of work. Instead, Pen gets her first girlfriend in Blake, and theirs is a sweet and charming romance. Equally important is Pen’s developing friendship with Olivia, one of Colby’s exes. Pen branches out in her school and home life and becomes more certain of who she wants to be.
Pen is decent and wise in her own way, and has a wonderful supporter in her older brother Johnny, a high school dropout who has his own business and lives in their family’s basement. Pen is the child of Portuguese immigrants whose rigid gender rules feel oppressive and stifling (“Why can’t my mom see that I’m a good girl already?”) and Girard writes some of most realistic parental conflict I’ve seen in a long time. Blake and her accepting parents are contrasted with Pen and her own parents and complicated family relationships.
We need more young adult books with more of everything that’s in this novel: characters like Johnny, a masculine hothead who truly loves, understands, and accepts his gender fluid sister as she is; like Pen, whose personal growth is both hopeful and satisfying; and a sweet romance that isn’t just between a boy and a girl that shows the giddy excitement of first love.