An intriguing novel-in-verse about two girls with Crohn’s Disease sharing a hospital room. Chess is new to the disease and ended up in the hospital after a party/date with her crush turned disastrous. She is not happy to have something called irritable bowel syndrome and doesn’t want to see friends or family and definitely not the crush. Shannon, on the other hand, has been living with disease for years. She is past the hiding stage and well into the angry stage. The two girls don’t seem to have anything in common, but they bond over their common enemy…Crohn’s. The girls are in beds separated by a curtain and the novel represents this with a line down the middle of the page separating their words. It is an unusual topic for a teen book but one that seems timely. I think the novel-in-verse style works really well as it gives the reader just enough information and allows the reader to be more immersed in the characters.
This novel-in-verse rotates through three different perspectives. First, there are the high school kids, Brendan and Vanessa. Brendan and Vanessa have been a couple for a long time. They’re both fairly popular and are athletes. Vanessa is a fairly normal girl, with the exception being that her sport of choice is wrestling. Brendan is the star of the wrestling team, so the two spend a lot of time together. On the surface, their relationship is perfect, but under the surface, they’ve got some serious issues that neither one wants to talk about. Vanessa has thrown everything she is into this relationship, to the point where she is in danger of losing the few female friends she has left. Brendan is secretly questioning his gender identity. He can’t understand why he sometimes feels as though he would rather be his girlfriend than be with her. When he learns the word “transgender”, it sends shock-waves through the core of his being. Deep down, he realizes this is a word that might apply to him. In a fit of confused angst, he throws a rock through the window of a local GLBTQ teen center where our third narrator, Angel, works. Angel is a male-to-female transgendered person who has seen some incredibly difficult times. As a result, Angel has found a calling in helping young people come to terms with their sexual orientation and identities. Can Angel help Brendan, even if Brendan isn’t really sure who he is?
Freakboy takes on a whole host of issues, though the transgender one obviously takes front and center. Brendan and Vanessa’s relationship issues are painfully realistic. Vanessa has clear self-esteem issues and frequently misinterprets Brendan’s actions. She defines herself through having a boyfriend and, while she’s obsessed with her relationship, she remains surprisingly self-absorbed. Brendan is by far the most well-developed character in the book; he’s not the type of person who definitively knew his identity from a young age and he doesn’t always hate being a boy. Angel, on the other hand, seems like she’s there to provide the reader with a more traditional transformation story or to show how an adult might handle being trans rather than contributing to the overall plot. Angel is a great character, but her integration into the narrative feels rough and somewhat forced.
Overall, a decent, if heavy-handed, tale of teenagers dealing with a tough and under-addressed issue.