‘Almost Perfect’ by Brian Katcher

Brian Katcher’s second novel Almost Perfect is the winner of the 2011 Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, presented by the American Library Association. The ALA’s press release rightly calls this book “exceptional.”

I would add that it could teach its elders — those adult books — a lot about a well-turned story that, even with its wild ups and downs, still feels unwavering and simple in the best sense — it is direct and focused and urgent.

The customary concerns of young-adult fiction — the anxieties and explorations that come with life on the cusp of adulthood, the increasingly central self-awareness of being a teenager, a growing realization of the responsibilities inherent in growing up — all find wonderful expression in this book, which will appeal to readers of many ages.

Almost Perfect is an apt description of the relationship between its dual protagonists, Logan and Sage, two high school seniors and eventual sweethearts in small town Missouri. Their roller coaster relationship is the book’s “problem” and it’s a doozy; the book jacket lets readers know that Sage, who to all appearances is a curvy, flirtatious femme fatale of sorts, is actually a biological male.

That she spills her secret just after she and Logan finally kiss – sending Logan into a tailspin – is the first of a series of crises that Katcher builds on throughout the book. The bond that the two sweethearts struggle with after this calamitous event – fighting to understand, then support and ultimately love each other — constitutes the book’s innate drama.

One measure of Katcher’s artistry is how equally moving both Logan’s and Sage’s stories are. Though Logan tells their story as the book’s first person narrator, the two main characters are balanced. Katcher has worked with teens and he knows them inside and out; his characters are compelling and true.

The novel’s sure footed trajectory greatly aids this effort, as does its small town setting, letting Katcher minimize writerly descriptions and atmosphere for its own sake in favor of a great story and thorough character development. Katcher also ratchets up the plot through to the very end of the book: I was plugged into the story until the last page, which is something I don’t often feel in most books I read, setting them down before they end.

Another measure of the author’s skill is how well larger issues are integrated into the book’s story. Discussions of what it means to be a man go beyond gender identification, or who is straight or gay. Logan’s sense of masculinity comes through loud and clear –even though his father had abandoned his family when Logan was very young. His primary model of manhood – his father – is ostensibly lacking, yet his mother and older sister (and no doubt his community) instilled in him a level of maturity that serves him and this story well.

Katcher makes Logan’s masculinity wholly believable by introducing him first as pathetically insecure about being dumped by his ex-girlfriend at the beginning of the book, until he meets Sage and embarks on a solid relationship with her. Sage, for her part, brings a different perspective on masculinity, having abandoned her own maleness. It’s extremely interesting to see her many attributes, especially her confidence, through the filter of her previous gender.

Her volatile, angry and controlling father is her foil, whose stereotypical male behavior and attitudes — in this case an overblown machismo – brings the question of how do men behave into high relief. His own development and broadening understanding of masculinity underscores what Logan and Sage experience as they move slowly into adulthood.

Katcher’s afterword (briefly) discusses his efforts to connect with trans teens in the process of writing this book. I can add that the book’s many characters – of different ages and situations — are well-rounded humans more than the archetypes nevertheless demanded by fiction.

I especially want to note Katcher’s lack of curse words; his teens keep their dignity while still sounding authentic, no mean feat in our vulgar, eMpTVy-driven culture. No doubt also a shrewd move that should allow for this book to be placed in more school libraries, where it will reach a range of kids who need this type of intelligent, well written, and thoroughly engaging literature.

As Lambda Literary’s Young Adult editor TS Ferguson notes:

there is still a lot of room in the market for more books featuring trans teens. As with gay and lesbian fiction, I hope we will begin to see trans characters taken beyond the coming out experience and starring in stories that weave issues of gender and sexuality into a broader storyline.

This is something Brian Katcher has accomplished in spades. Yes, this is Sage’s coming out story, but it is also Logan’s story of becoming a man. Bravo!
By Brian Katcher
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Paperback, 9780385736657, 368pp.
November 2010