‘Jumpstart the World’ by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Lambda Literary Award Finalist

Arguably one of the most controversial LGBTQ books of the year has been Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Jumpstart The World (Knopf BYR). This young adult novel focuses on the experiences of a teenager exploring her own identity, and discovering the LGBTQ community.

Over the course of the book, Elle, a teenage girl somewhat estranged from her family of origin, struggles with unraveling her own identity and finding a place for herself (somewhat) independently in the world. When we meet her she is moving into her own apartment, an admittedly somewhat unrealistic experience for most fifteen-year-olds.

We swiftly learn that she has a complicated relationship with her biological family and that her mother has, at the suggestion of her stepfather, decided the best answer to familial conflict is to pay for Elle to have her own apartment in NYC.

While moving into the apartment, Elle meets Frank — a man she at first refers to as “elfin” and later as the novel unfolds we learn is transgender. The friendship between Frank and Elle becomes the primary focus of the novel as he teaches Elle about the struggles of a life on the margins. We watch as she learns (somewhat heavy-handedly) about the discrimination transgender people face in hospitals and society at large.

Elle beings forming friendships with other teens at school as well, causing her to grapple with her own internalized homophobia. As a way to rebel from her mother, Elle shaves her head before the first day at her new school, prompting homophobic bullying from other classmates. The school queer kids congregate around her, but Elle’s overt homophobia nearly costs her those friends as well.

The novel itself was a quick read, but in many ways lacked the realism I tend to associate and appreciate in similarly styled young adult novels. There are very few teens whose parents decide to rent them their own apartment. Also, while I celebrate the inclusion of transgender characters within literature, especially young adult novels, I found Hyde’s portrayal of Frank a bit awkward at times. In other instances, it was downright offensive, like when she likens being trans to having a birth defect.

Hyde has a strong voice well matched to the YA market, making Jumpstart the World a fast paced story whose inclusion of transgender and otherwise LGBTQ characters ought to be celebrated. That said, the plot didn’t speak to me particularly strongly, primarily because I couldn’t look past the unrealistic experience of Elle being set up in her own apartment. I also would have liked to see a less tokenized portrayal of transgender experience within the text, where the transgender character is perhaps given the opportunity to have a life outside of being an educational lesson in tolerance and discrimination for other characters.
Jumpstart the World
by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Hardcover, 9780375866654, 192pp.
October 12, 2010