Birthday, Meredith Russo, Flatiron Books, 2019.
From the publisher: Two best friends. A shared birthday. Six years…
ERIC: There was the day we were born. There was the minute Morgan and I decided we were best friends for life. The years where we stuck by each other’s side—as Morgan’s mom died, as he moved across town, as I joined the football team, as my parents started fighting. But sometimes I worry that Morgan and I won’t be best friends forever. That there’ll be a day, a minute, a second, where it all falls apart and there’s no turning back the clock.
MORGAN: I know that every birthday should feel like a new beginning, but I’m trapped in this mixed-up body, in this wrong life, in Nowheresville, Tennessee, on repeat. With a dad who cares about his football team more than me, a mom I miss more than anything, and a best friend who can never know my biggest secret. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to become the person I am inside. To become her. To tell the world. To tell Eric. But when?
Six years of birthdays reveal Eric and Morgan’s destiny as they come together, drift apart, fall in love, and discover who they’re meant to be—and if they’re meant to be together. From the award-winning author of If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo, comes a heart-wrenching and universal story of identity, first love, and fate.
My best friend has a little girl. She’s a year older than my own daughter and they’re very similar – they both love Disney Princesses, singing and doing the Macarena (I know, right? I never thought that would be the cultural phenomenon that would extend from my teen years to my middle age. Weird). My daughter has just got her into Harry Potter. She has long, straight hair and a beautiful, gappy smile, and impeccable fashion sense.
So far, so exactly like most eight-year-old girls. And that’s the thing. My friend’s daughter is a typical eight-year-old girl. There’s only one thing about her that’s different from many other eight-year-old girls – a thing that, when you’re with her, you don’t even think about. A thing that, if you’d only just met her, you’d have no idea about. A thing that doesn’t in any way affect her inherent eight-year-old-girl-ness. A thing I only know because I visited her and her mother in hospital. And when I visited, I congratulated my best friend on her new baby boy.
I was wrong. We all were. She wasn’t a boy at all. But when she was born, the doctors and her parents only had the best evidence to go on, and that “evidence” was the anatomy of the newborn in front of them.
The doctors were wrong.
We all were.
As soon as my friend’s daughter knew how to articulate it, she told her mum that the doctors were wrong. That everyone was. She was a girl.
And my best friend, because she is an excellent mother and human, believed her and went with her on the journey to becoming on the outside what she always was within.
And now …
Now, she is a happy, exuberant, theatrical, sometimes naughty little girl and she is also lucky. Because not every parent is like my best friend.
Not every kid has a journey like the one she has had.
One of those kids is Morgan.
Morgan is unlike my friend’s daughter in a crucial way. She doesn’t realise her truth when she is a toddler. It takes her much longer to know that someone is “wrong” with the way she is on the outside; with the way society views her and addresses her. At the start of this book, she is on the cusp of puberty and, to all outward appearances, “male”.
But that – her “maleness” – doesn’t explain why she looks at girls and feels not sexual attraction but envy. Envy of their clothes and their hair and the way they cross their legs and the way they laugh and the way they can sink into the chests of their boyfriends; the way their boyfriends can pick them up and twirl them around, as if they were light as air.
Envy that her best friend, Eric, can’t pick her up like that.
Because, that’s the thing: she is beginning to look at Eric the way other boys look at girls.
But that’s “wrong”, isn’t it? Because Eric is a boy and she is a boy and they have been best friends since birth. Their mothers shared a hospital room.
Eric, for his part, is confused by his feelings, too.
Because, increasingly, he is feeling an attraction to Morgan, too. But Eric is not gay and has never had feelings for another boy.
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Eric is beginning to see Morgan not as a boy but as a girl.
In the midst of the chaos of their feelings, the two teenagers are dealing with other issues – grief at the death of Morgan’s mother; despair at Eric’s abusive father and his mother moving out.
Through it all, they are there for each other. But will that continue if they can be honest about their true feelings for each other? If it is even possible to work out what those feelings are, and what they mean.
Birthday is a beautifully messy, complex, heartfelt, heartbreaking book that perfectly captures both the universal coming-of-age struggles that every human faces, and the singular and complicated journey that a young trans person – and the people who love them – must walk. It is, at its heart, a story of friendship and first love, and the romance at its core is every bit as poignant and delightful as the best YA love stories can be.
Meredith Russo is, herself, a trans woman, and so comes to this story with a deep knowledge and experience, and this really shows. I hope that many young people read this book. I hope that some are enlightened by it and some are uplifted by it, and others are able to see that they are not alone.
I am very hopeful that my friend’s daughter is able to find a love like the characters in this book have. I am very confident that her life will be a happy one, even if it sometimes has challenges that many other young people will not be able to fully understand. She is very lucky, in so many ways. She is growing up in a supportive, loving home, with two parents who advocate for her needs and the needs of other trans young people. She will always know she is loved and accepted and that not only is she not “wrong” for who she is, she is perfect. I love watching her sing and dance and revel in life. I want that for all young people, not matter their gender identity or sexual orientation. Books like Birthday play a huge role in allowing this to happen and I strongly encourage all teenagers and parents of teenagers, and anyone who seeks to better understand their fellow humans, to read it.