Book Review: The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons

This is a young adult fiction book published by Penguin Random House Children’s UK. 

Contains spoilers

Summary of plot

Spencer, a trans-identified female, goes to a new school because of ‘transphobia’ at her last.  There, she meets a boy called Justice, falls in love and the rest of the story centres around this. 

The excitement of the story – such as it is – is whether or not people, particularly Justice, find out whether ‘five foot’ (page 6) Spencer is female. 

Subplot includes the political issue of gender neutral bathrooms.  

The first day at school 

Ironically, despite Spencer supposedly being a boy, the character behaves much as we would expect of a teen girl in a typical romance novel.  We are introduced to the love interest, Justice, in the first scene of the first chapter.  Justice has Spencer knocked-kneed and tongue-tied at a simple hello.  

The other issue introduced is that of Spencer’s urgent need for privacy:

Maybe he should change in the nurse’s bathroom like Ms. Greene, his guidance counselor, had suggested.  Private stall, a door that locked, and nobody who’d snap him in half like a twig if given the chance.  

Page 9

We also learn that Spencer is grateful that she ‘hadn’t need top surgery or to suffer through wearing a binder’ and that she started hormone blockers aged 13 (when many girls are typically almost fully through puberty).  Magically all the breast tissue and fat had been converted to ‘smooth muscle’.  This is contradicted a few pages later when Spencer recalls that someone told her “maybe you should think about wearing a sports bra” (page 20).

Spencer has her first PE lesson on the football pitch.  After being called ‘Twinkle Toes’ (page 12) by another player, Spencer kicks a ball at the back of his head.  Instead of being angry, the boy wants to know if Spencer kicked it with his right or left foot.  On finding that it was his left foot, Spencer is hailed as a sporting genius.  It makes you wonder if the author has ever met any teen boys.  

the way the ball collided with Macintosh’s head tells me that your shot has accuracy and power.

Says the coach, Page 15

This is one of dozens of utterly ridiculous instances where Spencer is treated as special and not subject to normal rules of social engagement.  

On the other hand, Spencer griping about her physical differences from the boys is ever present.  The boys don’t have to worry about hiding their tampons, she does.  

Although none of the pupils at the school know she is trans and Spencer doesn’t want them to know, on the first day Spencer decides to head off after the PE class to the Queer Straight Alliance meeting held on school premises.  At the meeting he meets Riley, a non-binary, but fails to disclose her trans status.  She and Riley bond over a fear of using the boy’s bathroom. 

Spencer is friends with Aiden, the lead singer of The Testostertones who she met at ‘a two-week sleep-away camp for trans kids’ (page 25).  (Later the author appears to forget the Aiden character is famous and merely becomes an older teen that Spencer hangs out with.)

In the afternoon Spencer has music appreciation class, which Justice, the love interest, is also taking.  When Justice asks Spencer whether she’s trying out for the soccer team she is unable to answer due to shyness.  Justice notes that she is ‘half the size’ of the rest of the team (page 32).  

Back home Spencer tells her parents she wants to play soccer on the boys’ team but they don’t agree because they’re worried about safety issues:

Where would you shower?  And what about overnights?  There might be hazing rituals that involve nudity.  There’s a boatload of things that could go wrong.  […]  

Of course, Spencer had similar concerns. 

Page 37

And that completes the first day in school and pretty much the rest of the novel carries on this way, where Spencer is absolutely the centre of attention.  There is no character progression.  

What it says about ‘Gender affirming treatment’

At the beginning of chapter 6 we learn that Spencer is using testosterone gel, which is smeared on her shoulders every morning.  This gives her:

a sense of calm and balance that wasn’t there before going on hormones. 

page 65

A complication arises in the relationship between Spencer and Justice, when Spencer doesn’t turn up for a football game because he has to go to ‘Akron Children’s Hospital to meet with his medical team for a day full of appointments’ (page 142).  Akron is a real hospital based in Ohio which provides ‘gender affirming care’ to children.  Fancy that! 

Spencer reflects that she hates these appointments because of ‘awkward questions’, but also ‘knowing that doing so probably saved his life’ (page 144).  

Concerns about puberty blockers (e.g. GnRH agonists like Lupron used in chemotherapy treatments) are described as ‘outdated information’ (page 189).  

Towards the end the mother character, a former nurse, decides to enter advocacy work to help other families.  

“You can use your nursing background to school idiots who lie about things like how hormone blockers work,” said Spencer with a smile. 

page 294 – more of a smirk really

Gender neutral bathrooms side plot 

At the Queer Straight Alliance meeting the issue of gender neutral bathrooms is raised and pooh-pooed by the trans allies in yet another unbelievable plot point.  Spencer argues in favour of them.  We also learn that:

[Spencer] never got over the nervousness of going into a men’s room.  

page 123

Complaints about the toilets being unhygienic, waiting for the urinals to be empty before going and not making eye contact is the way she deals with it (presumably from the author’s real life).  

The issue of ‘gender neutral bathrooms’ is discussed at every subsequent QSA meeting but the trans allies continue not to understand their importance, proving that Fitzsimons really isn’t in touch with reality.  

At the culmination of the novel everyone realises they were wrong to oppose gender neutral bathrooms and the head teacher pops up to say that it will definitely happen (page 276).  

Phew!  I did not see that coming.  

About the love interest

Justice and Spencer are forced to spend time with each other following a directive given to them by the football coach to get to know each other so that they play better on the soccer field.  

Justice is a Christian, whose parents do not approve of homosexuality or gender identity.  This causes Spencer to worry that Justice might believe that her ‘existence was a sin’ (page 71).  Justice’s parents are depicted as insincere and unkind and the inference is Christianity is the cause of this. 

Justice comes back to Spencer’s house and they have a sleepover.  The mom, a one-dimensional character whose only interest in life appears to be her kids, cries tears of joy that Spencer has found a friend (page 126).  

Finally Justice admits to Spencer that he is gay and had a relationship with a boy before, this makes Spencer feel ‘inadequate’.  They begin a relationship with each other, including kissing and light petting.  Conveniently neither character express any interest in each other’s genital area.  (The author has clearly never lain on the sofa with a teenage boy.)

After that, from the reader’s point of view, it really is a waiting game for Justice to find out that Spencer is not a boy.  Spencer chooses to tell him just before they go into a queer club.  Justice’s reaction is:

Look, this is kind of a shock.  But it doesn’t change how I feel about you.

page 227

And that’s all he has to say on the matter!  

Justice continues to worry about his homophobic parents hating on him for the rest of the story, despite the fact that he is now in a relationship with someone who the parents would regard as female, since they don’t believe in gender identity.  The sex never ramps up and the relationship between the two is essentially platonic with ‘soft’ kisses and ‘pecks’ on cheeks and a ‘chest to chest’ cuddle.  

Spencer and Justice experience another hiccup in their relationship after his super Christian parents set up a ‘Hell House’ for Halloween (so typical of Christians, I find).  The house is mocked up to warn teens that sinning has consequences.  Or something.  Spencer finds out Justice and his family are involved when she bumps into him bringing round a bucket of fake blood (page 247) for one of the performances.  A confrontation ensues in which Spencer says:

“You want to know why I don’t want people knowing I’m trans?  It’s because of people like your family.”

page 249

The culmination of the story 

No one on the football team minds that Spencer and Justice date each other or that Spencer is trans.  In fact, one by one, they come to her and let her know ‘you’re our brother’ (page 260).  Damn, they don’t even mind when they get disqualified from the tournament (page 270) because her birth certificate still says female.  That’s real allyship for you. 

Spencer is told by the school head that since she can’t get her birth certificate changed, they will accept “any government-issued ID to determine gender” (page 278) meaning she can play on the boy’s team after all and they weren’t really disqualified from the tournament.   Yay!

Spencer gives a speech for Transgender Day of Remembrance at school assembly and talks about the need for gender neutral bathrooms.  

“Denying someone a basic human right is another way to dehumanise them.”

page 295 – from Spencer’s speech

Absence of female characters

The only other thing of note, with exception of the mother character, there are no girls or women in the story other than very minor characters who have walk on parts.  

Is it a really bad book then?

Yes, it’s really bad.  The author has an ear for dialogue at times but the book is pure fantasy.  Its main purpose is to promote particular points of gender identity politics – mixed sexed toilets and GnRH agonists (aka puberty blockers).  We really don’t learn anything about why Spencer is trans, or what she really feels about it.  There is no character progression. Spencer is not subject to the consequences of her actions, regardless of whether that it deliberately assaulting someone (the football incident) or misleading a sexual partner.

In particular, Justice not being slightly bothered that he was misled into a heterosexual coupling doesn’t ring true to real life.  I suppose you could argue that it might be a dangerous book, to let females on testosterone think they could walk away from such a situation unscathed emotionally and perhaps physically.  It goes without saying that the author does not recognise that there is a question of ethics about withholding this information, nor is it explored.

Although the main characters in the book are aged 15, the book feels like it is aimed at a younger audience to me, or perhaps it’s that the author has an immature understanding of the world herself and isn’t able to connect with ordinary experience.  When compared to Judy Blume’s young adult fiction (no one can forget Ralph) the whole thing is very very tame indeed. 

Isaac Fitzsimons does not appear to know how teenagers really react and think, nor how the real world works.  In particular, her depiction of teen boys feels very idealised and naive. She transitioned in her early twenties and is now 31 years old. She appears to have not grown up because her voice and insight into life feels so much younger.

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One comment

  1. I bet we see a plethora of these books hit Amazon, while good books are ‘burned’. We’ve got a little way to go with this ridiculousness yet before we reach the tipping point, and then who’s going to take of all the damaged bodies and minds littering the path to that point?

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