Drag Teen by Jeffery Self

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drag teenDrag Teen by Jeffery Self
Push/Scholastic, May 2016

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in YA novels of gay teens who are not only completely happy with being gay, but whose friends and families are similarly accepting. I think this is a really positive step forward – that being gay is not the ‘issue’ of the book – and I hope that this attitude is as prevalent in the rest of the country as it seems to be at the private high school I work at in San Francisco.

In Drag Teen, 17 year old JT Barnett feels like he’s going to be stuck in Clearwater, Florida, pumping gas at his parent’s service station for the rest of his life. His boyfriend, Seth, is going off to college but JT’s parents seem unable, or unwilling, to fund further education. When Seth finds out about a New York drag teen pageant, whose first prize is a full four-year college scholarship, he pushes JT to enter, and the two of them, along with best friend Heather, set out to achieve this.

JT has always felt drawn to drag, though his only attempt so far, at a school talent show, ended in humiliation and tears. His description of what drag means to him rings honest and true: JT is an anxious, over-dramatizing bundle of insecurities, but in drag he can be in the moment, feel comfortable in his own skin and feel the joy of being his real self.

Unfortunately, for me, this was the only part of the book that felt authentic. The premise of a pageant offering  a full scholarship and only having 20 entries (with a simple online entry form and no parental consent needed) seemed wildly lacking in credibility – honestly, for that prize, I’d have my son in heels and a wig in a flash – and the plot is like a fairytale as JT has one fortuitous encounter after another: the drag queen who shows him how to do perfect make-up in 20 minutes, the woman who picks the trio up after a flat tire and turns out to be a country music star with a closet full of wigs and sparkly outfits.

Along with JT, Heather is a well-drawn character: she doesn’t want to be just the “fat sidekick” and kicks out on her own adventures, though I found it a little sad how she keeps being knocked down. Seth, on the other hand, never really comes off the page as more than a textbook dreamy boyfriend, even though he too has secrets.

The climactic pageant is the most satisfying part of the book (putting aside my qualms about its existence) as JT gets to know and appreciate the other drag teens and the world of this racially diverse “tribe”. The token villain, however, a mean teen who for no apparent reason singles JT out for bitchy treatment, is so easily turned to the good that my eyes nearly fell out rolling.

Still, when you pick up a book with a cover picture of a pink wig augmented with a tiara, on an acid yellow background, it is clearly not going to be all grimy reality and wasted opportunities, so I don’t think any reader is going to be disappointed by the spun sugar world, and fans of Tim Federle’s Nate books will feel entirely comfortable here (there’s no mention of sex or genitalia). It’s good to have another affirming book about teens of all types being accepted and celebrated, even if I would like it to have a little, or even some, edge.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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