Girl Mans Up is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. This is the first gender nonconforming girl I’ve really seen in a book (I’m sure there are others, but I haven’t encountered them) and I was really excited to read Pen’s story. It reminded me in some ways of what I’m trying to do with my own book Ugly, even though Pen is different in a lot of significant ways from my protagonist.
Penelope—Pen to everyone—Oliveira is one of the guys. Her best friends are Colby and Tristan and they’ve been friends for years. They’re all gamers and Pen’s the best among them. But there are some things that aren’t perfect—another boy named Garrett has been hanging out with them and he loves to push Pen’s buttons (and everyone else’s).
…that one over there who’s sort of a girl, I don’t know, I can’t tell anymore.
Colby and Tristan have always been fine with who Pen is, but Garrett is obsessed with the fact that she’s a girl who prefers the company of guys and doesn’t really look like a girl, except for her very long black hair, which she keeps pulled back in a pony tail all the time.
Pen explains Colby’s loyalty system to us early on. Guys have each other’s backs and all serve a role in a friendship. Pen’s primary role—other than being a gaming companion—is to get hot girls to talk to Colby. This was a little weird to me, because I didn’t see how he didn’t have enough confidence to just go up to them himself. But still, this is how he does it. He’d point to a girl he wanted and tell Pen to go work her magic. Said magic is effectively manipulating the girl into trusting her—and then Colby, so he could get what he wanted. It’s awkward and Pen doesn’t realize what she’s really doing because she has really bought into the whole guy system. Colby’s a real piece of work, although it takes her a while to see it.
Pen’s got a secondary issue to deal with, too. She comes from a very traditional Portuguese family that immigrated to Canada, where she’s grown up. She has a very supportive older brother and the two of them are considered black sheep by their own parents and the rest of the family, all because Pen is not a “good girl” (i.e., a girly girl) and her brother doesn’t want to work in the factory with all the other men—they don’t have the required respeito (respect) for their elders. I love the conflict that Pen’s family provides, especially her mom, who’s pretty horrible but totally believable. Everything Pen does to be herself is interpreted as an intentional insult to her mom and family.
When Colby tries to get Pen to go after a girl who Pen herself is interested in, things go weird and different. Pen’s arc is really to learn to folly of Colby’s guy code and the value of female friendship and it takes most of the book for that to work entirely out. Along the way, she comes to understand herself better and she also learns to stand up for herself in ways she doesn’t at the beginning. At the start of the story, she’s pretty passive, despite the fact that there is a lot for her to fight against (and for).
The book is well-plotted and all the major characters are deeply drawn. It’s told in first person present tense, which makes it feel really immediate and intense throughout. It’s great. There’s lots of very colloquial (but not overly slang-y) teen speak which felt real to me:
“Dude, I’ve known these guys longer than I’ve known you, so you can suck it”
There’s also lots of interesting stuff done with the fact that the older ones among Pen’s family are not native speakers of English. Girard includes “broken” English that feels very real (and I really think not mocking). Her mom says:
“I no yell. Listen. You cut you hair, you get people laugh.”
It works well. There’s also a lot of actual Portuguese in the book, as Pen and her family speak it, even if Pen isn’t as comfortable with it as English. This is handled very effectively to give the book a particular flavor without distracting the reader.
I haven’t given much of the book away because I think you should experience it the way I did, as an unknown entity. But you should go read it—it will open your eyes to an experience that is probably different from your own (and if not, it will be refreshingly familiar and real). It’s really an excellent book. No wonder it won an award and was a finalist for another.