What’s in a name? Dean Foster has always liked that his nickname sounds masculine, but his friends and family all think he’s a butch lesbian. And for a while, so did Dean. But when Dean gets cast as Romeo in his high school production of Romeo and Juliet, it might be his chance to tell everyone who he really is: A trans man.
Between Perfect and Real, nonbinary author Ray Stoeve’s heartfelt debut, chronicles the struggles and joys of coming out as trans in high school. Dean’s journey isn’t as star-crossed as Romeo’s, but it’s still bittersweet—and dangerous. As he gains the courage to come out, Dean has to deal with ignorance and cruelty from certain people around him, including increasing harassment from a school bully.
The more interesting struggles, though, are Dean’s changing relationships with his family and friends. Most of Dean’s friends and mentors are supportive, but he feels attacked by his mother, unsupported by his father, and a growing unease about his girlfriend, Zoe’s, reaction to his coming out. Each of those characters feels real, and the relationships are well-drawn and complicated: the transphobia Dean is up against never feels cartoonish or exploitative. (Stoeve also deftly avoids using Dean’s birth name on the page, even in scenes where he is misgendered by another character.)
Crucially, it’s clear that despite all the pain, transition is an instant force for good in Dean’s life. And even as he struggles with his family and Zoe, he gains new friends in the form of trans mentors at a support group, and shares an interesting conversation about intersectionality with his Black gay best friend, Ronnie. My favorite relationship in Between Perfect and Real was a minor one: Dean’s friendship with Jared, a bro-y skater who works backstage on Romeo and Juliet. Jared isn’t a main character, but he clearly evokes a tender, quiet admiration from Dean—part why-can’t-I-be-you, maybe part unvocalized crush—and their growing friendship felt, to me, very close to the heart of the novel.
Dean’s journey isn’t extraordinary, or at least it shouldn’t have to be. Despite the warmth of Dean’s story and the interesting cast of characters, the book is a pretty straightforward teenage coming out story, and if there were more trans YA books out there, this one might be less memorable. (Stoeve themself maintains an excellent database keeping track of the short but growing list of #ownvoices trans titles written for young people.) But because there are still so few books meant for trans teenagers, Between Perfect and Real feels like it will be essential to many of its readers.
Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve was published on April 27, 2021.