The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons

The Blurb On The Back:

Fifteen-year-old Spencer is a proud nerd, an awesome big brother and a Messi-in-training.  He’s also transgender.

After a year of bullying, Spencer gets a fresh start at a new school with great friends, a spot on the boys’ soccer team, and maybe even something more than friendship with one of his team-mates.  The only thing is, no one knows Spencer is trans – he’s passing.

So when a discriminatory law forces his coach to bench him, Spencer has to make a choice: cheer his team on from the sidelines or fight for his right to play, even if it means coming out to everyone, including the guy he’s falling for …

You can order THE PASSING PLAYBOOK by Isaac Fitzsimons from Amazon UKAmazon USA, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

15-year-old Spencer Harris has just started at Oakley School, a private school in rural Ohio, USA known for being very liberal.  Being the new kid is always stressful but the stakes for Spencer are particularly high because the school is so expensive that his dad (a sociology professor) is teaching extra classes to pay for it and they’ve had to take Spencer’s younger brother Theo (who has autism) out of a Montessori school and into a state school to cover the cost.  But the sacrifices are being made because Spencer had to leave his last school after he was bullied for being trans and someone eventually made a death threat against him that caused a lockdown.

Keen to make a fresh start, Spencer isn’t going to hide the fact that he’s trans but he’s not going to make a big deal out of it either and because he passes for a cis boy, he knows that no one is likely to ask.  It’s only when he joins the school’s soccer team that he really feels that he’s found his place.  A gifted soccer player before he began his transition, he finds a spot on the team as a goal scorer and while he’s got a prickly relationship with midfield maestro Justice Cortes (who comes from a very religiously conservative family), the other players are welcoming and all are focused on winning the League Cup.

But even a school as liberal as Oakley School isn’t safe from micro aggressions or a refusal to consider introducing gender neutral bathrooms and while he and Justice find they have more in common than either was expecting, Spencer discovers that the League Cup’s rules and the gender on his birth certificate are incompatible and the time is coming for him to make a stand … 

Isaac Fitzsimons debut YA novel mixes trans rights, romance and sports fiction to mixed effect.  It’s great to read something with a black trans boy main character and although the romance is a little predictable, Fitzsimons sensitively shows the anxieties and issues he has to navigate.  However there is a lot going on plot and character wise so that some elements, notably Spencer’s autistic brother and Justice’s religious family, feel tacked on.

I’ve been reviewing books for 15 years and have reviewed over 1500 books but this is the first book I’ve read whose main character is a black trans male.  The steps that publishing – particularly YA publishing – is slowly taking to improve representation is long overdue and incremental but I very much hope this marks the beginning of a shift change because we need diverse voices and diverse characters.

The story here is a fairly standard mix of romance and sports fiction with trans rights.  For me, the trans storyline was the most interesting because Fitzsimons does a sensitive job or showing the issues Spencer faces as he navigates the world, knowing the prejudice that’s out there, the intersectionality of the issues he faces and how it can threaten him but also determined to live his life as he sees fit.  I do think that the marketing blurb for this book does it a disservice because the book isn’t about Spencer having to choose to come out if he wants to play football – it’s actually more subtle than that.  

This is a book about Spencer navigating his identity as a trans male and working out how he wants to live that life and relate to people while also understanding the impact that his life and how he lives it on the people he loves – particularly his family.  In fact, for me the best scenes in the book are those between Spencer and his parents because Fitzsimon doesn’t sugar coat their love and support for him – he shows that while they want to support him, his transition is still a lot for them to take in and they make mistakes, e.g. a flashback where Fitzsimons shows Spencer’s father misnaming him as a joke and how both his parents are reluctant for him to leap in and start playing boys football and instead take things more slowly.  Also good is Spencer’s reaction to this – the hurt and frustration he feels at essentially being held back – and how he rails back at it.  

That said, there is a lot of Spencer snapping into temper tantrums through the book, notably when needed for key plot points, and it would have been interesting to get some self-reflection on why he flies off the handle so easily – is it just part of being a teenage boy, is it a product of the stress he’s been through, is he just naturally quick tempered? – even if someone had just called him on it, it would have elevated the book for me.  Another issue I had is that Fitzsimons makes a big point of the fact that Spencer’s younger brother Theo has autism but it doesn’t really bring anything to the book other than to give Spencer an additional level of guilt for some of his decisions and actions and then feel better about himself.

The plot points for the romance element are all predictable but that’s fine because the fact that Justice comes from a religiously conservative family and doesn’t immediately know that Spencer is trans gives it something new.  I had mixed feelings about Justice’s family.  On the one hand, there is something a bit trite and predictable about having an intolerant, religious family for a gay character (although Fitzsimons does temper it by showing the support that Justice’s family get from their church and the work they do to help their community) but then equally, a lot of the discrimination that trans people face comes from people claiming a religious justification and having read about Christian Halloween horror houses, the scenes where Spencer and his friends visit one does read true.  Ultimately, I think that what bothered me was that while the friction is there, Fitzsimons chooses to keep the confrontation and emotional fallout off-page so while a predictable element, it still doesn’t have the impact it could have had.

Writing wise, the prose is fine and easy-to-read and while the sports plot line is also very predictable, Fitzsimons conveys a real enthusiasm for the game, keeps the action clear and conveys the tactical thinking that goes into it in a way that I hadn’t seen before while Fitzsimons avoids a convenient ending while keeping it hopeful and positive.  

Ultimately I think that there was just a bit too much going on in the book with the result that it doesn’t quite manage to rise above the sum of its parts.  Nevertheless, this is a solid debut with a refreshing perspective and I would definitely check out Fitzsimons’ next novel.  

THE PASSING PLAYBOOK was released in the United Kingdom on 3rd June 2021.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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