CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY by Steven Salvatore
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In their heart, Carey is a diva. Their mom must have had a glimpse of their future when they named them after Mariah Carey. Of course that glimpse of Carey’s destiny didn’t clue her in that her child was genderqueer. Fortunately, ever since Carey came out last year, their mom has been a fierce advocate who continues to try to understand and educate herself about Carey’s identity and experiences.
Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t as awesome as Carey’s mom. Their best friend Joey has been distant. Their classmate Max tortures them with microaggressions during class (and more overt bullying everywhere else). Even teachers and administrators discriminate against them.
So when the hot guy who is for some (incredible!) reason interested in dating Carey encourages them to audition for Elphaba in the school musical, Carey has a choice to make. Will they find the courage to fight the hateful people–and their own self-doubt–and live their dream? Can a small group of activist students overcome the powerful forces determined to silence them?
Carey’s diva-dreams play into a plot that is at times larger-than-life, including a deus ex machina defeat of a villain. In contrast, some passages early in the novel read as informational–explaining Carey’s gender identity, how they* came to understand their identity, and related terminology. This slows the narrative but may be helpful to less-informed readers or any reader who is exploring their gender and might resonate with the part of Carey’s story that happened before the book begins.
The strength of the novel, though, is its depiction of Carey’s mental health journey. The effect of misgendering, bullying, and microaggressions on Carey is raw, realistic, and heartbreaking. Since they already know who they are at the novel’s start, Carey’s emotional journey is not toward self-knowledge, but toward self-acceptance–toward realizing how much they have internalized and believed the lies of a hateful society that tell them they are “broken” or without value. Importantly, Carey seeks (and receives) help from a professional therapist as well as his family and friends.
Therefore, CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY has a hard-hitting and multi-faceted value for YA collections. It allows genderqueer teens to see themselves reflected in literature; it allows communities to see a path to allyship and the genuine damage caused by people who fail to take a strong stance against discrimination; and it gives teens with depression, anxiety, or PTSD a positive example of how to seek mental healthcare and the difference it can make in their lives. And ultimately (thanks to Carey’s awesome community and diva-dreams) we also get an uplifting, triumphant conclusion!
*Note: In this recommendation, I have used the pronouns they/them/their when referring to Carey because they use those pronouns most often in the book. But Carey also uses she/her/hers and he/him/his depending on how much feminine or masculine energy Carey feels on a given day.