Last month, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to a new YA novel, Drag Teen, by Jeffrey Self, who is, according to the book’s blurb, “one of the gay icons of the YouTube generation” (who knew?). Self’s first novel is warm, funny, and highly entertaining.
JT Barnett is a gay high school senior living in Clearwater, Florida. He feels like a total misfit in his family, where his Dad runs the local gas station and his mom is completely obsessed with the Shopping Channel on TV and her creepy doll collection. JT ‘s life consists mostly of going to school, working at the gas station, and hanging out with his best friend, Heather, and his gorgeous boyfriend, Seth. JT dreams of an exciting, fabulous life somewhere amazing, but his family can’t afford college and he fears he will be stuck in Clearwater forever.
JT has already tried applying for all of the scholarships he can find, but none of them panned out. Now, Seth is making plans for college – possibly even somewhere far away – and JT feels like he is out of options. Then, Seth hears about a contest called Drag Teen in NYC, with a prize of a full four-year scholarship. It sounds amazing, but the one time before that JT tried drag in public was at his school’s talent show, and he got laughed off the stage.
Finally, Seth and Heather convince JT to give it a try, and the three lie to their parents about plans for spring break and head off on an epic road trip from Florida to NYC. Along the way, they meet some unique characters, encounter all kinds of challenges, and begin to learn more about each other and themselves. The pageant itself is like nothing JT has ever experienced, and his love of drag feels normal and accepted for the first time in his life, among his fellow contestants.
One of the great things about this novel is that JT and Seth’s being gay is not the central point or the obstacle encountered by the characters. Here’s how JT begins his story in Chapter 1:
“This isn’t one of those stories about a heartwarming journey toward accepting my cursed homosexual identity. No. First of all, being gay is far from a curse. It’s more like an extra order of fries at Wendy’s because the lady in the window isn’t paying attention when she fills your bag. It’s awesome.”
In fact, the characters are one of the best things about this novel (along with its excellent sense of humor) because they feel very real and authentic. Though JT is fine with being gay, he is very self-conscious about his body and the extra weight he carries. Heather is even heavier than he is and also struggles with self-esteem issues. Even perfect-seeming Seth is hiding a secret. These are real teens struggling with real problems, and that two of them are gay is simply a fact.
Right from the first page, JT’s story is funny and touching and a whole lot of fun. Readers quickly come to care for all three of the main characters and to root for JT to find a way out of his small town. Besides, I love a road trip story, and this one is a doozy! Along the way, the three friends meet some very interesting people. The ending is satisfying, even if it is a bit too perfect. This engrossing first novel kept me glued to my iPod – and laughing out loud – from beginning to end. I can’t wait to see what Jeffrey Self comes up with next.