Meeting new people in new places is definitely not Gael’s thing. But his best friend, Nicole, a sophomore in college, is the leader of Plus, a gathering of LGBTQIA+ teens, and she thinks the group would be good for Gael, a transgender boy who attends a conservative high school in Tennessee. Nicole introduces him to Declan, a boy in his AP Literature class whom Gael hadn’t previously gotten to know.
As Gael explores a world of friendship and socializing that he hadn’t realized he’d been missing, he also contends with unexpected feelings of attraction. Are trans boys like him “allowed” to also be gay? Can he be desired for who he really is? Can he really share his heart, when his depressed mother and absent father have led him to believe that love will always hurt? And, in the larger world, will fundraising and actively courting sponsors be enough to keep the endangered Plus from permanent closure?
If I Can Give You That feels like a worthy homage to one of the first young adult books to feature a gay relationship, John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. Gael, like Donovan’s Davy, is just beginning to be aware of his own thoughts and feelings. Declan and Nicole, like Davy’s friend Altschuler, serve as wise companions. Gender dysphoria, generalized anxiety, depression and complex family dynamics are portrayed thoughtfully and compassionately, and Gael’s desire to live in the moment will strike a chord with teen readers who are frustrated by the need to think ahead about college and careers.
Author Michael Gray Bulla, who was the 2017 Nashville Youth Poet Laureate, grounds his debut YA novel in contemporary concerns. The current politics of being transgender in Tennessee, health care hoops to jump through and classroom debates about bathroom bills (Gael isn’t allowed to use the men’s restroom at his school) connect the fictional story to our difficult reality. Declan, who wants to be an English professor, tells Gael that “the best literature does what it’s writing about.” If I Can Give You That fulfills this description, modeling multiple possible ways to be an queer teen, an activist, a family caretaker and a friend.