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18 January 2016

Novels to come out of Curtis Brown Creative #7: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

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by Leonora Craig Cohen

Lisa Williamson applied to our creative writing courses back in Autumn 2012 and went on to become the tenth Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing student to get a book deal. The Art of Being Normal – which became a Young Adult novel during the workshopping sessions – was published by David Fickling Books on 1 January 2015, and immediately became one of the most talked-about books for younger readers. It has just been released in paperback and is currently riding high in the bestseller list.

David has had a secret almost as long as he can remember: he’s actually a girl and would prefer to be known as Kate. Unfortunately, Kate’s still at school and has to live as a boy, keeping her head down and avoiding the bullies, who realised a long time ago she’s not like them. The question of how to tell her parents is getting more and more pressing, as she hurtles into the wrong puberty. Without medical intervention to slow things down, she will have to transition as a full-developed adult, and will have much more difficulty passing. Her two best friends have started a relationship with each other and she feels lonelier than ever. When other people have secret kisses and parties, she has secret sessions of dressing up in girls’ clothes in order to feel less gender-dysphoric for a while.

The new kid at school, Leo Denton, is also intending to keep his head down – he had to leave his last place under a cloud. Despite his dysfunctional family and his peers’ belief that Leo is a violent maniac, he knows he can’t squander his last chance to get into sixth-form college and have a better life. His home is noisy and messy, his mum is uninterested and they often don’t have enough money to feed themselves. But when he sees Kate (David) getting bullied, he steps in to help, despite knowing what it might cost him. All Leo can see is a weak, nerdy boy who wants to befriend him out of gratitude, but gradually they come to trust each other. Leo has secrets of his own and desperately misses the father he never met. Leo’s conviction that everything would have been better if he’d stayed leads to a bright idea on Kate’s part as to how she can repay him. Leo’s association with Kate will keep bringing both of them into the path of trouble, but what price a true friend?

This sweet and humorous story is told in interlocking sections. Events are told from the points of view of Kate and Leo, with different slants depending on who is talking. Both voices are very distinct and their growing friendship is one of the great joys of the book. Lisa Williamson brilliantly captures the modern condition of people with varied levels of knowledge about and tolerance for gender diversity having to live alongside each other. She writes about everyday acts of bravery, but never preaches at us, letting the characters win us over instead. Kate and Leo have concerns aside from gender, like the school’s Winter Ball, being bad at Maths and annoying younger siblings. The characters feel authentically teenage, but they’re unlikely to date too fast. The Guardian said ‘Teen fiction that explores transgender issues is thin on the ground’ and called The Art of Being Normal ‘memorable and thought‑provoking’. Author Philip Pullman went even further, saying the novel was ‘a life-changing and life-saving book’.

The Art of Being Normal is published in the UK by David Fickling Books. To buy a copy, please click here.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).

We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).

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