Although I enjoyed Drag Teen, I admit to feeling somewhat ambivalent about the story and characters. The themes that emerged were: dealing with weight issues and hiding who you really are (whether through a drag persona, not being true to oneself, or radically remaking yourself to be different than who you were in the past). It all felt so shallow – especially considering how many really good LBGT books came out last year (Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Better Happy Than Not, etc.). It was missing an edge, a spark, an angle, or even a good romance. I’d categorize it more as a pleasant fairy tale where 3 teens can pop into a car, tell their parents they are going to the neighboring city, but instead drive from Tampa to NYC and only encounter a flat tire and some stolen drag costumes as difficulties.
Story: JT lives a somewhat insulated life – his mother spends all day on QVC, his father is absent even when home, and most of the kids at school pretty much ignore him since (he believes) he’s too overweight to be popular. But JT has the hottest guy in school as his boyfriend and a great best friend Heather who is also dealing with self image issues and weight. JT wants to go to the university with boyfriend Seth but his family is too poor to send him; Seth hits on a contest in NYC with a prize large enough to pay for JT’s education. But JT had a bad experience already when he dressed up in drag and sang “Part of Your World” at the school talent show. Will he have enough courage to drive across the US in order to compete? Or will his self doubts bury him once and for all?
I’d like to say the story is about an amazing road trip; but honestly, the story is about JT finding the four requirements in order to win the contest: Glamor, Artistry, Heart, and Soul. He conveniently finds each of those along the way and by the time he arrives in NYC, he’s had professional makeup tips, a full wardrobe of the best wigs and drag costumes ever, two very supportive friends, and even hundreds of dollars extra. It read almost like the the fairy godmother of gay teens had tapped her wand and bestowed everything JT needed, along with the support from hot boyfriend and best buddy girl to propel him to self confidence and drag queenship. It felt more Wizard of Oz than journey of discovery.
There were several off-notes that were more likely to be from an adult looking back on being a teen than not-too-bright JT would notice. In those, I heard actor/author Jeffery Self’s autobiography more. Lines such as observing that once college is done, no one ever takes a test again, so what’s the point of testing in high school as well as musings about what life must have been like for a gay man in the 1970s felt far too introspective to a kid spending all his time moping about his weight, how he doesn’t deserve his great boyfriend, and how his family is too distracted by a petty life to give him support
At times, I kept wishing for a POV in the story. Either an adult quipping about the teen years, some kind of conflict other than annoyances or moping self doubt, more insight into the drag world, or something interesting. But Drag Teen is a straightforward slice of life with a lot of self doubt from JT and Heather thrown in. As well, when someone is given nearly everything he needs throughout the story (without having to do much for it himself other than just existing or chancing upon it), it’s nearly impossible to make the journey of self growth meaningful. JT shows up, things are thrown at him (money, wigs, outfits, places to stay, companionship), he moves on. Side characters Seth (the boyfriend) and Heather ( best bud girl) are pretty much 2-dimensional characters, so lightly sketched that they are only serving to make JT seem even more self absorbed. It’s a shame – they really could have used more rounding out and each characters’ moment of clarity was briefly discussed then completely forgotten.
Drag Teen is a very light and breezy read, easily finished in a couple of hours. Although I was looking for more from the book, I do appreciate that it is refreshing the only conflict of being gay in this book is that other guys hit on JT’s boyfriend and it makes him jealous. It is, therefore, perhaps a book very much of its time – when being gay is less problematic than being overweight. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.