Title: Stay Gold
Author: Tobly McSmith
Stay gold, Pony. The world needs you. Stay gold when it’s hard. When it’s lonely. When it’s scary. Especially when it’s scary.Tobly McSmith, Stay Gold
*This review contains spoilers*
Tobly McSmith’s debut novel Stay Gold follows the dual-perspectives of Pony, a transgender boy trying to live stealth (living and presenting as a boy without anyone being aware of his trans identity) at his new school, and Georgia, one of the popular cheerleaders who has sworn off dating until graduation. The two unsuspecting seniors lock eyes across the courtyard and so begins a complicated romance with both wondering how they can stick to their intentions when sparks are flying between them.
I really wish I could say I loved this novel. I’m making a concerted effort to find and engage with books (particularly YA at the moment) that centre around transgender protagonists, but I struggled to get through this particular offering. It is definitely not without its charming moments, but I had difficulty connecting with the cast of characters and the central romance itself. Some of the discussion around trans visibility and identity seem beneficial to young readers, but ultimately it couldn’t make up my other issues with the book. I tend to round up when giving reviews, but I had to bump this one down to two after giving it some thought.
Despite arguably being the central character of the entire novel, Pony is lacking in personality for a significant portion of Stay Gold. At least for the beginning of the story, Pony’s sections focus very heavily on explaining a myriad of concepts related to being trans, such as what binders are and why transmasculine people wear them, gender-corrective surgeries, and even how pronouns and names are not “preferred” but “correct.” This in a general sense isn’t an issue, but it completely took over Pony’s chance to show any personality beyond being trans and wanting to be perceived as his gender. I get the sense that McSmith is directing this book to an audience of young people who are first questioning their gender identity (and/or possibly an audience of cis people unfamiliar with trans concepts and culture), but these sections really dragged on and didn’t really reflect anything on Pony’s arc. I found Georgia a much more engaging character throughout most of the novel, as she is granted plenty of idiosyncracies and a quirky voice from the beginning.
When Pony did get the opportunity to develop a personality, I honestly couldn’t really stand him. I found him pretty creepy actually. After establishing that his life revolves around being trans and hiding the fact, his on-and-off romance with Georgia became his central focus, and I didn’t love it. It’s fine until their first breakup, and Georgia asks just to be friends. A simple and fair enough request. But Pony does not respect this at all. He spends all his time trying to figure out how he can make Georgia fall for him again, planning the best way to kiss her, actively talking about the two of them dating despite Georgia’s clear insistence she doesn’t want that, just generally not respecting her space at all. Not a good example for young people.
I am generally not a fan of instalove stories either, as I consider them unlikely and not a particularly interesting trope of the genre. This is, of course, the premise of Pony and Georgia’s romance, with the two locking eyes across the school courtyard and becoming obsessed with one another immediately. The chemistry was lacking for me as well, I think the two did get along much better as friends. I honestly thought Jake was a much better match for Georgia, who for no apparent reason other than the development of the romance between her and Pony, takes no interest in him despite openly discussing how attractive he is, and how much better he treats her than Pony does. I wanted Jake to win the girl in the end to be quite honest.
In addition to my desire for a trans protagonist whose character doesn’t revolve entirely around their gender identity, it would also be wonderful for a book centred on a trans teen to not involve them being physically abused. It is a trope in trans stories that I do understand — it has use in highlighting the physical dangers of transphobia in our current society — but this fear is well explained by now, and is represented well enough in Stay Gold whenever Pony uses the bathroom or has any encounter in which he fears his identity to be revealed. Just as lesbian couples in fiction deserve a happy ending, trans people in fiction deserve not to be violently assaulted at least once in awhile.
I did appreciate some of the discussion around trans identities and presenting to the people around you. Pony’s central struggle of keeping his identity hidden from his peers and even close friends is an important one. McSmith does seem to be encouraging young trans people to be open and proud of your identity, which is something with which I generally agree. However, some of the conversations between Pony and his friend Max regarding personal choice and coming out were significant. I suppose some of Georgia’s questions about her sexuality in being attracted to Pony are useful for those who haven’t explored the layered concepts of LGBTI identities much prior to reading Stay Gold, but they possibly could have been fleshed out a bit more.
I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and I do have praise for the two narrators, Theo Germaine and Phoebe Strole. I appreciate the casting of a trans actor for the voice of Pony, with Germaine giving the life to the protagonist that I think would have been fairly nonexistent on the page. Strole also excels in her performance of Georgia. There are sections of the book that don’t necessarily translate super well into audio, such as the texts and emails between the two protagonists, but overall it doesn’t feel too awkward or out of place.