Welcome to St. Hell: My Trans Teen Adventure by Lewis Hancox. Graphix, 2022. 9781338824438
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4
Format: Paperback ARC (publication date June 7, 2022), graphic novel
What did you like about the book? This graphic memoir of a trans teen growing up in early aughts England uses a unique framing device: adult Lewis (as a man) narrates and occasionally interacts with teenage Lois (as a girl), awkwardly navigating high school and college. We get to follow Lois from, according to Grandpa, “tomboy” behavior and a childhood rejection of dresses, into puberty, as curves and breasts undermine the teen’s male identity. Skateboarding, goth-wear, art, and a best friend named Jess help Lois survive St. Hell (short for St. Helen’s) and a divorced set of parents are loving, if a bit clueless. Lois also struggles with questions about sexual orientation; one kiss with a cute guy named Barney is enough to assure the teen that boys are not the desired love object. Is Lois a lesbian? That doesn’t seem to fit either. It’s not until art college, an eating disorder, and a string of failed romances that Lois finally finds a doctor who passes the teen on to a psychologist who delivers the news: in order for the National Health Service to pay for Lois to begin transitioning, the teen must live for a year as a man without medical treatment (remember, it’s the early 2000s). It’s a great relief to finally begin hormone treatment, eventual top surgery, and meet other trans patients.
Hancox has a great ear for dialog and this is a complex but ultimately uplifting story with plenty of awkward humor. Lois’s divorced parents are lovable goofs: Mom always wearing a shlubby bathrobe, pushing salmon patties and a vacuum while Dad is a former rock-and-roller, pot-bellied and slightly dense. Working against type, they support Lois through all the confusion and decision-making, as do the loving grandparents. Friends, too, support Lois, although Jess initially expresses confusion. The black-and-white artwork is simple, blocky, literal, and frank with conventional panel arrangements that make it easy to follow the story. Lois is White, and Hancox used gray for Jess’s skin tone, indicating she’s a POC.
Anything you didn’t like about it? The British slang in the book and the mysteries of nationalized health care may be confusing for teen readers. There will apparently be an author’s note in the final version of the book that will hopefully provide more details and context, but it wasn’t present in the ARC. Similarly, I couldn’t tell if the published book would feature color illustrations or stick with the black-and-white.
To whom would you recommend this book? Teen or adult readers interested in memoirs with queer characters. Lewis’s honesty about his early life and the supportive care of friends and family who helped him chart his “hellish” years will find many admirers.
Who should buy this book? High school and public libraries
Where would you shelve it? Graphic novels
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: May 21, 2022