by Ash B.
School may be out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hot new summer book releases that are set in school…
If you enjoy contemporary YA fiction full of heart, humor, and drama, look no further than The (Un)popular Vote for your next summer read!
Mark Adams has grown up immersed in American politics, being the son of Graham Teagan, a prominent congressman. However, none of his new classmates realize who his father is, nor does the country realize Congressman Teagan has a son. Why? Mark is transgender, and has agreed to start at a new school and keep a low profile – as a cis-passing, straight-passing guy with no relation to Congressman Teagan – in order to maintain his father’s public image.
However, between homophobic bullying of one of his friends and an upcoming student government election with candidates of dubious intent, Mark is spurred into action in pursuit of justice… by campaigning for student body president. Along the way, he must also navigate a burgeoning romance, unstable friendships, the disapproval of his father, and an investigative school journalist attempting to unravel his past for all the internet to see.
This debut novel from Jasper Sanchez will appeal to teens and adults alike, especially lovers of The West Wing and The Politician, the latter being an especially fitting comparison given the precocious, serious, determined nature of the high school characters in both The Politician and The (Un)popular Vote.
Sanchez does not shy away from having his characters show off their AP-level political and philosophical knowledge, and I will admit that many references went over my head. Nonetheless, I think the writing style makes this an accessible and engaging read. I truly struggled to put it down and always looked forward to getting a chance to read more, so I tore through it rather quickly and would happily read it again!
The romance was even better than I expected, and I felt it was well-balanced along with the development of the student presidential campaign, Mark’s personal growth, and the rising tension between Mark and his father. Mark’s love interest was so sweet – honestly a standout character for me – and the dynamic between him and Mark was immaculate. I am always a sucker for the mutual pining trope, and Sanchez beautifully develops the bond between these two characters as they become closer while each grows as an individual. The (Un)popular Vote is both my favorite queer YA romance and my favorite trans-led novel since Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas! (Side note: our Reads of Acceptance book club will be discussing Cemetery Boys on September 20 and I’d love to see you there!)
Much like Cemetery Boys, The (Un)popular Vote is a refreshing example of a trans protagonist who has already transitioned before the first page of the book. Many mainstream representations of trans experiences, especially portrayals of trans youth, primarily deal with the questioning of one’s gender and the beginning stages of transitioning. Those stories are important, of course, but it is equally important to show trans people already living as their authentic selves.
From the beginning, Mark is comfortable in his gender identity and is already out to himself, his parents, and his two best friends. Mark wears a packer and a binder daily, being mindful to bind safely, and this type of gender-affirming behavior is casual and normalized. His gender-related arc is not about the typical narrative of figuring himself out, or dealing with internalized transphobia, or even about coming out. Rather, and more interestingly in my opinion, it’s about the promise he made to his dad to remain ‘stealth’ in his transition; in other words, Mark is assumed to be a cisgender male by his classmates, and that’s how the situation should remain according to his father.
And while Mark is repeatedly referred to by the wrong name and pronouns by his father – who is incredibly dismissive and toxic towards Mark – this book was ultimately a very feel-good experience as a queer, trans reader. There is no forcible outing and no transphobia from anyone within Mark’s circle (besides his dad). Mark’s friend group includes a neat variety of LGBTQ representation that felt organic, not tokenized, and these characters are nothing but supportive of each other’s identities. There are quite a few of them, and while I got a little confused at the beginning as I tried to keep track of names, I soon was able to distinguish each character from one another because they felt like individual people, not just words on a page.
As for Mark himself, I found him to be a likeable and realistically flawed protagonist. He makes mistakes in his relationships that I found relatable and understandable, creating conflict to advance the plot and character growth without making me too frustrated at Mark. Themes regarding privilege, inequality, politics, and social change are woven throughout in a meaningful way as Mark experiences conflicting feelings regarding his own privilege, his ego, his family history, and his genuine desire to help the student body. Sanchez is also able to briefly yet poignantly integrate messages about toxic masculinity and feminism from a transmasculine perspective in a way I had yet to read in YA literature, and I very much appreciated it!
Sanchez certainly gives weight to the issues that demand it, including instances of bigotry happening at the school in addition to Mark’s struggles with his dad. Ultimately, though, this novel is an uplifting pleasure to read, infused with plenty of queer joy, chosen family, resilience, and hope. The (Un)popular Vote is exactly the type of book I wish I had when I was in high school and am happy to read as an adult. I’m so grateful that it is available to teens today. Request a print copy today!
Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.