REVIEW: Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore

The Official Description: An empowering and emotional debut about a genderqueer teen who finds the courage to stand up and speak out for equality when they are discriminated against by their high school administration.

Carey Parker dreams of being a diva, and bringing the house down with song. They can hit every note of all the top pop and Broadway hits. But despite their talent, emotional scars from an incident with a homophobic classmate and their grandmother’s spiraling dementia make it harder and harder for Carey to find their voice.

Then Carey meets Cris, a singer/guitarist who makes Carey feel seen for the first time in their life. With the rush of a promising new romantic relationship, Carey finds the confidence to audition for the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the school musical, setting off a chain reaction of prejudice by Carey’s tormentor and others in the school. It’s up to Carey, Cris, and their friends to defend their rights–and they refuse to be silenced.

Told in alternating chapters with identifying pronouns, debut author Steven Salvatore’s Can’t Take That Away conducts a powerful, uplifting anthem, a swoony romance, and an affirmation of self-identity that will ignite the activist in all of us.

Just the facts: Genderqueer main character, diverse cast of supporting characters, inspiring, young adult

Stories that centre on genderqueer characters are needed, valid and important. This is a well-written book with great characters that covers some extremely important issues. – Kinzie Things

My thoughts bit: 
Can’t Take That Away is the debut book by author Steven Salvatore. They are not only an author but teach and facilitate creative writing workshops. Salvatore is a great writer. I loved the style and flow of this book.

First of all, please read any content warnings that are available for this novel. There is a lot going on in this book and a lot of it will be difficult for some people to read. When I first read about this novel, it was pitched as a “feel-good, inspirational” book, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. I’ll explain more about that later in my review.

This book centers on Carey Parker. They are a gender queen student who dreams of becoming a true diva like their idol: Mariah Carey. Carey is encouraged by family and friends to try out for the school musical even though they haven’t been singing as much. A lot has happened in Carey’s life and one of the choices they made was to give up singing. Salvatore did a wonderful job of capturing the strange counterbalance of singing bringing the main character unending joy but also making them very vulnerable at the same time.

Carey’s audition goes well, and they are cast in the lead role which is traditionally sung by a female. This brings some people joy…and others become very concerned about an “agenda” being pushed.

Once Carey’s role in the musical becomes contentious things begin to get even more complicated in the story. There is a bully, a queerphobic teacher, mentions of suicide ideation, hate crimes and physical assault. For me, there was a great deal of trauma in this book; possibly a little too much. Please don’t take that the wrong way. Queer trauma is real and certainly needs to be addressed. I just feel as though there is so much trauma in this book that it won’t be a good fit for a lot of readers. Again, I would encourage people to read content warnings and make their decision based on those.

Ultimately, Carey has a great deal of support and members of their chosen family begin to work together to make their school a better environment for everyone. There is some great information about how to plan a protest and what it actually entails. I usually find that this type of situation is glossed over in books, so I was very pleased that Salvatore went into such detail about the hard work that goes into making change!

While all of the musical drama is going on, Carey is also struggling with a relationship. They have begun seeing Cris but it’s not all smooth sailing. Cris and Carey are young and they both make mistakes. There’s a rawness and vulnerability to both of these characters that felt very authentic.

One of the things I loved about this book was the way that Salvatore has written about Carey being genderqueer. Throughout the novel, Carey sees a counsellor and those sessions reveal a lot about how being genderqueer has affected Carey. They talk openly during their sessions and it allows the reader to really get a sense of what is going on in their head. Carey also wears bracelets they are given by a teacher that are colour coded to help people understand what pronouns they would prefer on a given day. Finally, the author also has titled each chapter with Carey’s pronouns. All of these combined techniques are a truly unique and marvelous way of communicating the way Carey expresses their gender over time. I really enjoyed it and found it to be so fluid (pardon the pun!)

The supporting cast of characters is diverse, and a lot of the dialogue is funny. For me the trauma outweighed the funny though and I found this to be a heavy read. That’s not a criticism, it just was.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this book for young teens, because I feel as though there are so many issues/challenges that it could be a bit overwhelming. That being said, stories that center on genderqueer characters are needed, valid and important. This is a well-written book with great characters that covers some extremely important issues.

Things You May Want To Know: Please be aware, I’m by no means an expert on what may or may not have the potential to disturb people. I simply list things that I think a reader might want to be aware of. In this book: (SPOILERS) character is living with Alzheimer’s, Assault (Verbal, Physical, Sexual), Blackmail (video), Bullying, descriptions of parent dying of Cancer, Death (Death of a parent, death of a grandparent), Outing, Gender Dysphoria, Grief, Hate Crime, Homophobia, Queerphobia, Sexual Assault/Harrassment, character threatens to shoot another character, Suicide Ideation (character seeks help), Transphobia

Links: Goodreads // The Author // The Publisher

I received an ARC of Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore from Bloomsbury YA via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

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