Sasha was a young high school student who fell asleep riding a city bus home one evening and awoke to find themself on fire. Richard, a student at a different high school who had no prior connection to Sasha, is the person who set their skirt on fire, supposedly as a prank. However, the “prank” did not end well, and Sasha suffered third degree burns and had to undergo multiple surgeries. Dashka Slater weaves the stories of these two teenagers, their pasts, and the incident that caused their lives to intersect into a narrative and comments on the bigger picture of justice in America.
What I find most interesting about this book is actually one of the Library of Congress Subject Headings that is attached to it. The LCSH in question is “Asexual people—California—Violence against—Juvenile literature.” Whoever assigned that heading to his book seems to have confused the words asexual and agender. While Sasha is, in fact, asexual, the crime committed against them was more likely a response to their gender identity rather than their sexual orientation, as the former was on display at the time of the incident and the latter was not. It seems that an error was made here, and I find it fascinating that no one seems to have corrected it. It was this header that first alerted me to the existence of this book when I was looking for books featuring asexual characters, and at first, I was concerned that the writer might also have confused the two terms. However, she seems to have at least a decent grasp of the language used to describe the relevant gender identities and sexual orientations and even provides a glossary for them, though some of the definitions are a bit simplified and not completely accurate. For example, Slater defines asexual as “Not physically attracted to anyone,” when in reality, it is a bit more complicated than that and some people who identify as asexual do experience some level of sexual attraction (34).
I also felt incredibly conflicted about Slater’s choice to include Sasha’s deadname (20, 37, 39). Without confirmation that Sasha approved of its use in the book, this makes me very uncomfortable, and I see no reason for it to have been included when it was so unnecessary. She also includes the deadname of Sasha’s friend Andrew and refers to him by she/her pronouns when talking about him as a child rather than his preferred he/him pronouns that he chose to use later on, which is an even more confounding choice when compared to Sasha for whom Slater uses they/them pronouns consistently throughout the book.
This book is weirdly written, jumping from prose to poetry from chapter to chapter, and though the author assures readers in her introductory note that she did extensive research and “pieced together” this story using a variety of sources, she does not actually cite any of these sources in the book, aside from a mention that one chapter is based on Sasha’s tumblr and another on Richard’s Facebook account (xiii).
Sasha’s asexuality does not really come into play much in the narrative. When it does come up, however, it is handled well, if a bit clumsily. I would definitely not recommend this book to anyone looking to add more books dealing with asexuality to their collection, despite the confusing subject heading. Furthermore, regardless of the awards it has won, I found this book to have many flaws that made me very uncomfortable as a reader and would caution people to at least read it first with a critical eye before adding it to a collection for any reason other than because it won an award.