Wednesday, November 10, 2010

YA BOOK REVIEW(S): Happyface by Stephen Emond and Busted by Antony John

Who knew that teen boys are as angst ridden as teen girls? And that YA fiction starring teenage males exists that is similar to the contemporary YA girl fiction that fills shelves? It’s true—boys must also navigate the social-nightmare-that-is-high-school. Boys have issues too!

In today’s YA post, I’m going to discuss two "boy" books. The authors are men. I’d be interested to know if the books are being read by guys or by girls hoping to gain a glimpse of the male psyche. And having glimpsed it, what is the reaction to it?

The first is Happyface by Stephen Emond. Written in a journal format, it combines diary entries with comic/poignant sketches, occasional logs from emails and IMs and even a rare classroom assignment to give us the first person account of a shy, insecure, artistically talented teen who imagines life would be better if only a certain significant other would see him in "that" way. This person, Chloe, is his best friend, and he’s afraid to ask her out and ruin his only real friendship. As he debates this dilemma, his family life falls apart. This family consists of alcoholic parents and an older brother who excels at everything the protagonist does not. When his parents divorce, he moves across town with his mother where he must start a new school. He decides to face life anew, to reinvent himself as the guy with the unfaltering smile. A pretty girl, Gretchen, befriends him, dubbing him Happyface. The name and the mask stick. He becomes popular by adhering to this new persona. Yet he feels he cannot let Gretchen know who he really is, or let any of his new friends know what he really was. In truth, he is dealing with a whole lot of pain. And until he can be honest with people in his life, they aren’t his true friends and he isn’t happy.

The book shows the gradual process of Happyface opening up and coming to grips with his past. It’s a message book, but not a heavy-handed one. The format makes for a different and enjoyable reading experience. (Happyface the person is rather irritatingly self-absorbed. In another format he could easily come across as unlikeable, but a journal is supposed to be self-absorbed.) The book does a very good job of developing the characters even though we necessarily only see them through Happyface’s eyes and he only sees them as important in how they relate to himself. It was nice to see teens portrayed with depth. They all had their own insecurities, naturally, but they were not essentially shallow or divided into easy high school stereotypes.

The second novel is Busted: Confessions of an Accidental Player by Antony John. In this story, Kevin Mopsely, a shy, insecure, talented flutist is trying to expand his social life beyond his best friend Abby because he is desperate for a girlfriend. Desperation has never worked well for him in the past but this is his senior year and his last chance. He attends a meeting held by the jocks discussing Graduation Rituals and manages to insert himself into a power play between the Head Jock, Brandon, and one of the more obnoxious underlings. As a result, Kevin receives the plum assignment of compiling "the Book of Busts"—a record of the bust sizes of all the senior girls. Being the keeper of the book gives Kevin a new status, not only among the boys but the girls as well. It seems many of the girls are aware of the book and have a plan to get their stats recorded as quickly and painlessly (though not necessarily factually) as possible. The girls’ plan involves Kevin who is too dumbstruck by his sudden popularity to question what is going on.

Not everyone is going along with this (thank God.) For one thing, there is Kevin’s mother, a feminist and college professor who turns up at his high school to teach a Women’s Studies class. And then there is Abby. He doesn’t want her knowing what he’s up to. And there’s also the uncomfortable question of who is going to get her measurements for the book.

Eventually this will all have to blow up, won’t it? Will Kevin choose to stay on as Brandon’s best buddy or to redeem himself? Is redemption even possible?

Busted is a more conventional teen angst story that has some obvious parallels to Happyface. Kevin’s troubles are not as dire, but that said, teens might be able to relate to him more readily. He simply wants to fit in with the popular crowd. Some of the plot events seem a tad contrived, but it makes for a dramatic story that allows Kevin to be smacked over the head with his mistakes—and the boy needed a good smack in the head. Could a teen boy really be this dumb about girls? Or maybe romance requires a certain degree of self-delusion/fantasy no matter whether you’re male or female. At any rate, I found myself rooting for Kevin’s enlightenment.

These interesting glimpses into the male psyche are recommended for young adults of both genders.

By the way, John has a new book, Five Flavors of Dumb, to be released any day now. It sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

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