Monday, November 23, 2009

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl / Boy Toy

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl
by Barry Lyga. Houghton Mifflin. 2006. I don't remember where I got this; I think it was a library copy.

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga. Houghton Mifflin 2007. I picked up at either BEA or ALA that year.

This post originally appeared at the online magazine, The Edge of the Forest, in September 2007. So if it seems dated (like Lyga now has more than two books!), that's the reason.

Welcome to Brookdale

Barry Lyga's two young adult books, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and Boy Toy, are both set in the Maryland town of Brookdale.

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl is about a fifteen year old unnamed narrator and his hellish experience at high school. OK, his real name is mentioned once; but for the most part, he is invisible to the people at his school. He has one friend, Cal, who shares his love of comic books. But the problem is Cal is not a geek; he's a jock. They are strictly "outside of school" friends, because a jock like Cal could never be seen talking to someone like the narrator.

It's just another typical day at school (either being ignored by the world or treated as dirt by jocks) when he notices someone – a girl. Black clothes, pale face, Goth Girl. And: she sees him. He's not so invisible.

And thus the Astonishing! Adventures! Of Fanboy and Goth Girl (aka Kyra) begin. Kyra notices his being bullied and asks him, Why do you put up with it? Next thing you know, the two are friends. Kyra also loves comic books and graphic novels but she is a Gaiman girl (like you had to ask?) while Fanboy is all about Brian Michael Bendis. This book is full of comic book references. Understanding them is fun; but not getting it is OK, too.

Fanboy's problems are obvious: at school he has no friends and is being bullied. At home, it's no better, what with his psycho stepfather, his mother who won't let anyone in the house and is expecting a baby, a father he isn't allowed to see or talk to outside of specific custody dates. Fanboy daydreams about a shooter taking out the school, killing all those who have picked on him and ignored him. He keeps a bullet in his pocket, a talisman; but in his dreams, he's not the shooter. He's someone who helps save the day (once, of course, all those bullies are already dead.)

Fanboy loves comics; something he inherited from his Dad; and he's been making his own. Bendis, his hero, is coming to a local comics convention, and Fanboy knows that if he can just show the graphic novel he is working with to show Bendis, Bendis will love it, it'll get published, and that will be his ticket out of town, away from school, away from family, away from no friends.

The narrator is desperately unhappy and lonely. But, as the story goes on, it's also clear that he's looking at the world through a very narrow perspective. The stepfather, while as unlike the narrator as humanly possible, is not a bad guy. And, as Cal eventually asks him, how can Fanboy say both that he's invisible and ignored AND that he's bullied and hated? You cannot have it both ways.

Most telling on Fanboy's real role at the school is a prank that Fanboy played on a teacher the year before. Basically, he thought the history teacher was stupid, so he made up a historical event as the answer to a question, naming his source as the History Channel. As the teacher voices doubt, Cal speaks up: he saw the show. Backs up Fanboy. And then the rest of the class chimes in, agreeing, supporting Fanboy. If Fanboy was that detested, this would never have happened; but he doesn't realize this. He also doesn't realize that the person who bullies him is not a jock insider, but, rather, a kid no one likes. I adore this changing perspective.

The book isn't tidy. We never learn the reasons why his mother doesn't want his father to pick him up at her house. It's never quite clear whether the stepfather has always been a decent guy, or whether he's a guy who didn't know how to get along with kids so gave Fanboy a hard time because of ignorance. Fanboy doesn't have a movie makeover; he doesn't suddenly know how to make friends, doesn't become the most popular boy. His mother remains wary of anyone outside her family unit. But he does realize that there are possibilities. He realizes that he needs to act as a friend to be a friend, even if it's a risk.

Another beautiful thing about this book is Lyga never overtells. Was Fanboy right about Cal being ashamed of his "geek friend"? Or, did Cal know how much Fanboy hated jocks so assumed Fanboy wouldn't want to hang out with the jocks?

Lyga revisits the town of Brookdale in Boy Toy. Fanboy, as you may recall, couldn't stand the jocks. Surprisingly, then, Boy Toy, set a couple years after Fanboy, is all about one of those jocks, Josh Mendel, baseball star.

Josh is a senior. What's on his mind? Baseball is important. So are grades. Between the two, he's hoping for a scholarship to Stanford. Or MIT. Or Yale. Bottom line: he wants out of town. And then there is the news: Eve is back. It's been five years.

Eve is Evelyn Sherman. Mrs. Sherman; Josh's seventh grade History teacher. In seventh grade, Eve and Josh . . . . And now, five years later, Eve is out of prison.

Since Josh was a minor, his name was kept out of the papers. But everyone knows -- he's the kid. Who with the teacher. You know.

Josh has kept to himself. Plays ball. Gets good grades. Gets into a fight or two. Has one friend, his best friend, Zik, who has the good grace to never have asked about her.

But now Eve is back.

Told in flashbacks, this is a detailed and graphic exploration of how a child molester seduces her victim, including convincing the child that he is a willing, knowing, participant in the actions. When, in fact, the child is being molested.

The reader is fully aware of the manipulation and games; knows from the first "hello" who and what Eve is. But Josh does not; and I'll be interested in reading teen reviews to know at what point they realize what it takes Josh the entire book to realize. See, for most of the book Josh views his relationship with Eve as just that; a relationship. He was a seventh grader with a crush; a boy who thought his teacher was hot. And when the teacher liked him back --- Wow. A relationship developed that happened to be illegal but wasn't wrong.

He was in love, he kissed her, he wanted her. It takes Josh a long time to realize that none of that matters: he was molested. What he thought and felt and wanted doesn't change that he was a child; she was an adult; and she manipulated him.

The author's website says this is suggested for ages sixteen and up. And, especially because of the depiction of Eve and Josh, I agree.

This is set in the same town as Fanboy; a few of Josh's friends are the younger siblings of the jocks and popular kids mentioned in Fanboy. Kyra makes a brief appearance. But, for the most part, these are two distinct books that happen to be set in the same time. What they do share are narrators who think they know the score but don't. Narrators who are so wrapped up in their own world and their own pain that they don't see anything beyond their own perspective. Books that don't tell everything, so demand thought from the reader.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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