November 22, 2006


Wide Awake. By David Levithan. Knopf. $18.95.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. By John Boyne. David Fickling Books. $15.95.

The Amazing Life of Birds (The Twenty-Day Puberty Journal of Duane Homer Leech). By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $13.95.

     “Chick lit” for teens and preteens is a recognized form these days, but there is no comparable genre for guys in the same age group.  Perhaps that is because so many books about boys’ experiences are so different from each other that it is hard to come up with a category to encompass large numbers of them.  Wide Awake, for example, is all about the election of the first gay Jewish president of the United States, and of what that means to two gay teenagers, Duncan and Jimmy.  No, this one isn’t for everyone, although it’s as well-written and well-paced as David Levithan’s prior book – Boy Meets Boy, which was his debut novel.  The gay theme is important here, but readers need a strong interest in politics as well, especially the sort of lawyer-driven, recount-focused politics we have seen in the last two presidential elections.  What happens is that Abraham Stein appears to have been elected, but he won only because of a thin margin in Kansas, whose governor is insisting on a recount of the votes in his state.  Levithan says the book takes place in the near future, but it clearly echoes the past – and, equally clearly, it is hard to imagine any near future in which a gay Jewish presidential candidate is even nominated, much less elected (or apparently elected).  In any case, the election quickly becomes less important in the book than its effect on the relationship of Duncan and Jimmy, both of whom worked for Stein and both of whom were prepared to celebrate the victory – but who respond very differently when the results are called into question.  So this is a book about politics, about being gay, about relationships in general, and about what it means to be a citizen of the United States – no small themes here.

     Nor is there anything thematically small about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, even though the story is actually a microcosm – of nothing less than the Holocaust.  John Boyne’s novel is about nine-year-old Bruno, whose father gets a new job that requires the whole family to move from Berlin to a place that the father calls “Out-With.”  The book involves the slow discovery by Bruno that he is in a place where something is not right, where some people – unlike his own family – are spoken to harshly, are casually mistreated, and wear clothing and symbols that mark them as “other.”  The interactions at Out-With take on a surrealistic and dangerous quality, as when a lieutenant is sharply questioned about his dad by Bruno’s father, and Bruno himself has to say that a friend he has made is imaginary so as not to…not to what?  Bruno is not quite sure what is going on – and his uncertainty, coupled with his desire for friendship, leads to a small tragedy that effectively reflects the huge, almost incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust.  Readers will guess what will happen long before Boyne makes it happen; but this novel is moving and intense even when you realize how carefully Boyne is manipulating his characters – and his readers.

     Yet not all books with boy protagonists are serious, or deal with intense subject matter – far from it.  Gary Paulsen’s The Amazing Life of Birds is about something that all boys go through – puberty – and is written in the flippant style typical of many of Paulsen’s books.  This short novel, intended for ages 10-14, is laid out as a day-by-day recounting of 20 days in the life of Duane Homer Leech, who has just turned 12 and is trying to figure out what is going on with his body and mind.  He has a dream in which he sits in a huge bird’s nest watching a movie on TV.  He develops pimples, leading to this: “Must go, I thought, must find master, must find Puberty Master and kill him.  Zit Monster must have revenge.  Arrgh!”  He deals with his changing voice, his preoccupation with elbows, his tendency to fall over, his inability to talk to girls, the Desiccated Dinosaur Droppings served in the school cafeteria – and his preoccupation with birds.  Yes, “birds” as in “girls,” but also “birds” as in “flying feathered creatures,” which come into his mind at the strangest times.  In fact, lots of Duane’s times are strange: “Any little difficulty, something that would be a minor glitch in some other life, went nuclear in mine.”  What boy hasn’t felt this way at (and after) puberty?  Paulsen’s ability to make Duane’s sufferings amusing – without in any way minimizing the embarrassment that Duane feels continuously – results in a book that, as overdone as its narrative is, manages to come to a reasonably happy (if reasonably inconclusive) ending.

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