Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Boy Toy

Lyga, Barry. 2007. Boy Toy.

I think one of the strong trends of 2007 is "difficult" books where the author is taking you on a journey to some ugly, scary, all too realistic places. Child abuse. Sexual abuse. Racism. Bullies. Hate crimes. Alcoholism. Drug abuse. Rape. Suicide. Insanity. Often times these books are well written, achingly or hauntingly beautiful. But they are tragic. More often than not they're depressing. (Or at the very least have depressing elements for some part of the story, beginning, middle, or end.) And they all have one thing in common: they are infuriating. You read the book and want to throw it across the room. Why? Because you hate a character or two. Maybe it's the alcoholic mother who abandons her child for days or weeks on end. Maybe it's the stepfather who is physically abusive. Maybe it's the policeman or social worker who turns a blind eye to a child in need. As a reviewer, it is sometimes hard for me to capture how good yet how painful these are to read. The writing can range from excellent to good, but none of the books can be said to be "enjoyable" because the story is so sorrowful, so tragic, so melodramatically melancholy. How can I "enjoy" being a witness to a crime? I can't. I am not one to take pleasure in even a fictional character being raped or abused whether the abuse is physical, sexual, or verbal. Yet the writing can be so good that you can't put it down. Or in some cases, the story is too difficult to take in one sitting, yet you feel compelled to finish it. To know what happens next. No matter if it ends well or tragically. You've just got to know.

Because these books are "difficult" to read, they're often labeled as powerful and brilliant. And most of the time, they are. (It would be a book by book thing for me. I can't make a blanket statement about this sort of thing.) They're often the choice when it comes to choosing awards and making 'best of' lists. It would be interesting to see if this translates into popularity. If given the option does an individual seek out something light, something funny, something enjoyable, something that feels good, something that satisfies without challenging...or do they seek out something more, something to make them think, question, challenge, reevaluate. And is one choice really "better" than the other? The book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a good example of a book that is both serious and relevant. It has very heavy overtones in it--a young girl silenced by rape, a girl misunderstood by her peers and teachers, a girl labeled by those around her, a girl in need of help. Yet the book is readable, it has its funny moments. It's a book that makes you think, but it's a popular book as well.

Boy Toy fits into this category of being difficult. Only time will tell if it's a popular choice. It is the story of how sexual abuse affected a twelve year old boy.

Ten Things I Learned At the Age of Twelve

1. The Black Plague was transmitted by fleas that were carried throughout Europe by rats.
2. If you first paralyze it, you can cut open a frog and watch its lungs continue to inflate and deflate.
3. There are seven forms of the verb to be: am, being, been, is, was, were, and are.
4. In order to divide fractions, you invert the divisor to arrive at the reciprocal, which is then multiplied by the dividend. (Mixed fractions must first be converted to improper fractions.)
5. In Salem, the witches weren't burned at the stake--they were pressed to death under big rocks...or hanged.
6. Islam was founded in the year 610. It is the third of three world religions worshiping the same God.
7. Each point on a "coordinate plane" (created by the joining of an x-axis and a y-axis) can be described by an ordered pair of numbers.
8. Monotheism is a belief system centered on a single deity, while polytheism subscribes to belief in multiple deities.
9. The area of a circle can be determined by using the formula Pi r 2.
10. How to please a woman.

The book is segmented. The narrative is not chronological. It opens with a brief chapter where his abuse is 'discovered' by adults. It then jumps ahead to his senior year in high school. It later flashes back to the abusive time in his life. So it goes backwards and forwards, and so on. The narrative is easy to follow. It isn't confusing, but it is difficult in the sense that reading about sexual abuse is difficult. Our narrator is Josh Mendel. When he was twelve, his history teacher, first name Eve, seduced him over a period of weeks and months. Their relationship continued until Josh 'inadvertently' gets found out at a birthday party of a friend. At the same time as his abuse is occurring, his parents have been having marital problems as well. They fight ALL the time. And they rarely notice him at all. His life did change as a result of the abuse, and as a result of the trial that followed. Even though his name was supposed to be anonymous, he feels "exposed" to his classmates at school. The administration. The teachers. The students. Everyone "knows" his secrets. So he's carrying a very heavy burden. The book is a look at his life five years later. The truth is that he still feels guilty and ashamed and alone. He doesn't want to talk about his feelings, his emotions. He doesn't want to be reminded of his past, yet he can't escape it. He doesn't want to face it. But it's not going away. It is with him always.

The book is good. Good in the sense that the characters are well developed. That the writing is intense but good. Powerful yet not overwhelming. And the book isn't just about abuse. It's about growing up, finding the courage to fall in love, and playing baseball. It isn't all dark. There's enough light to give it contrast.

So I would recommend it. But it's not for everyone.


tinylittlelibrarian said...

I've long believed that award winners do not usually = popularity and I usually avoid them. I actually avoid most adult award-winners, too, for the same reason -they're usually depressing.

I think it's often quite hilarious what adults think kids and young adults will find "good." I'd rather read books that a) I enjoy and b) I know the teens in my library will want to read. I always order the difficult ones, too, but have no desire to read them when they come in.

Funny, I just ordered a couple more copies of Boy Toy because there were holds on it before it had even come in, but for some reason I thought it was much lighter - I'd forgotten about the subject matter. I think the holds might have more to do with kids liking his previous book, ...FanBoy and Goth Girl, (which I still haven't read) than with this one.

Becky said...

I agree that most of the time awards don't match up with popularity. They are almost always at opposite ends of the spectrum. Light-hearted, feel-good reads that are enjoyable, satisfying, and fun just don't get the recognition. Maybe recognition isn't the right word...maybe respect has something to do with it. It has to be hard, dramatic, full of tension, strife, pain, heartache to get the award committee's attention most times.

I tend to read both "serious" and "fun" books. I love to have fun. I love funny. But some eye-opening, challenging books are good too.

About FanBoy, I liked it a bit better than this one. Mainly because I could identify with the character a bit more. His social anxiety. His sleepless nights. His obsession and dream with writing. It all worked for me. It was dark, but it was funny too.

Plus, Boy Toy is about baseball. I didn't mention it in the review itself because there are many people out there who think sports books are the most enjoyable books out there...but I'm not one of them. Anytime narrators start playing games and that becomes the plot of the chapter...my eyes sort of glaze over...but that's not Lyga's fault. That's my bias.

Charlotte said...

I don't think I'll be able to post my own review of Boy Toy; I was barely able to make it through it as a reader, and found it so depressing that I don't want to spend more time with it. For me, it really pushes against the line of what a "suitable book for teens" should be; I'm not sure I want my boys finding it in the library when they are 12-14...

Becky said...


It was a struggle for me. I kept thinking to myself that it was too mature, too graphic. I couldn't see myself recommending it to readers. It had this whole "eew" vibe going on. But then I thought about it, and sexual abuse, molestation, does occur with kids. Young boys and girls can be going through this. They could have gone through this in the past. And it certainly seemed authentic enough in the effects of abuse. So maybe it is what some people, some readers, need. For example, Speak, is a good example. It's hard to read about a girl being raped. But yet that book has helped many people understand even if they've never been through it themselves.

indie_93 said...

I'm not sure that I completely agree with this review. I really loved Boy Toy, and what I liked about it was that it wasn't depressing. I usually avoid 'difficult' books, and I thought it was really impressive that the author could write about a topic like this in such a bearable way. Barry Lyga doesn't attempt to minimise the issue of sexual abuse, but his book is about more than this, and his characters are real-feeling. As a teenage girl I didn't think this book was inappropriate. It was a lot closer to real life than most of what I read, but in the best way.