MMGM and #IMWAYR: Other Boys by Damian Alexander
How are you all holding up? I've had some good and bad experiences involving technology lately. The bad: I was helping run an event at my university on Microsoft Teams, and we were using a Teams live event instead of a Teams meeting (it's like a Zoom webinar instead of a Zoom meeting, except you have to actually choose who/what is visible on screen at any given time by clicking on a bunch of stuff). What happened is, every time one of us went live on the audiences' screens, our entire Teams window disappeared (except for the buttons and the chat), so we couldn't see the slides we were reading off of! I had to pull mine up in my web browser while making awkward technology-rage small talk to the audience. Not a blast.
And then the good of technology (which is very tangentially related to part of my review): back at the start of the pandemic, I started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons like about 30 million other people did (although I'd actually been playing games in the series since before that). And I actually got my father to move into my in-game island and play the game with me, which was a ton of fun. We ended up getting bored of the game after about a year. BUT THEN—on Friday, Nintendo announced a big update to the game with so many new features, I can barely believe it (info here). So we're going to get back into the game! We've actually decided to factory-reset our island and start from scratch, so it should keep our attention for quite some time (I hope). I'm excited!!!
Anyway, today's book is OMG SO GOOD, so let's talk about it. Today we're looking at the graphic memoir Other Boys by Damian Alexander. I apologize in advance for the long review—I have too many thoughts!
And fun times as always—we're starting off with a CONTENT WARNING for violent bullying and homophobic slurs! (And also some description of murder—in a different context, thank goodness.) Not exactly a blast, but trust me, unless that stuff is specifically triggering to you, it'll be worth it when you read this book.
|Preview the illustrations on Amazon|
I'm going to give myself permission to start off with this book's publisher's description, since it sums it up quite nicely:
In Other Boys, debut author Damian Alexander delivers a moving middle grade graphic memoir about his struggles with bullying, the death of his mother, and coming out.
Damian is the new kid at school, and he has a foolproof plan to avoid the bullying that's plagued him his whole childhood: he's going to stop talking. Starting on the first day seventh grade, he won't utter a word. If he keeps his mouth shut, the bullies will have nothing to tease him about―right?
But Damian's vow of silence doesn't work―his classmates can tell there's something different about him. His family doesn't look like the kind on TV: his mother is dead, his father is gone, and he's being raised by his grandparents in a low-income household. And Damian does things that boys aren't supposed do, like play with Barbies instead of GI Joe. Kids have teased him about this his whole life, especially other boys. But if boys can be so cruel, why does Damian have a crush on one?
So before I dive into the exploration of how utterly AMAZING AND FANTASTIC (!!!!!) this book is, I figure I'll just kick us off with some pre-book feelings. I bought this book as part of a massive graphic novel pre-ordering spree I went on. And my feelings about it have always been a little bit...strange. I kind of didn't want to read it, and I didn't get very excited about it, even though I knew after reading the summary that it was so similar to my own life as to be suspicious (doing things that boys aren't "supposed" to do AND deciding not to talk at the start of seventh grade? That's literally my entire middle school experience.) There are two reasons I was avoidant of this book. One: I could already tell I would relate to this book so much that it might be painful to watch my past play out again—and to see what my future might have held—through the proxy of Damian. And two: I was—and am—still sizably insecure about myself, and I honestly felt ashamed seeing my life reflected back at me so vividly. Just looking at the cover of Other Boys, you can tell that there is zero dancing around the topic—it's pretty hard not to get a sense of Damian from that image, what with the colorful patterns, the sketchbook stickers, the blushing, and even the way he is standing. And it brings back a whole host of weird stereotypes and self-image issues when you see yourself in that image too. But I went ahead and read the book—and I had a strange feeling reading it too. Because, y'all, this book is my life on paper. It's crazy. And so I was surprised to find that, rather than being giddy that someone had shared experiences so similar to my own, I felt pretty normal. Maybe it's because I didn't have a ton of pre-book anticipation to get me hyped. Maybe it's because I felt some weird thing about everything I might have wanted to write in a book of my own already being said—which (a) is untrue and (b) is a distraction that I will thus push into the corner of Feelings I Wish I Didn't Have and Can't Deal With Right Now. Or maybe—and I think this is the most important reason—it's because I'm more content with myself than I used to be (not as much as I'd like, but still, more), and after the shock of Damian Alexander's confidence in writing this book went away, I mostly just felt, well, normal. I felt like, "Yeah. There's a normal person doing the normal things I've always done. What's the hubbub about? It's just my life." And I think that is both a weird feeling to have while reading a book and a profoundly powerful feeling too. I mean, I picked up a book that reflected every "weird" aspect of my life back at me and felt normal—and good. And y'all, here's the thing: I'm relatively stable. I'm relatively—again, relatively, but still—comfortable with who I am. So many kids...are not. But now, there's a book for those kids. A book that lays out, in painstaking, shocking, saddening, joyous, and brave-beyond-belief detail, exactly why those kids aren't alone—and aren't flawed at all. And that—the fact that this book exists in a world where so many kids need it—is a cause for CELEBRATION. It's no accident that this book is my Cybils nominee for graphic novels—I mean, yes, I did pick it up thinking it might be my nominee, considering that all of my other potential nominees were already nominated. But also—why did I pick it up thinking it might be my nominee? Because I expected something powerful—and my expectations were exceeded. So if I haven't convinced you already to read this book, then I'm going to convince you in the hopefully-shorter paragraphs that follow. Because Other Boys is truly a book that has needed to exist for so long—and finally, finally does.
There is so much I want to talk about with this book, but let's start with shyness, and friendship (or a lack thereof), and the HORROR SHOW that is middle school. I've discussed in previous posts that I'm a solidly shy and socially anxious person, and it's only now in college (and with the help of a counselor) that I'm finally managing to come out of my shell. I would say that I had, let's see...zero friends in middle school, and not many more in high school (and they sure-as-all-get-out weren't close friends). I have all-caps OPINIONS about how shyness is portrayed in books—in case you've forgotten, go take a look at this blog post, or even this blog post for bonus points. I was honestly resigned to the fact that there would not be a book that depicted shyness the way I felt it...and then Other Boys just marches on in, as earth-shattering about this topic as it is about basically everything else. What does Other Boys capture so well? First off: the eavesdropping on other people's conversations just to feel part of them (I so did that in middle school). Another one: the fact that shyness isn't always due to a lack of social skills/things to say so much as it's due to a fear of being one's true self (although the difference, unfortunately, is that Damian had actual reason to be afraid). For books' sake, Other Boys literally has panels about making friends out of the villagers in Animal Crossing (I told you my early rant was relevant)—I wasn't the only one desperately talking to my villagers for companionship!!! (Honestly, Damian Alexander is literally the coolest person ever for playing Animal Crossing back in the Nintendo GameCube days—I didn't get embroiled until around eight years ago with New Leaf.) The depiction of shyness is so relatable, and powerful, and true that I'm still in awe.
Next topic—parents. Or, unfortunately for Damian, a lack thereof. It's sort of funny in the sickest way possible, because I am so utterly tired of dead-parent MG books and go on and on about how unrelatable they are to most readers. So if this was fiction, I'd be irritated—but unfortunately, this is a memoir, and Damian's dead mother isn't a plot element, she's a real person who really did die when he was a kid. (And in the most horrific of ways too—she was murdered by her violent husband, who is in prison and thus out of the picture as well.) As you might imagine, it's a grim backstory to Other Boys, and although Damian has loving grandparents who raise him and his older brother (he has two adult sisters who are out of the picture), he feels the absence both of his mother and of any memories of her. What's fascinating is that we actually get a unique perspective on losing a parent, both one absent in most of the obnoxious dead-parent-trope books and one perhaps relatable to a larger audience of readers missing a parent for any reason. Damian definitely feels some grief (which expresses itself in some darkly comical ways, as you'll see), but he also just feels out of place for being the only kid in his class without a mother—as the book makes clear, mothers do tend to be a topic of conversation among kids. We also see that Damian actually finds solace and representation in the kinds of dead-parent books (mostly classics, but still) that I get bent out of shape about—even when the trope is overused nowadays, it's still valuable representation for some audience of readers. I kind of don't have a ton more to say on this topic, but rest assured that it's as well-explored in Other Boys as anything else is.
And then this book tackles gender norms for boys—and being gay. (Seriously, how in the world Damian Alexander came out of his nightmarish middle-school experience well enough to write a book about it is something I will never understand—although as I mention in a few paragraphs, there's a little bit more to that.) As a boy who doesn't fit into gender norms, you've heard my rant on this topic before, specifically in my review of the only kids' books I've ever seen that tackle these norms (The Witch Boy and its sequels by Molly Knox Ostertag). So I'm thrilled as always to see more books discussing this topic, and Other Boys certainly discusses it, whether with Damian playing with dolls and facing pushback (and some support) for that, or with Damian learning to sew and finding a way to get at least one other boy (his brother) interested in that. I also will say, this book is a shining example of how having stereotypically feminine traits doesn't make you less strong—Damian literally grew up and made all of his awkward, stressful feelings public knowledge in a BOOK, and that's about as strong as you can get. I'd talk about that more, but we've got to keep going, so I'll mention Damian's experience being gay. I'll leave most of this for you to discover yourself (it feels like the most important part of the book, but then it kind of works out to keep it concealed for you all). But I will say one thing—Damian Alexander is startlingly honest and blunt about middle-school crushes, and feelings we all have in middle-school crushes, and even the weird moments involving attractive people on posters or in advertisements that we've all had. I feel like this topic would have been the most tempting one to dance around in the book, so Other Boys's brave, clear depiction of these feelings is startling, refreshing, and oh-so-important.
So how does all this come together? (Yes, I'm leaning into it.) Well, before I talk about the art, let me discuss this book's format. The way this book is written is quite intriguing—there's a ton of first-person narration (since Damian's vowed to be silent, there isn't much dialogue anyway), so we get a lot of pretty overt exploration of Damian's experiences and feelings. You could say that it leans pretty far toward the "tell" side of "show, don't tell," but that's not a bad thing. After all, I feel like Other Boys aims (in an exceedingly valuable way) to be therapeutic to young readers dealing with all of these huge feelings young readers feel. And the thing is, considering that Other Boys is aimed at the lower-to-middle side of middle grade, it's actually better for it to just be overt about the issues Damian faces so that young readers can understand them. I love some concealed allegories and subtext as much as the next person, and I will say that I suspect part of why Other Boys didn't leap out at me as much as I thought it might is because I feel like I understood the whole thing—it's a reasonably simple, overt story with not too much to explore upon re-reading. BUT—that's exactly what young readers who aren't experienced with analyzing novels will need. Damian Alexander meets young readers where they're at, and that means being pretty solidly clear about the stuff that his younger self dealt with. And I will say, it's not like there's no craft in this book or anything—good grief, if there wasn't, do you think I'd be writing this long of a review? Other Boys skillfully leaps between time periods to make a coherent story and progression out of Damian's real, non-linear life, and moments of dialogue between other characters (or between Damian and his friends from before he swore to stay silent) definitely depict elements of the middle school experience not depicted in the narration itself. There's a sense of humor throughout the book (a dark one at times, but still) and a sense of hope too, both keeping things light enough to keep you turning the pages (I started this book one night and finished it the next). And the art style has a bright, childlike color scheme; clear illustrations with slightly-jagged, crayon-esque edges and a style that I got used to quite quickly; and plenty of energy to appeal to young readers (though not so much that my graphic novel-averse readers will flip out). Damian's not like other boys, and Other Boys isn't like other graphic novels—but its style of art and storytelling is precisely what is necessary for this book to reach its target audience (and maybe a few people outside of its target audience too—*raises hand*).
To conclude my review, I have a quick(-ish) rant. After reading about Other Boys, I suspect a whole bunch of people (not my readers, but other people) will be all like, "This book isn't a middle grade book! There's homophobic language and bullying and bad stuff and trauma! We can't expose kids to this!" And that's a funny point. A really funny point, in a cackling-witch kind of way (random side note: my grandmother does the best cackling-witch laugh—if only that was a marketable skill). The thing that gets me about that idea is that this book—Other Boys—it's a memoir. It all happened. And did we stop and consider whether the actual events in Damian's life, the violent bullying I mentioned in the content warning, the actual rationale for hiding oneself away, the homophobia that he mentions in the author's note was actually so much worse than we see in the book that it gave him freaking complex PTSD—did we stop and consider whether those events were inappropriate for middle schoolers? I guess not, because we LET THEM HAPPEN with a wonderful perpetual cycle of bullied, under-adjusted adults not understanding the value of education, voting to keep it underfunded, and then ensuring that teachers are too underpaid to deal with bullying and thus raising ANOTHER generation of bullied, under-adjusted adults, of whom one of the most damaged somehow mustered up the awe-inspiring confidence to publish a memoir—a really good memoir—about the whole ordeal. (These are the moments when, as awful as my own experience in private school was, I'm grateful-as-all-get-out I wasn't in public school—I would have been eaten alive there as a kid.) Before anyone even tries the argument that this book is inappropriate for middle schoolers, I would argue that if this is actually happening in our schools—if we are burdening children beyond belief with these experiences and deeming those to be appropriate for middle schoolers—then we have absolutely no standing to say that the books those very kids need if they want even the slightest shred of hope for their future are inappropriate for them. This book needs to be practically thrown at young readers, the bullies and the bullied alike, because it is so profoundly necessary—in part to make young readers more accepting of the kids who are quiet, or who don't fit into gender norms, or who are LGBTQ+, and in part to make the kids in all those categories feel seen in a way I honestly didn't think would ever happen. One of five blurbs on the back of the book, this one by Adam Sass, says, "With Other Boys, Damian Alexander bares his soul for young readers in a way I can only describe as heroic." And that really sums it up. Damian Alexander has written about things no other author would dare to write about, but things so many kids have been forced to think about. I truly believe this book will make kids feel normal—and therefore, I truly believe this book will change lives. So get a copy now, read it, and put it into some more kids' hands—let's start changing those lives, y'all.
My rating is: Stunning!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 2!