Friday, October 09, 2020

The Boys in the Back Row and Class Act

32993520. sx318Jung, Mike. The Boys in the Back Row
October 6th 2020 by Levine Querido
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Matt and Ethan have been best friends for several years, and are navigating the choppy waters of middle school. Matt, who is Korean American, is a flute player like his father, but plays drums in the marching band so that people don't make fun of him and so that he can hang out with Ethan. Classmates like Kenny and his sidekick Sean are quick to give the boys a hard time, throwing around the epithet "gay", although it is likely that Kenny is protesting too much. When the band has the opportunity to play in a festival at an amusement park in the spring, everyone is excited about competing and spending time at the park. Matt and Ethan realizes, however, that the competition is the same weekend as a comic con they would really like to go to so they could meet Jonah Burns, the author of their favorite comic, Sandpiper. (Which I'm pretty sure is not an actual work.) When Ethan finds out that his family will be moving across the country after school is out, the two plan to sneak away from the school trip and attend the comic con. Sean finds out about their plans and wants to go with them, and when they tell him they would rather go alone, his feelings are hurt, and he lashes out at the two. Things get even more heated on the trip when Kenny is around, and
Strengths: Matt's parents are possibly my favorite #MGLit parents ever, but we don't see that much of them. They attend the Unitarian Universalist church, spout phrases like "Respect bodily autonomy", invite over other families who are also of Korean descent, and have snacks like sriracha kale chips! Of course, they mortify Matt! It's great to see a solid friendship among boys, and also good that they don't change their friendship because people at their school (and even some people in the comic store) assume that they are a couple. The interest in comics, and the attempts to connect with Sean, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, added an interesting layer to this.
Weaknesses: There's an excessive amount of discussion about how much grief boys who play flute get from their classmates, and I'm not sure that this will resonate with my readers. There were male flute players when I was in middle school forty years ago, and no one cared. Now, the drummers in my school's band are evenly split by gender, with the occasional nonbinary student. As for boys who read books with girls on the cover getting a hard time... we have a lot of discussion about this in my library (and have for years), so I hope this is not the case at my school. I'm sad that Jung's experience of the world has so much negativity, but perhaps books like this will help change that.
What I really think: Personally, I was disappointed by the twist that this took, because I was so looking forward to a particular adventure that didn't happen, but I'll definitely be purchasing this. Jung's Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities (2012) circulates well, and The Boys in the Back Row addresses a lot of timely issues of friendship, racial and gender related microagressions, and toxic masculinity.

Craft, Jerry. Class Act (New Kid #2)
October 6th 2020 by Quill Tree Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss

N.B. The pages turned very slowly on the E ARC, making it hard to go back to specific pages to write this review. 

Also, someone pointed out that I had mixed up Drew and Jordan, and since I don't have a print copy yet, I am unable to figure out where I went wrong!

Drew is back at his private school, and feels slightly more comfortable now that he is in second form. There's also a lot of pressure; he feels that if he likes RAD, he will end up going to high school there (which is what his mother wants) when his ambition is to go to an art school where he can work on his drawing and comics. Drew's friend Jordan is worried that he hasn't matured as much as the boys in class who haves gotten taller, smell bad after gym class, and have girlfriends. Jordan points out that Drew is a lot younger, and that it really doesn't matter. When Jordan occasionally hangs out with 8th graders, it feels to Drew like it matters a lot. The two boys spend a lot of time together, but it's difficult to include their friend Liam. Liam is white, and lives in an enormous house. His father travels a lot, so the family drive, Mr. Pierre, often is the one at Liam's sporting and school events. After the boys have a sleepover at Liam's palatial house and have to deal with his mother, who is clearly unnerved by having Black boys around, Jordan distances himself from Liam. Drew sees this, and is not quite sure what to do. At the same time, the school is trying to be more racially sensitive and failing miserably, appointing a clueless white teacher to be the head of the diversity committee. Eventually, Liam is able to visit Drew and Jordan's homes, and the boys gain a new understanding of each other. 
Strengths: Like Mark Tatulli's The Big Break, this is a great exploration of friendships among middle school boys. Drew's experiences with being younger than his classmates will strike a chord among many nice smelling, short seventh graders (most of whom might want to use deodorant but don't REALLY want to smell bad!). The most fascinating part is the ins and outs of private school social culture and the difficulties in traveling between home and school. I especially like Drew's parents, and would love to know more about Jordan and his grandmother. 
Weaknesses: It's sad to think that there are schools out there who aren't diverse and racially sensitive, but given the state of the US over the summer, clearly there is a lot of work to be done!
What I really think: Definitely purchasing; the first book has been really popular with my students. It's great that we are starting to see some much needed diversity in graphic novels; now maybe we'll see one with Robb Armstrong's JoJo as a main character. I've been hoping for that for years!

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