I've been reading lots of teen books in preparation for the upcoming Mock Printz discussion. This is an event in which local teen librarians gather to discuss a slate of nominated books and try to pick which title we believe deserves the Michael L. Printz award (the highest American honor for YA literature.) My latest read was Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, and quite simply, it blew me away.
The book starts with Josh, now a senior in high school, recounting the things he learned when he was twelve. Among history lessons and the Pythagorean Theorem, is: "How to please a woman." And pleasing a "woman" is exactly what our narrator means. In junior high, Josh's life derailed when he started an affair with his young and pretty history teacher, twelve years his senior. Josh, who is very bright and mature for his age, blames himself for "seducing" Mrs. Sherman. For several months, the two kept their relationship secret until Josh unwittingly revealed his experience at a female classmate's birthday party when he joined his friend, Rachel, in a closet for a "seven minutes in heaven" game that went wildly out of control. Accused of attacking Rachel, Josh lets it slip that he'd learned his maneuvers from his teacher. It is a slip he can't forgive himself for. Everything comes out into the open. Eve Sherman is arrested. Josh has to testify at her trial. And Eve, of course, ends up going to prison. Flash forward five years: Josh, the senior, has grown up a little but the shame of his public past, the disintegration of his friendship with Rachel, and his unshakable sense that everyone knows his secrets and everyone talks about him, have marred his life. Josh can't wait to graduate and get out of his town. He's never come to terms with his guilt--or faced the truth about just which person was responsible for his and Eve's downfalls. When Josh learns that Eve Sherman is being released from prison his world turns upside down again. Baseball, math, and his best friend are the only things keeping him tethered, until Rachel re-enters his life, and he's forced to confront his past for real.
One of the things that works so well in this book is the way Lyga paints Josh's seduction. While Josh blames himself--he thinks he must be a "perv" for going after his teacher--the reader understands, almost immediately, that Josh is the one who has been abused. But Josh doesn't get this. His first sexual experience comes far too early, from someone Josh reveres and finds attractive. Since Josh wanted the relationship, he doesn't realize that he has been molested. Josh's slow growth towards understanding his past is told in a sophisticated and well-structured novel that weaves between present and past. It is frank about sex. There's sex here--lots of it. A Booklist review accuses the sex scenes of bordering on soft-core porn. I disagree. The scenes are vivid, but necessary to plot, realistic but not gratuitous. This book is clearly written for an older teen, one who can see what Lyga is telling us---Josh may have been abused but if he doesn't know it and blames himself, how does he progress past the shame? Lyga makes it crystal clear just how confusing--and wrong--the "relationship" with Eve was, although it takes Josh a long time to reach a similar conclusion. To make his character complete, Lyga had to be honest when describing the sexual portions of the novel. The graphic nature of these scenes helps the reader to understand Josh's conflicting emotions. He believes he loves Mrs. Sherman. Mrs. Sherman tells him she loves him. How does a young boy deal with all of this? For instance, how does a person come to realize he has been abused when his abuse was something he enjoyed? If Lyga had pulled his punches and toned down the description of the seduction, the book wouldn't have been nearly as successful. The sex scenes are uncomfortable for the reader, as I suspect they were meant to be. After all, there is a fair amount of ick factor in reading them---the reader is well aware that what is going on is wrong, while Josh doesn't know. The more obsessed Eve grows with Josh, the more dangerous the affair becomes until, of course, it all explodes.
This book isn't all about abuse, and that's what makes it a sophisticated read and not a melodramatic problem novel. Yes, it's about an abusive sexual relationship, but it is also about friendship, and a family falling apart, the struggle to decide one's future, academics versus athletics, going to prom, choosing a college, getting a girlfriend . . . all of it tied together and seen through Josh's eyes as he grows as a person. (In one way he has worlds of experience other kids his age don't have, but as a a result of it, he is stunted emotionally.) I'm impressed that Lyga managed so many subplots that all came together. These varied plots worked, making for an incredibly satisfying read. (And here again I disagree with the Booklist reviewer who suggests that Lyga took on too much, to the novel's detriment. No,no! I say. This is what makes the novel rich and layered instead of a one-dimensional whine fest). This is a novel that makes a reader think, based around a situation (seduction of a student by a teacher) that is an unfortunately timely one these days.
I'd already read Barry Lyga's first novel, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl which I liked but didn't love. I'd recommend it, but it wouldn't be the first title that came to my mind when suggesting books. Boy Toy, I loved (although I must say the title disappoints. Really, Boy Toy? You couldn't come up with anything better, Mr. Lyga?) It's probably best for an older reader, but it definitely delivers its punch. Now, I can't wait to see what the author publishes next.