From the blurb, I understood that this is a story about a kid called Jude. Gay and cross-dressing, he is stuck in a school that is basically a movie set - you have the Crew, the Extras and the Movie Stars and no one is really real, least of all Jude and all this is set to come to a head when Jude asks the boy he has a crush on to the Valentine’s Day dance.
What I was anticipating from this book: something akin to Hold Me Closer, The Tiny Cooper Story by David Levithan.
What I got: not that.
Which isn’t to say either book is better or worse, just that they were about as different as it’s possible for two stories to be whilst having similar underlying themes.
So to start, I want to point out that I really admired this book. It made for difficult reading at times, very difficult, but it was completely compelling and the themes it explores are really important.
One of the best things I found about this book was the way it shines a light on hate crimes and shows that despite the huge advances that have been made in the last couple of decades surrounding LGBTQIA rights, there is still a lot of work to be done. Jude is subjected to near-constant abuse, mostly verbal but sometimes physical, both at home and at school, and yet he refuses to be a victim.
Instead of hiding and biding his time until he can escape his horrible small town, which you’d totally understand him doing, he plays up to the cameras and gives his classmates exactly what they’ve come to expect from him: star quality. When walking down the street, he envisions the sad, shingled houses as Beverly Hills Mansions. When someone scrawls ‘faggot’ on his locker door, it’s really just a love letter from an adoring fan. He and his friend Angela dull the edges of their lives by indulging in sex (Angela) and drugs (both of them) and Jude constantly lays a Hollywood filter over everything he experiences.
The writing is shocking, in that the author deliberately sets out to shock the reader. Jude and Angela speak in a casually offensive way and the things they do are fairly eyebrow-raising, but still totally believable. I hate the word gritty, but I’m struggling to think of a better word. This book is gritty. There is a huge juxtaposition between Jude’s glamorous outlook and the depressing facts of his life. Only sometimes do cracks in Jude’s narrative appear and we see the harsh reality of his existence.
About halfway through the book I had a brief look on the internet at the background to this book and found out that this was actually based on a true story. In some ways
The only thing I wasn’t sure about with this book was an aspect of the protagonists. I started off reading it, and pretty soon realised that it was a bit darker than I had anticipated: there are lots of sexual references (like, a lot) and references to drug-taking, neither of which I have a problem with in YA, I hasten to add. No problem, I thought, and adjusted my reading expectations.
Then I found out that the protagonists were in middle school! Middle school! That means they’re like fifteen years old!
Bloomin’ heck, I thought, and re-adjusted my expectations of the book again.
Now, I need to point out that I’m not anti books that reference fifteen year olds having sex or taking drugs - it takes a very naive sort of person to think that these things don’t happen in real life - but up until that point I had assumed that they were in high school, possibly seniors. But they were fifteen!
And then I started to question why I was so surprised at their ages. God knows, fifteen year olds have sex and take drugs. It may be less widespread in that age group, but it definitely happens, especially in miserable towns where there are few prospects and even fewer things to do of an evening. These situations don’t horrify me and I don’t think they should be banned from YA literature. So what was it that bothered me so much?
Then I realised. It wasn’t so much that Jude and Angela were in these situations, it was their reaction to them. They were both just so utterly cynical and world-weary. That was the thing that, for me, didn’t really ring true. Their attitudes were those of people much older than fifteen. It jarred slightly and while it may have affected my enjoyment very slightly, it didn’t impact my respect for what this book is trying to do.
I think there are going to be people who say this book shouldn’t be read by younger teenagers, that it deals with themes that are too mature for their impressionable minds. It’s one of the things about the YA classification - you have YA books like the Lunar Chronicles, which I would (and have) happily recommended to nine-year-olds, but this book? My initial reaction was to only recommend this book for ages seventeen and up, but do you know what? I was reading Stephen King, Jilly Cooper and James Herbert when I was thirteen and I got along with those books just fine, so actually I would say that this book is acceptable for around thirteen years and upwards. I definitely think it’s a book that educators, parents and young adults alike should read as I think we could all learn a lot from it.