Children's Literacy Round-Up: October 1
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The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl: Barry Lyga

I've often noticed before that I often, and not consciously, end up reading multiple books that tackle the same theme. I recently reviewed Nancy Garden's Endgame, about an isolated, picked on boy who ends up shooting people. I'm also reading Ned Vizzini's Be More Chill, about an isolated, picked on boy who ends up implanting a computer into his own head that makes him cool. And I recently reviewed Meg Cabot's How to Be Popular, about a not-so-isolated but definitely picked on girl who follows a manual for how to become part of the "A Crowd". I have my own share of difficult high school memories, of trying to fit in, etc. But I find the portrayals of outright persecution disturbing, to say the least.

So it is perhaps inevitable that Houghton Mifflin would send me a review copy of Barry Lyga's The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. This book is told from the perspective of Donnie (aka Fanboy), a geeky smart kid who has only one friend, is obsessed with graphic novels, has a less-than-storybook family life, and who is prodded and persecuted by other students at his high school.

Donnie keeps a mental list in his head of people who have humiliated or insulted him in some way, and fantasizes about a school shooting incident in which the people on his list are killed. He doesn't sleep much, spends as little time as he can with his mother and step-father (who he calls the step-fascist in his head), doesn't participate in any social events, and spends most of his spare time hiding out in his room, working on his graphic novel.

Donnie's one friend, Cal, is a popular jock, one of only ten black kids in the school. They two boys share a fascination with graphic novels, and talk frequently by phone and computer. However, their friendship at school is somewhat covert. Here's an example from Chapter 2:

"Cal gives me a quick grin, then walks away... Well, that's life being Cal's friend. When the jocks call, he goes. On the mean streets of hick rural high schools, you have to keep up your popularity and your cool factor if you want to survive as a black kid. And being seen with me—especially talking comic books—is the best way to see your stock plummet.

Cal doesn't even really know he's doing it. I can tell because he never refers to it, never acts as if he's done anything wrong. It's just survival. Just high school crap. It doesn't bother me. Not anymore. Not really."

One day in gym class (the dreaded Dodgeball), Fanboy finds himself being punched mercilessly by the lumbering Mitchell Frampton. No one else seems to notice, except for a single, black-clad figure sitting in the bleachers. Fanboy takes the pummeling, without fighting back. Later, he receives a mysterious instant message asking "Why do you let him hit you?" The sender, Promethea387, also sends him some photos of his humiliation, and asks to meet with him. Somewhat to his own surprise, Fanboy takes the meeting, and finds himself face to face with Kyra (aka Goth Girl). She wears white makeup on her face, and black lipstick, and long-sleeved black clothing. She's completely different from him, but she does share an interest in certain types of graphic novels.

Fanboy and Goth Girl develop a confrontational, bickering sort of friendship. Kyra opens up Donnie's world, in fact, and encourages him to stand up for himself more. She is completely wowed by his talent when he shows her his graphic novel, and she encourages him to follow his dream of showing a section of the novel to a published author that he reveres. She also challenges him on a personal level. Ultimately, Kyra's intervention leads to changes in Donnie's relationships with his family and with Cal, and in how he thinks of himself.

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl is definitely a dark story. These two teens on the fringes of high school fantasize about guns and violence. Fanboy carries around a bullet as a talisman. Goth Girl has at least one suicide attempt in her past. I was nervous reading this book, concerned with what might happen to these characters.

What redeems the book, for me, is the fact that the reader can see that much of Fanboy's isolation is self-imposed. He hates athletes, even though his best friend is an athlete. He can't stand his stepfather, but he hardly gives the man a chance. He resents his mother's pregnancy, refusing to consider that the coming baby will be his sister. (He keeps reminding his mother that she'll be his "half-sister".) He has a chance to be cool, when he perpetuates a harmless fraud on a good-natured teacher, but doesn't seize on the opportunity.

There's a scene early in the book (Chapter 12) where Donnie, via Cal, receives some attention in class for getting such a good grade on a paper. He thinks:

"... but now I'm conspicuous and the laughter's echoing in my head ... It's not good to remind them that I exist. Not good at all. I can't afford to let myself feel good, to let my guard down, to think for a single moment that I belong.

Because I don't."

It's like he's determined not to belong. Like he's decided that he can't possibly be a part of the mainstream at his school, because he's too smart, not athletic enough, and not good-looking enough. There's an arrogance to his self-imposed isolation, in the way that he dismisses all of the jocks as worthless, and genuinely can't understand why Cal would feel a commitment to his Lacrosse teammates.

What I like most about this book is that Donnie does evolve, a bit, over the course of the story, in response to Kyra's influence, and to Cal's, and to his own experiences. It's not a dramatic evolution, and that makes it believable. Also, when he's not wallowing too deeply, I think that Donnie's wry voice is entertaining.

A scene in the book that resonated with me, despite my own lack of knowledge about graphic novels, was the scene in which Donnie attends his first graphic novel convention in New York.

"The line of people waiting to get into the convention is like a homecoming. I stand there, quiet, listening. I hear debates about the pre- and post-Crisis versions of Krypton, Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, the way Grant Morrison redefined the meaning of "mutant" in the Marvel Universe, before Bendis re-redefined it. And more. It's like being at the comic book store, only better: more people, different people, new people. I can't help smiling... It's like hell and heaven combined. It's like a food fight without food. It's like home. Real home."

I think that attending a children's book convention would be like that for me. A whole set of rooms filled with people who are interested in the same thing I am. How great!

The thing about Donnie/Fanboy is that even though he's difficult and grouchy and pessimistic, he also has a passion and a talent for graphic novels. I think that this passion, combined with his few, but valuable, relationships, will sustain him through the difficulties of high school. And perhaps sharing his adventures will help high-school aged readers, too.

Book: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl
Author: Barry Lyga
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Original Publication Date: October 2, 2006
Pages: 320
Age Range: 14 and up
Source of Book: Review copy from Houghton Mifflin
Other Blog Reviews: Booktopia, bookshelves of doom

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.