Winger by Andrew Smith – A boarding school Story that just might turn your ears purple.

Winger Reading this book made me feel as if I’d walked straight into a locker-room filled with sweaty, grass-stained, blood-smeared, testicle-talking, gay-bashing athletes standing around in their towels, trashing each other and every female on the planet. But don’t get me wrong. I mean that in a totally good way. This glimpse into Boy World, actually explains a lot. Sports, violence, homophobia, friendship, body image, and an obsession with sex are the building blocks of a story that, among other things, deals with the difficulties of being male in our sex-infused, misogynistic, money and image-conscious white heterosexual male-dominant world.

At the heart of the story is Ryan Dean West, a fourteen-year-old junior at an elite boarding school in the Pacific Northwest. He plays rugby and lusts after anything female, except of course for the ancient, witch-like floor mother of the girl’s dorm floor. Nicknamed Winger for his position on the rugby team, Ryan Dean feels like an outcast, even though he openly boasts that he is the fastest guy at the school and also one of the smartest. No matter who and what you are, it seems, being in high school really just sucks.

As Ryan Dean navigates the world of calculus, literature assignments, team practices, and friendship he also struggles to figure out how he can get Annie Altman, who is two years older than him and his best friend, to fall in love with him. Meanwhile he is not-so secretly making out (24 times to be exact- he’s kept track) with his roommate’s hot girlfriend. Ryan Dean is also one of an openly gay rugby player’s only friends, stuck in the dorm reserved for rule-breakers and troublemakers, and convinced the girls’ dorm mother has laid any number of curses on him. In the first months of his junior year, though, his foibles and infractions of the rules give him new insight into the role that intellect, honesty, and honor play in sports, friendship and life.

As usual Andrew Smith doesn’t pull any punches as he portrays Ryan Dean’s experience, in all its raw detail – the violence and thrill of the testosterone-driven world of American high school sports, both the physicality and the camaraderie. This is a book that will definitely appeal to boys for its humor and easy sex-obsessed banter, but it also reveals the inner soul of all those kids who are just trying to survive while aiming at maybe being a good person, too. The book’s heartbreaking finale, although carefully set up and deftly foreshadowed, and certainly as realistic as contemporary headlines unfortunately attest, contrasts with the humorous tone and lightheartedness rendered in the ink drawings sprinkled throughout the book and will leave a tragic aftertaste that might disappoint some readers. But anyone who knows Smith’s work, won’t blink an eye. They will, however, thoroughly enjoy this funny, poignant look at the travails, tragedy, and challenges of being an adolescent male in America today.  

For grades 9 and up

Violence –VV (genuinely portrayed and essential to the story)

Sex– SS (mostly trash talk about male and female body parts, but no explicit sex scenes)

Language — Lots of foul language but nothing this age group hasn’t heard before.

Questionable Behavior — ??? (That pretty much is what this books is about)

FIf I ever get out of hereew novels have affected me the way Eric Gansworth’s book, If I Ever Get Out of Here did. Gansworth’s insider knowledge of the way a bullied outsider feels makes reading this novel feel like witnessing a horrible crime without any way of stopping it. Set in the 1970s, Ganswrorth’s protagonist, Lewis, a Native American boy, who is learning to negotiate the disparities between life outside the rez and his pride about who he is and how much his culture means to him.

From the moment he befriends George, the army brat whose life is regulated by his own unusual circumstances (Military personnel and their families of the era suffered their own form of ostracism), Lewis’s life moves from loneliness to friendship to frustration. Few writers could pull of such a complex intermingling of an outsider’s POV and the subtle complexity of white privilege and bigotry.  In addition, Gansworth seemingly intimate knowledge of what it means to be a kid, powerless in a world ruled by clueless adults, made Lewis’s frustration and rage palpable to the point of making me want to beat up the bully myself. As the adults around him give Lewis conflicting advice, the young people in the story take matters into their own hands and the results are hardly unexpected. When confronting a bully, they prove that only the language of a bully gets through to a bully. But Gansworth’s most insightful comments took my breath away, when Lewis, the abused outsider whose only crime is being a “smart Indian” explains: we are all supporting characters in someone else’s story.

For 7th grade and up

Questionable Behavior = ?

Violence = VV

To know what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, read Eric Gansworth’s YA debut, If I Ever Get Out of Here

John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars: a celebration of life and love

Despite the tragic plot, John Green’s novel about two terminally ill teenagers who fall in love is neither maudlin nor sentimental. Instead, employing equal parts humor and an honest portrayal of the difficulties of living with cancer, Green delivers a poignant love story that is both powerful and emotionally raw. While Green’s characters move from insecurity and fear, to courage and the first tentative efforts at love and trust, their voices never sound anything less than fully developed, genuine adolescents, who push limits, search  for a connection, and dream about the future, no matter how short it must be.
From the opening lines of the novel, the reader knows that Hazel Grace Lancaster is dying of cancer. When she meets the hot and witty Augustus Waters at a support group for children with terminal illness, the story follows these two young people as they begin to live in a way they had never dreamed possible before. While they are by no means carefree, their matter of fact understanding of their illnesses opens up a space for them to achieve some semblance of normalcy. When a “wish-granting” charity sends them to Amsterdam in order to meet the author of the novel that has brought them together, the two have the chance to experience life, and love, as close to “normal” as their cancers will allow.

All Green’s characters, from the Oncologists,  the Social Worker, Patrick, both sets of parents, to the ex-girlfriends ring with pitch perfect voice and attitude that make the story uplifting and hopeful despite the sword of Damocles that hangs over every page.

Highly recommended. S=Sex (1)