Publication Date: 11 October 2011 by Feiwel & Friends
ISBN 10/13: 0312613415 | 9780312613419
Category: Young Adult Realistic Fiction
Keywords: Dysfunctional family, abuse, redemption
Format: Hardcover, eBook
Warning: I will do my best not to swear in this review, but I just want to let you know that since I will be referring to, well, body parts, vices, and other things readers may find offensive; I am letting you know so you can turn back now. Go look at some bunnies or something.
Still with me? Ok, go:
Andrew Smith knows how to break your heart. He'll do it too. He'll kick the shit out of it. (Sorry, I know, f***! I'll try to tone it down.)
Stick is the story of Stark McClellan, an oddly-named, too-tall, one-eared boy of 13. Called Stick, he (along with his older brother Bosten) tries to make the best of his bleak life in suburban Washington. His family is as cold and abusive as the weather. The only bright spot in his life is his best friend, Emily, who seems to always understand how Stick thinks and feels, and his brother, whom he loves despite the occasional dumbass things he does. The boys get into trouble when they each try to deal with bullies who target Stick and his deformity. Eventually, they visit California and their great-aunt Dahlia, but this respite from their horrible home life can only be temporary. Sooner or later, the boys will have to face danger, within and without their home.
Stick tells the truth in so many ways. Not only is Stark McClellan one of the most sympathetic and likable characters I have read about this year (or ever), but he also seems to be the most realistic boy I've ever read about. Sure, he's missing a piece, but Smith convinces you that it's not important, even though it's a big deal to Stick himself. Stick is a REAL BOY. Real Boys have penises (well, one each, generally). Real Boys have erections. Real Boys have thoughts, fears, and feelings. They fall in love, they get really scared, and sometimes, they persevere. So, unfortunately for people who object to reading about "bad things", or who are uncomfortable letting their children be exposed to this type of reference in text, they'll be missing out on a Real Boy with a huge heart, who will steal yours away, then bring it back, apologetic. Stick is, above all, a good boy.
I don't think that Smith has written a book about issues. Sure, the novel tackles such difficult topics such as gender identity, drugs, alcoholism, homophobia, bullying, child abuse, sexual abuse, violent crime, divorce, mental illness, and suicide. It tackles adolescent sexual awakening from both sides of the bed, so to speak. But at it's heart, it's just about this kid. And while Stick is way more than the sum of his parts, the parts that are missing from him matter much less than the parts that are there. They matter even less than his frequent and embarrassingly uncontrollable boners. As he changes, grows, and makes mistakes, any reader with a sense of humor and half a heart will root for him to finally come out on top despite some of the worst circumstances in which it is possible to put a child.
In writing this story of heartache, friendship, and hope, Smith depicts scenes of adults taking advantage of the power they hold over younger people. Some of the scenes are shockingly graphic, but necessarily so--this is how Smith breaks you. I read this in public and unashamedly cried my eyes out on an airplane.
But it gets better: Smith manages to strike a balance between demonizing and defending parents and parenthood, and in doing so, puts the broken pieces back together and creates a safe place for Stick. If only saving Real Boys was as easy as reading a book. I doubt it. But it's a good place to start as any.
Written entirely on my iPhone, flying home to Los Angeles from The ALAN 2011 Conference in Chicago, IL, 11/22/11. Because I couldn't wait to get home and write this down.
Visit the author online at ghostmedicine.com and follow @marburyjack on Twitter.
If you would like to become a card-carrying advocate of literature for adolescents, please join ALAN, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents. With a year's membership you also receive 3 issues of The ALAN Review journal. In addition to supporting the organization you may also register to attend the annual conference, which in 2012 will take place in Las Vegas, NV. For more information, please visit http://www.alan-ya.org.