Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #38: Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

I am so glad middle school is far behind me. I even gladder my two sons are past those years as well, and that I don't expect to have any other kids to shepherd through those years. And I don't think it's purely Schadenfreude when I read a story about middle-schoolers -- but there might be an element of "thank ghod that's long over."

Brave is a middle-school story -- about and mostly for middle-schoolers, though pitched so even adults (even us poor benighted adults) can enjoy it. It's from Svetlana Chmakova, and is set in the same school as her previous graphic novel Awkward. It struck me as stronger and more emotionally resonant than Awkward was, but maybe that's just me: I was a large, bullied middle-school boy who spent his time thinking about other things, so Jensen Graham's story strikes a chord and reminds me of things I'd rather not remember.

(And I still think this school's mania about clubs is a lot more from the Japanese manga school-story tradition -- and maybe from actual Japanese school life, as far as I know -- than it is from the way kids operate in the US today. But maybe there are a lot of super-club-centric middle schools out there that I'm not aware of?)

Jensen is the fictional version of that kid: too big, too distracted, too uninterested in what most kids care about, too easy to pick on. (A little more so than the real version of that kid, and a bit cartoony to make it funny as well as sad.) You might have been that kid at ten or twelve -- I was, pretty much.

He doesn't have any real friends as the book opens, but doesn't really realize it -- he's part of the art club, and thinks of those kids as his friends even though they make fun of him and don't include him in their activities. But, again, he's distracted and unconnected, so he doesn't notice that a lot of the time. Maybe it's just him, maybe it's a deeply-buried coping mechanism: it's harder for people to hurt you if you don't notice they're trying to hurt you.

Jensen thinks of his school life as a video game -- get through the level, avoid the monsters, and reach the treasure at the end (art club). But the monsters keep getting tougher, and he's fallen behind in math, so he needs to get a group with one of his main bullies. (Unlike a lot of popular fiction, Chmakova doesn't present Jensen's school as having one big bully who eternally schemes to make his life hell -- instead, like the real world, he has a lot of people who make fun of him a little and a few who get more nasty joy out of tormenting him whenever they have a chance. Nobody's obsessed with Jensen; he's just a convenient target.)

But, at the same time, he may be finding some people who could be real friends -- or, at least, friendly. Like the taciturn athlete he's been partnered with on a project in English. Or the students on the newspaper, who may be interested in Jensen as a subject for their bullying study, but also think of him as a real person and try to help him. As someone who was a geeky boy -- and now has a couple of geeky sons his own -- I wish that he found people who share some of his real interests, but he's at least on the right path.

Brave is a more realistic bullying story than most: there's no horribly nasty kid who can be easily defeated in the end, and the adult leadership of the school is often capricious and wrong from the kids' point of view. But it shows people -- kids, in particular -- seeing things that are wrong and working together to make them better. Jensen's new newspaper friends call out bad actors and publicize explanations of bad behavior, giving the less-engaged mass of kids tools to make their own lives better and to treat each other more fairly. It's not just a good book on its own, but one that can do good in the world, if put in the hands of the right kids -- I hope it will be.

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