Friday, August 3, 2012


By James Howe

(Atheneum, 2005)

I have posted many reviews trumpeting books for the typical boy.  Books about trucks and demolition and how baseballs are made.  But not every boy is “typical” and not everyone is okay with that.  I was reminded of this when I logged into Facebook today.  Some of my friends mentioned the long lines they endured in supporting Chick-fil-A; others continued to speak against the corporation, posting such links as a pro-gay Muppet poster.  It got me thinking about the boys who know they are gay or who are questioning their sexuality while having to endure a chicken dinner out with family.  That has got to hurt.

Totally Joe is a middle grade novel that chronicles the seventh grade year of Joe, aka JoDan, Bunch.  At such a young age, many do not have a sense of their sexual orientation, but things are very clear to Joe.  He is gay.  There must be a gay spectrum and Joe is certainly at the far end of it.  There is no opportunity to live part of his life in the closet.  He’s the stereotypical version of gay—like Jack on “Will and Grace” or Kurt on “Glee”.  Joe wore a dress at four, played with a posse of Barbies and never understood spitting/farting/videogame-and-car loving boys.  The key difference between Joe and gay TV characters, of course, is Joe is only twelve.  While questioning boys can look to television portrayals and console themselves that It Gets Better sometime later in life, Joe Bunch is living what they are right now.

Yes, Joe faces relentless bullying from classmate Kevin Hennessey and sidekick Jimmy Lemon.  But he also has a strong circle of friends, The Gang of Five (which intentionally only has four members—it’s a math joke they have).  His friends accept him as he is.  Joe is just Joe.  As the title of the book indicates, he is Totally Joe.

This character is also fortunate to have Aunt Pam who fully accepts him and buys presents like buttons with messages that say CELEBRATE DIVERSITY and BEING WHO YOU ARE ISN’T A CHOICE.  Before his thirteenth birthday, Joe has come out to his family and hung out with his first boy crush, a popular, conflicted guy who finds Joe’s “out”-ness a little too out there.

Joe’s personality is irrepressible and readers will be amused by his take on the world.  Take, for instance, this stream-of-consciousness ramble:   

The worst is on Thanksgiving, when we have all these relatives over and the guy-guys are down in the basement watching the Super Bowl or whatever it is that’s on TV on Thanksgiving (and what a football game has to do with Pilgrims and Native Americans is beyond me) (unless maybe at the first Thanksgiving the turkey got overcooked and the Pilgrims tossed it to the Native Americans and that’s how football was invented)(just a guess), and I’m in the kitchen with my mom and Aunt Pam and all the other female members of the family, and I keep thinking I should be down in the basement watching the game, but I don’t want to because I would shrivel up and die from boredom, and, anyway, I don’t speak the language.  I do, however, speak “kitchen” fluently.

Ah, Joe.  James Howe has certainly created a memorable character.

The story is told in the form of an A-Z journal—an “alphabiography”—that Joe’s teacher makes the students keep during the school year.  Mr. Daly also requires that each entry end with a lesson.  These range from “Just be who you are, okay?” in “B is for Boy” to “Popularity is a win-win for the popular kids and a lose-lose for everybody else” in “P is for Popular (Not).”

Be aware that this title pops up when I did a Google search of its title and “banned books”.  Nonetheless, this is a book that adults who work with middle school kids should read.  Moreover, it would generate lively discussion as a read-aloud or a literature circle choice.  At the very least, it should be an individual reading option in middle school classrooms and libraries.  If the school libraries won’t take a chance, then I sure hope public libraries keep it in stock.  There are guys who are not guy-guys who will be totally comforted and relieved to read that not-so-average Joes exist.

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