Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Totally Joe


By James Howe

A Sequel to "The Misfits," this book is about Joe. He's 12 and knows he's Gay, and through the "alphabiography" he's been assigned to write, he tells us about his life in essays A to Z.

Joe has a crush on another boy in his school, but he has to find a way past rumors of a kiss, homophobia, and a bully to come out - as a happy with himself gay kid.


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3 comments:

web said...

I *loved* this book; I have it saved for my son. My review:

I have often found Howe's books sweet--in the best possible way--and this time he had me going "awww..." in various different tones practically through the entire book. This follow-up to The Misfits is narrated by Joe, aka Jodan, aka JoDan, who is writing an "alphabiography" for school. A is naturally for his good friend Addie, another of "the misfits," B is for boy, a concept he has always had some trouble with, and C, amazingly enough, is for Colin, his BOYFRIEND! (Being twelve and as yet unthrilled by the idea of "exchanging saliva," for Joe having a boyfriend is mostly about hanging out together and dressing up as Bert and Ernie for Halloween--after deciding it's too unnerving to be the lovers from "Titanic," on the driftwood.) As Joe works down the alphabet, he tells a story that is equal parts funny, touching and fabulous, as he comes to accept himself and fight for his right to be different.

A walking--or as he would insist, dancing--effeminate stereotype, Joe's genuine emotions transcend his love of bridal magazines and Cher, making him a hero anyone can relate to. * (10 & up)

Wendy E. Betts, copyright 2005

becomingblurred said...

This book just makes me smile. Joe is so endearing, and when my cousins get old enough, I want to slip this book behind their parents backs so they can read it. It's so adorable and touching. Plus, the Halloween costumes made me laugh so hard. It's just a nice, lighthearted story, no matter who or what you are.

Hayden said...

Let me start on a pretty shallow note. I love this book's cover. Like, totally. It's got to be one of the best covers out there in GLBT YA fiction because it pretty much tells Joe's story with one simple and fun shot. I also covet those shoes, but that's neither here nor there.

Totally Joe is one of those books that's incredibly fun to read. One can zip right through (I read it in a day) and still savor the details as he goes. Joe's story comes across as a mixed bag of reality and fantasy, but it's written to be an uplifting and encouraging book for gay kids who're struggling with themselves.

As the narrator, Joe is a downright lovable character. Clever and in control, snarky at times as only a nice, innocent kid can be snarky (i.e., not vicious and cutting, but hilarious), he's the kind of kid you'd drag to the floor in a suffocating bear hug. Well, Joe's twelve, and he's five-foot-four and 98 pounds. He's going to be easy to hug to death - unless his mother gets to you first. He's very much aware of his homosexuality and is comfortable with it though he's got doubts about his family when he decides to come out to them.

I've seen some reviews that criticize the book for being unrealistic in its treatment of Joe's coming out. I think those criticisms don't take into account the fact that there are families out there that don't give their queer kids any grief at this day and age. They don't kick them out. They accept them unconditionally, especially if the signs of their kids' homosexuality have been there since the beginning. I can imagine the parents being allowed a good length of time to think about things as they watch them grow up, and eventually accepting them even before their kids finally sit them down to come out to them. It goes without saying that it doesn't mean that a ready acceptance makes the coming-out process an easy one, but certainly eases the anxiety and fear. In the book, Joe, despite his own comfort toward his identity, is still a mess of nerves when he confronts his family.

Besides, from the get-go, Joe already shows signs of his being different from his "guy-guy" brother, Jeff. He owns several Barbies as a little boy. He goes through a baking phase. He enjoys cooking with the female members of the family. He goes through a wedding phase and makes his boy dolls marry each other, much to his grandparents' horror (one of the funniest scenes in the book). Through the whole thing, his parents say nothing and in fact allow him to explore, not punish him for his "deviance."

The book, aimed at middle-grade readers, gravitates toward didacticism here and there, especially when it does a contrast study of Joe and Colin's families. One is laid back and accepting, while the other is uptight and obviously not cool with homosexuality. One boy grows up to be at ease with himself as well as out and proud in school, while the other continues to stay in the closet, fearful and, because of his denial, hurtful toward his own boyfriend. It's an obvious lesson aimed at both kids and parents (especially parents), but it's nowhere near as didactic as Howe's treatment of the Hennesseys.

The Hennessey family is a family ultra-religious bigots and bullies. Shit travels downhill, as the saying goes, and it's clearly demonstrated up and down the Hennessey ranks, with Joe being at the receiving end in school (and he's not even a member of the family). As with other problem novels that use relgion as one factor in the propagation of ignorance and hatred toward gay kids, Totally Joe serves this purpose well. The downside to this, though, is that I end up wishing that religious characters are allowed a little more leeway in their portrayal. There are religious folks out there who are either tolerant of members of the GLBT community despite their beliefs (perhaps even because of their beliefs), and there are those who - especially when the queer kids happen to be members of their own families - accept them. Sure, there's always that struggle with their faith, but these people do exist (I can give personal examples, but that would stretch this review too much), and I always hope that they'll be given some consideration in coming-of-age novels as well.

David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy is one book that comes closest to a different perspective of ultra-religious parents of a gay kid, and it works beautifully in the end despite the lack of a fully happy resolution (though the book shows their half-hearted acceptance as being the first of several steps they need to take). It doesn't need to go to extremes in portrayal to show how crippling bigotry caused by religion can be damaging to both parents and children.

The characters in Totally Joe aren't really complex and deep, though Colin and Zachary - a closeted gay kid and a gay kid who's still not aware of his homosexuality - stand out in their individual ways. They might be lightly treated, with Joe's voice being pretty upbeat through the whole book, but they still show some signs of multi-sidedness that could've been explored more deeply. But that's okay. The book's about Joe, and everyone else becomes an engaging and sometimes cheeky backdrop against which his story of independence and strength is played out.