by A.S. King
To be published by Little, Brown BFYR
on October 22, 2013
Source: ARC giveaway by the publisher at Book Expo America.
Connect with the author: website | Facebook | Twitter.
Summary from author's website: Gerald Faust knows exactly when he started feeling angry: the day his mother invited a reality television crew into his five-year-old life. Twelve years later, he’s still haunted by his rage-filled youth—which the entire world got to watch from every imaginable angle—and his anger issues have resulted in violent outbursts, zero friends, and clueless adults dumping him in the special education room at school. Nothing is ever going to change. No one cares that he’s tried to learn to control himself, and the girl he likes has no idea who he really is. Everyone’s just waiting for him to snap…and he’s starting to feel dangerously close to doing just that. In this fearless portrayal of a boy on the edge, highly acclaimed Printz Honor author A.S. King explores the desperate reality of a former child “star” who finally breaks free of his anger by creating possibilities he never knew he deserved.
Reality Boy had all those characteristics and more. It was a book that was, at times, uncomfortable for me to read. It's a book that raises a lot of interesting and complicated questions about being a teenager --and a parent -- in today's media-saturated culture.
As the book opens, it's obvious that Gerald is struggling to manage some truly serious anger issues. He appeared at age five on a couple episodes of "Network Nanny," a reality show in which parents of kids with disciplinary problems invite a parenting expert -- and a multitude of cameras -- into their home. Twelve years later, Gerald is infamous, known as "the Crapper," with his defecatory antics played and replayed on YouTube.
I have a soft spot for angry characters, and it seems to me that most (if not all) of A.S. King's protagonists are angry to some degree. But it quickly became clear that Gerald's anger was more deeply-rooted than mere teenage angst. And, as I read, it also became clear that his feelings were justified. Without revealing any spoilers, let's just say that he's been betrayed by pretty much every adult in his life.
Gerald's family is seriously messed up -- see "complicated family dynamics" above. This situation certainly isn't helped by his family's participation in reality TV. (I loved the clever use of Gerald's last name to connote the Faustian bargain that his parents entered into.)
As a five year-old, all Gerald knows is that "Network Nanny" did nothing to help his family. As a young adult, Gerald learns there was a serious disconnect between what viewers saw and his own personal experience. As an adult, it's easy to be dismissive of the level of reality involved in these kinds of shows, but Gerald's memories in the book raise some interesting paradoxes about contemporary media culture. As Gerald is more visible, more famous, more notorious, he feels less and less seen and understood. There is a huge disconnect between reality as he remembers it and his "reality" as it was shown on TV, and this disconnect is one of the things that fuels his anger.
Twelve years after his television appearance, Gerald still feels trapped -- trapped in the same destructive family dynamic, trapped in the special ed class he was put into, trapped by his explosive reactions to his own frustration and despair. Sometimes I think I'm most drawn to YA fiction because it lets me remember a time when anything seemed possible. I'm used to YA characters who see the world as limitless, and am always surprised to find characters who are just … stuck. But that's reality. TV shrinks seem to suggest that all problems can be fixed before the commercial break, but in reality, change can be really, really hard. And changing yourself is hard enough, but changing dysfunctional family or relationship dynamics is even harder.
Reality Boy raised a family issue that I haven't seen in YA before. As I want to avoid spoilers, I'll just say that last year there was a disturbing and controversial article in the New York Times about the topic. It's easy to sit on your couch and judge -- which is what shows like "Network Nanny" rely on -- but hard to know how you'd react as a parent in a similar situation.
Back to my checklist. Yes, the "touch of magical realism" that is another hallmark of A. S. King's work is also present in this book. Like Lucky's ants, Astrid's passengers, Vera's talking pagoda, Gerald has some fictional characters who help him cope with his problems. He also has some real-life secondary characters that I loved -- Mr. Fletcher, his special ed teacher; Hannah, his co-worker, and Joe, Jr. the circus performer.
Though Reality Boy definitely has some dark themes and plot elements, I always feel that every A. S. King book has an underlying message of hope. Yes, people may disappoint and fail you; life may knock you down; things may seem bleak and beyond repair. Even if Gerard didn't always see the glimmers of hope, I did: a compassionate hockey fan, some tough love from a fellow special ed student, even a chance at love.
If you're a fan of realistic YA fiction and you've never read an A. S. King book, you should definitely remedy that. Her books feature stories and characters that will really stay with you, themes and ideas that you can really delve into. I'm hoping she'll be able to stop by for an interview later this week, so keep a look out for that!