Strange Boy - Paul Magrs

Ladymol's Review

Well, Strange Boy, strange book. I read this novel with no previous information on it, but subsequently have discovered that it was written for children (teenagers) and was controversial when published. Which is rather ludicrous really, as itís so harmless and innocent and the very minor gay theme is nowhere near as controversial as the behaviour of the appalling adults in this novel.

Before you leap to the conclusion that the novel is full child abuse, this novel proves that very ordinary adults, doing very mundane and ordinary things can scar children just as much as this more usual favourite of novels.

David, 10, and his brother Christopher, 6, live with their divorced, very young (26) mother on a council estate in northern England. The mother is seeing someone new; the father has a succession of girlfriends. On each side there are grandparents who donít communicate with each other and then the new boyfriends and girlfriends have parents who become yet another set of grandparents.

Shuffled between this mixed bag of adults, David tries to find some sense in the world. He believes he has special powers, which we as the reader can see is just his way to explain his burgeoning gayness to himself. He knows heís different, and special powers seems to explain this differences. Heís not just on the brink of adulthood, but heís exceptionally bright as well. Although Iíve not seen this confirmed anywhere, I believe David has Aspergers Syndrome: he is very bright but he sees the world tangentially and finds adult emotions difficult to understand.

Being bright and the oldest, both sets of parents and grandparents increasingly involve David in their little war, pumping him for information when he returns from a visit, poisoning his mind to the other side, trying to buy his affection. Itís painful to read, despite being told with unintended humour by David.

One of the most delightful things for me about this book was the glossary of terms at the end. Set in the late 70s in England, this book is a cultural classic and incredibly evocative of the era. I read the glossary as if I was reading an evocation of my childhood.

Would I give this book to my son when heís a bit older? Possibly not. And therein lies the controversy. In one scene, David and another boy, 14, who is also on the brink of discovering he is gay, lie next to each other in their den and hold penises. Itís Davidís way of initiating John into his special powers, and works very well in the context of the book and Davidís truthful narrative account. Many critics, however, did not like the idea of boys being shown doing this in a childrenís book, which is interesting as those of you who have children and read childrenís books will know that they cover fairly controversial subjects these days: drugs, sex, split families, abuse. Why not homosexuality then? I had to think long and hard about why I wouldnít want my son to read this and the only conclusion I came to is that I want to have the role of introducing him to such themes, be they gay or heterosexual in a controlled way. I wouldnít want him to read a book where a ten-year-old boy puts his finger in a girl (surely the equivalent of this scene), whatever the very believable and innocent pretext of that action might be. I want to be able to relax and trust that the books I get for my children are ďsafeĒ: that they donít need me to read them first. Like a Disney film, I want to be able to trust childrenís books. Possibly Iím being too sensitive but the main character is 10, so I canít really see this book appealing to older teenagers, and feel sure it would be bought for a much younger child by a parent who didnít know its content.

So, no, I wouldnít want my children to have read this book, but I enjoyed it.

I recommend you give it go and see what you think. If you were born in England in the 60s, then I recommend it for that alone. Youíll be back with your parents on a Saturday night, having been allowed to stay up and watch Man From Uncle, begging to just be allowed to watch the start of Match of Day!

Cerisaye's Review

Something of a departure for us, this novel is aimed at young adults.† I came across a reference to the book and it sounded interesting.† When it was published there was a storm of protest.† We love controversy.

The 10 year old narrator, David, has a crush on 14 year old John.† David lives in a fantasy world fed by American comics.† He believes he has super powers and decides to pass them on to John.† They lie down naked in the woods under a blanket, in a scene thatís both sweetly innocent and rather erotic. The book was widely condemned for explicitness as a result.† Boys rubbing their penises together is seen as dirty by those who like to censor what teenagers read (let alone what they do).† As if this sort of thing never happens.† Young kids experiment with sex, and to pretend they donít is just silly.† Itís neither dirty nor shameful, but perfectly healthy and natural.† Weíve all been children.† We identify with David, regardless of adult sexual orientation.† Our bodies grow and change and itís frightening.† Ignorance makes it worse.

David wants to write stories and draw for Marvel.† He tries to make sense of his world:† super powers are used to make things turn out differently; his life with two families living in alternative realities.† David comes home one weekend to discover Mum has moved her boyfriend into the house and hidden Davidís stuff in the wardrobe.† He is a clever and imaginative child stifled by circumstances.† Kids like him donít grow up to write comics.† David wants to prove them wrong.† I think heíll succeed.

David doesnít have a name for how he feels. He only knows he isnít interested in girls, likes penises and gets aroused when he sits next to John.† Magrs cleverly uses Davidís super powers as a metaphor for otherness that could mean his young protagonist is gay.† It scarcely figures anyway.† And you know what?† It doesnít matter.† To focus on a gay theme misses the point.† Itís about growing up- emerging sexuality, losing childhood innocence, coming to terms with a scary adult world children find confusing and donít understand.

The story is strong and well told.† Unhappy families and how children, the main victims, cope with marital breakdown.† Davidís parents are separated, not amicably.† He and younger brother Christopher spend weekends with their Dad. Davidís motherís side disapproves of his family, seeing them as common and unfit company.† The children are uneasy go-betweens linking warring factions. Dad canít cope with his situation and puts a heavy burden onto David, literally crying on his shoulder.† David learns to use his position with increasing sophistication.† He works out rules of adult behaviour.

Itís an intriguing book, and I enjoyed it.† However I doubt it hits that target young adult audience with the same impact.† The story is very firmly set during the 70s.† I grew up then so loved its many cultural references .† Magrs provides an amusing glossary at the end explaining things like Opal Fruits and Daleks (helpful to American readers too).† Ancient history to contemporary kids.† Will they find it relevant? David sounds less like a 10 year old than an adult (Magrs?) looking back, trying to make sense of what he was too young to understand.† But these are quibbles.† Pity if those who need this book most donít bother.† As a portrait of childhood itís quite brilliantly realised and David a delightful and memorable character.†

I wouldnít hesitate to let older kids read the book, despite that explicit content, because of its strong message empowering the child who feels he/she doesnít belong, who may be the object of bullying at school or abuse in the home.† Please, however, read it first and make up your own mind.† Thereís one violent and disturbing scene that might upset a younger reader (it bothered me) when John is set upon by a gang of older boys yelling and taunting him with being gay, though thatís only implied.† Itís a defining moment, however, so had to be there.

I loved Kate, a woman who hates cleaning so much her mother has to do it.† Meanwhile she writes a fantasy wish fulfilment novel, in which Starsky & Hutch go to bed together, then she joins them for a 3-way.† A lady after my own heart!† Highly recommended.†

Published by: Simon & Schuster (Trade Division) . ISBN: 0689836570

Buy Strange Boy from Amazon UK here