Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Observations on My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan by Seth Rudetsky

My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan
by Seth Rudetsky

Description (from Oblong Books):

Justin has two goals for sophomore year: to date Chuck, the hottest boy in school, and to become the king of Cool U, the table in the cafeteria where the "in" crowd sits.

Unfortunately, he has the wrong look (short, plump, Brillo-pad curls), he has the wrong interests (Broadway, chorus violin), and he has the wrong friends (Spencer, into Eastern religions, and Mary Ann,  who doesn't shave her armpits). And Chuck? Well, he's not gay; he's dating Becky, a girl in chorus with whom Justin is friendly.

But Justin is determined.

In detention one day (because he saw Chuck get it first), Justin comes up with a perfect plan: to allow Becky to continue dating Chuck, whom Becky's dad hates. They will pretend that Becky is dating Justin, whom Becky's dad loves. And when Becky and Justin go out on a fake date, Chuck will meet up with them for a real date with Becky. Chuck's bound to find Justin irresistible, right? What could go wrong?

Seth Rudetsky's first novel for young adults is endearingly human, and laugh-out-loud funny, and any kid who ever aspired to Cool U will find Justin a welcome ally in the fight for popularity.

While reading My Aweful/Awesome Popularity Plan (best title EVAH!), I thought about social theory. And salmon. That's right. Salmon.

See, in social theory, framing refers to the stereotypes and filters we use to deal with the world around us. And it's not just us humans who use frames. Animals do too. If you're a salmon, it's probably good to shy away from anything large, hairy and bear-like. That's a healthy stereotype for you as a fish. It doesn't really matter that for every ten bears you correctly identify and avoid, there will be one “bear” who doesn't shit in the woods. Like this guy.

No. This is not a picture of me. . .as far as you know.
Actually, this dude looks like he does shit in the woods. Still, he's no bear. But let's be honest, he's probably trouble all the same. Framing FTW!

Frames can be exploited, of course. Instead of referring to my favorite candidate as a political neophyte with a history of fighting unions, I might say she's a beltway outsider with a pro-business bent. If I can appeal to your frame, I take the shortcut to your good graces.

That's what I was thinking about as I read an early scene in the book where the main character, Justin, a short, plump sophomore with “brillo-pad” curls, is accosted by school bullies who call him a fag.

Let's see, he's short, he's plump and he sports brillo-pad curls. That's what bullies call a “target rich environment.” Why, then, is fag their epithet of choice?

Probably because that word is far more effective at framing who Justin is than just about any other pejorative available to a teen bully. Way better than calling him ugly or short or fat (all of which can deal some powerful damage of their own).

Fag is the better choice, it's strong, it's short, it has the power to exclude, belittle and define in one heinous verbal shiv that any idiot with a mouth can wield like a broadsword.

But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. And Rudetsky's book would be unremarkable if he set out simply to describe how ugly homophobia is.

Instead, Rudetsky offers a different frame. This isn't so much a book about a gay character trying to figure out who he is and what he wants, it's a book about a really funny character (who happens to be gay) trying to figure out who he is and what he wants.

Did I mention he's funny? Really funny. Embarrassed, chuckle-snort laugh-out-loud funny. Justin's running commentary offers up some hysterical observations on life as a teen. Yes, the central plot contrivances, twists and awesome/awful plan, all hinge on the gay storyline (no one is trying to hide the gay, people!). But the well-executed humor puts this book into a very special category. This is is a book I would not only recommend to straight teen boys (many of whom aren't likely to have it on their TBR pile but would be drawn to its humor), this is a book I would also recommend to teen boys who carelessly toss around words like gay and fag, boys who would benefit from seeing the negative impact of anti-gay stereotypes. And I think many of them would read it. More importantly, many of them would like it. And that makes for a powerful frame.

The humor here offers a way of re-framing the story so that its deeper themes and honest emotions can reach a wider audience.

I'd love to list some examples of the humor, but there are just too many and I wouldn't want to spoil the pleasure for you. Okay, just one, but only because you asked so nicely. One of my favorite moments comes as Justin tries to avoid the hot cheerleader he's pretending to date. She keeps texting him, asking when they can meet. Desperate to keep her at a distance but unwilling to reveal why, Justin resorts to sending her nonsensical text messages that appear to have been auto-corrected by his phone:
We can get together tumeric. What tumor don't yodel want? I can only meet Freedom and showered night. See you therefore!
With that in mind, I'd like to offer this final bit of wisdom which I think you'll agree summarizes my point quite nicely:
The humorous bidet is a toe jam hoarse. Outside is game candy. Inside is a cuddle pig. This can only expand the auger lance. Weather vane or apple peels. You decide.
I think you get the picture.


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