So I am onto the second of writer Kathe Koja’s Young Adult novels and man, she has totally opened my eyes to the category as far as its potential. I realize that people like S.E. Hinton were writing books that were slotted to this age range but to see what Koja is doing with her stories in a modern era of me-too writing where every author seems doomed to have to follow whatever the trend of the moment is. It’s utterly refreshing to find a writer that followed their own path, their own heart, and is creating great art.
Buddha Boy is another missive about the world of the modern American high school and it’s an honest look at what it is to be a teenager in the world of today. Following a protagonist that prefers to fade into the background for the sake of safety, we see what happens when a new kid enters his school who takes on the look and the characteristics of a Buddhist monk. The new boy, Jinsen, is harassed, belittled, and consistently made the butt of every joke because he is so weird. Even Justin, our protagonist, at first finds Jinsen (or Michael Martin, as he is named but prefers not to answer to) ridiculous. It is only when Justin is given Jinsen as a partner though for a school project that he begins to see who this strange new boy really is. It turns out that quiet, smiling, ever-passive Jinsen is an orphan, living alone with his great-aunt, and it also turns out he is an incredible artist. And suddenly Justin comes to know and become friends with Jinsen and slowly, so slowly, the school that mocks and doesn’t quite understand who this weird new kid is becomes enthralled with the remarkable art he can create. Not everyone is won over by Jinsen though and his very refusal to fear them serves only to fuel their anger at him into a rage that cannot help but boil over.
This is a remarkable book for two reasons – this is a wonderful look at Buddhism that shows in a way that presents an honest look at its beliefs and ideals without preaching or advocating and this is also a great look at peer pressure and bullying. We forget so soon after leaving high school that bullying has a million faces, a thousand forms, and that not everything is a push or a punch. And what a tremendous look at the every day cowardice we all faced as young people, where it is easier to look the other way than to speak up and risk the repercussions.
Like straydog you can guess at the ending here but I was happily surprised that it wasn’t quite what I expected and was really pleased with how things came together. Now, this is a slice of life, not a grand look at the world of teens but a small story of friendship, and it’s a wonderful tale. I admire the heck out of what Ms. Koja is doing with this genre and hope that bit by bit, she starts getting the readership she richly deserves.