Review: Totally Joe

(Cross-posted from We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Totally Joe
by James Howe
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005
ISBN 068983957X
Pages: 189
Ages: Middle Level
Awards: ALA Notable Children’s Book, Lambda Literary Award Nominee (Children’s/Young Adult)

I’d like to think that there are precious few people out there who didn’t have the childhood joy of reading James Howe’s Bunnicula books. (I, myself, will never forget my embarrassment after discovering and sharing the titular pun in The Celery Stalks at Midnight with my trying-hard-not-to-laugh parents.) At the time that Howe first wrote about his vege-vampire rabbit, he was married to the first of his two wives. His writing career didn’t really take off until the early 1980s, about the same time that he came out as a gay man. Since then he has written more than seventy books, including the much-acclaimed Misfits and its stand-alone sequel, Totally Joe.

I couldn’t get hold of Misfits, but I found and quickly fell in love with Totally Joe. Finally, here was a laugh-out-loud funny book about a boy who liked other boys – no misery, doom, gloom, profanity, or allusions to sordid sex. It’s probably the gayest book I’ve read so far (if you measure gayness in terms of flamboyance, which is pretty unsuitable, but probably unavoidable) but at the same time, it is the most innocent and sweet.

The protagonist and narrator, Joe Bunch, is a twelve-year-old student who has been assigned to write an “alphabiography” of his life. The book, presented as his completed assignment, is broken into 26 abecedarian chapters, each representing some aspect of his life as it unfolds during his seventh grade year. B is for Boy, and what it means to be a boy, and how he can’t make himself fit within that mold. D is for Dating, and his musings about how his straight friends can publicly date while he and his boyfriend almost have to pretend not to know one another. Q is for Questions. S is for Surprises. X, predictably, is for Xylophone; unpredictably, it may be the funniest chapter (at least for this keyboard percussionist) of the book.

Even at the age of twelve, Joe is pretty comfortable with himself and the fact that he isn’t, as he puts it, a guy-guy. He sometimes wears nail polish, gets his ear pierced, and enthuses about weddings, fashion, Cher, and cooking. He’s precocious in that regard, but his maturity is realistically inconsistent as he expresses disgust at things like “exchanging saliva.” Perhaps the least realistic thing about him is his restraint and patience in interacting with his friend-turned-boyfriend-turned-nonfriend-turned-friend, who can’t yet be as comfortable with his sexual identity. Even so, Joe is vividly drawn, loveable, and so, so funny.

The silent counterpart to Joe is the teacher, Mr. Daly, for whom Joe is writing. Even though we never hear or see Mr. Daly, except for brief moments when Joe describes school events that include the teacher, he serves as a solid sounding board for Joe as he verbally explores his feelings. Structurally, this is like a younger, light-hearted version of Perks of Being a Wallflower; even though the “listeners” are invisible, they play a crucial role in the protagonist’s development. Joe’s trust in Mr. Daly is heartwarming, and I found myself envying him as he was placed in that position of trust.

One line in particular stood out to me. It is spoken about a school administrator who changes his mind about a proposed GSA club, and I think it’s something that all we teachers ought to bear in mind: “It’s nice to know that educators can be educated.” I’m going to try to talk more about that at the end of this whole reading experiment, but in short: I’m learning so much from these books, and it seems to me that other educators could do the same.

Oh, and I totally want my students to write alphabiographies now. :)

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