I must say, I almost put this one down… but there was a delightful inscription to a friend of mine from the author, whom he actually knows. So I persevered. Thank goodness. What initially put me off was how successfully Lisa Yee manages to characterize her Grade 7 male characters Marley and “Ramen.” I thought to myself, I don’t really like these kids: they are rude, inconsiderate, self-centred, argue over inane things like the value of Star Wars over Star Trek, and have a rude sense of humour. Then I remembered that she was in fact expressing the world from their point of view. And I sought in the depths of my memory for the boys I knew in Grade 7, and thought about my Grade 7 daughter’s classmates, and realized how brilliantly Yee has depicted her boys. And so I read on, and as I read, the story grew more and more interesting, and the characters’ actions and reactions became more complex and troubled as I began to see the world more fully through the eyes of relatively normal Grade 7 students.
Marley is a Trekkie; Ramen is a Star Wars fan; their new classmate and friend, Max (who turns out to be a girl, although neither initially realizes this, to their chagrin and her annoyance), likes Batman. The three are members of an AV Club and about as geeky—and subsequently outcast—as that sounds. But Marley is also the target of systematic bullying by two different factions in the school, having stood up to “the Gorn” in defense of Ramen earlier in their school career. The bullying seems excessive, but what would I know, being a parent? The scene Yee creates of the PTA trying to come up with ways to actively curb bullying are both ludicrous and very real. Marley’s opinion—that there is nothing adults can do by talking to bullies—is for the most part borne out by both Yee’s novel and students’ reality. Yet in a pivotal scene towards the end of the novel, when Marley has had enough, and just refuses to take any more, it is his call to the bystanders to become involved, to act on the PTA’s slogan—“be a buddy, not a bully”—that finally tips the scales in Marley’s—and the other victims’—favour.
The plot itself is, well, almost non-existent… if you are expecting a quest, or a mystery, or any major event. But the little happenings in Marley’s world are eventful enough for him, and the reader, and are carefully logged in his “Captain’s Log”; a (to the reader, humorous) synopsis of his day is included, using Star Trek-style language, at the end of each chapter. His life involves running from bullies, and the track coach notices that he is fast. Really fast. He eventually tries out for track, and makes the team, but at the expense of his relationship with his friends in geekdom. The choices he ultimately makes regarding track team, being popular versus being himself, and what to do with bullies will resonate strongly with Grade 7 students throughout North America.