Friday, October 18, 2013

Buddha Boy--Kathe Koja

I bought this because when I was in middle school, I loved a story by Kathe Koja called "Becoming Charise."  It was in an anthology of fairy tale retellings even though it had only the most tenuous connection to a fairy tale, but I liked it because it was about a girl who was super sad and different.  Basically what happened was that the girl really liked science, was bullied, and briefly hoped that she would get to go to a school for gifted kids but, in a scene where orange juice was described as fluorescent, her aunt refused to let her go for no reason except apparently to make her more sad.

I liked the fluorescent orange juice but maybe another thing I liked was that Charise's life didn't get any better during the story.  It was clearly going to be bad for a while, and she was going to have to deal with it.  I don't know what I would think of "Becoming Charise" if I read it now, but I always remembered Kathe Koja and wanted to read her books.  Buddha Boy immediately looked unpromising, but it cost $1 and I figured I could give it to my Buddhist friend as a joke.

The reason Buddha Boy looked so unpromising is that it clearly belongs to the insipid genre "visibly different kid teaches normal/nervous kid about life."*  I say normal/nervous because the protagonist of these books doesn't actually have to be bland; they can be invisibly different but trying really hard to fit in and seem normal.  Then here comes a kid who is so different that everyone is staring at them constantly and they probably get bullied, but they're totally cool about it and always saying wise things.

(Can I just say that this bothers me as someone who was severely bullied?  I wasn't smiling and producing sound bytes during the period I was getting bullied because I was a total wreck.  I got bullied for very intrinsic things like my name and the way I move and talk, so I couldn't move, talk, or hear my name without thinking about getting bullied.  It wasn't until 7 years later that my name started feeling good to me again.  Meanwhile, there were all these books about blissed-out bullied people, with no apparent understanding that even if you start out calm and centered, if you're constantly trapped with people who treat you like garbage then you're not going to be calm and centered after a while.)

My main problem with this type of book is that the required character archetypes are nothing like real people.  Like, let me tell you about this one scene halfway through.  The main boy, Justin, is hanging out with Jinsen, the titular Buddha boy, who shaves his head and goes around begging for change in the cafeteria.

Jinsen announces at all religions are fundamentally the same, and even though this is a fairly common platitude, Justin's mind is blown.  He thinks and thinks about how could this possibly be true and how it's so SHOCKING that Jinsen thinks that--even though Justin doesn't even have any experience with religion himself.  A little bit later, Jinsen blows Justin's mind even more by telling him that "we're all gods inside," including the guy who bullies Jinsen.  (Why did she give the characters such similar names?)  This time, Justin gets angry because he's offended by the idea that bad people could be gods.  He starts yelling at Jinsen for not being angry about being bullied, while Jinsen just sits there beatifically smiling at him.  Justin runs out of Jinsen's house and runs home, slipping and falling down on the way because of how upset he is.

Now, I can think of possible reasons that a person would get angry about Jinsen's belief set.  Justin doesn't have any of those reasons.  He's just enraged by Jinsen's amazingly mind-bendingly peaceful value set because it's so different.  Justin's example of a bad person isn't even Hitler or something; it's the kid who's bullying Jinsen.  If Justin's idea of the depths of human evil is a kid throwing another kid's notebook into a puddle, then I don't buy Justin being so upset by this conversation that he yells, runs out of the house, and falls down.  (This actually isn't the only scene where Justin is overcome by emotion and runs around and falls down.  Do average kids do this?)

Even more silly than Justin's anger is Jinsen's reaction.  Can you imagine saying something that confuses and upsets your friend, and proceeding to just sit there smiling at them when they're clearly upset, and not making a move to stop them when they run out the door in distress?  Jinsen's response make him seem like an emotional abuser, not the saint we're supposed to think he is.

But this scene makes complete sense for this kind of book, because this kind of book makes no sense.  It's supposed to teach kids and make them think, but how can you get educated from a book where the characters don't act like people?

*(PS: I would like to mention a book that could be mistaken for this, but isn't: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  I mean it's "a classic," we all know about it.  Something I remember about this book is that yes, Leslie is different, she introduces Jesse to ideas and activities he never thought of before.  But also, Leslie has a mean streak and makes fun of people.  She is reckless.  She is an actual kid, not a smug role model.)


  1. man, i love your reviews

    also, yes, i hate this genre. one thing is, and i can say this as someone who often tries to cope with things by being sort of detached but also outwardly optimistic and upbeat even if i'm not really feeling that way, it's not actually desirable or emotionally healthy to react to everything that way. a person who acts like that in response to bullying in real life is still going to be affected by the bullying, but they're more likely to turn their feelings about it inward on themselves. instead of (rightly) getting angry at the bullies, they might get angry at themselves for being bullied, for being unable to stop the bullying, and for being angry/upset about anything in the first place. sometimes these are people who have been taught, or have decided, that it's morally wrong to feel or express negative emotions. sometimes these are people who can react really calmly to being mistreated because they are very used to it and honestly believe that they deserve it or that it's normal. and that's less inspiring than it is depressing.

    like, i do think it's important to understand that bullies are people too and that being bullied isn't always something you can avoid or stop. but there are already like nine million kids' and young adult books with that message. there should be more that are like, being bullied sucks a lot and shouldn't happen, it is not some necessary rite of passage that will make you a better person somehow, and it's okay to be mad at people for bullying you, even if they're only bullies because they're having problems at home or they stop bullying and are remorseful about it later on.

    - lia

    given the way some people have responded to me in the past, though, i have absolutely no problem believing that someone would react to a fairly banal idealistic statement about human nature as though it were a really awful thing to say

    it's weird, because i have a lot of opinions that i'd expect to be sort of upsetting and controversial, but the ones that get me trashed are always, like, "everyone has some good in them, and most people are redeemable" and "try not to be a dick to other people, even if they're being a dick to you"

    i guess maybe what people sometimes think i'm saying is, like, "if someone's hurting you, really hurting you, you shouldn't get mad at them and you shouldn't try to do anything to stop them". which is, like i said, how books like the one you're describing can come across but isn't what i believe at all, except maybe wrt myself sometimes (which is fucked up and not a desirable thing to have internalized).

    1. really. that was something I kind of hesitated over saying it wasn't a reaction someone would have, but I wracked my brain thinking about of people who I thought would react that way and it was people who had a lot of experience/knowledge of abuse or bullying or oppression. I didn't think that the protagonist who's intentionally written as having no life experience (so annoying when that happens) would act like that. but then again, I haven't actually expressed those views to people like you have.