Damian has a history of being bullied, and he decides his 7th grade year at a new school is going to be different. If Damian doesn’t speak at all, he believes the other kids won’t have anything to tease him about. This plan quickly backfires, yet Damian’s 7th grade year is also the time when he comes to terms with his homosexuality and the trauma in his past. An understanding therapist helps Damian work through his struggles and to find where he fits in the often tumultuous middle school community.
This graphic novel memoir spends about equal time on Damian’s watershed 7th grade year and flashbacks to earlier grades in school. We see Damian navigate difficulties finding friends with common interests, as he realizes he doesn’t enjoy the same things as other boys. He faces teasing for playing with dolls and wanting “girls’ toys,” and for befriending girls instead of boys at school. Damian’s heartbreaking family difficulties are also shown. He and his brother are being raised by his grandparents in a small apartment, since his mother was murdered by his father when Damian was a baby. Two older half-sisters are living elsewhere. The family is loving and close but has far less material wealth than Damian’s classmates. This is exacerbated when Damian’s grandfather dies from cancer.
The combination of trauma from Damian’s childhood, bullying from peers, and the fear of being abnormal causes Damian a type of PTSD. The reader can experience a sense of Damian’s loneliness and anxiety about wanting to feel normal and avoid bullying. However, as the author’s note following the story acknowledges, it can be difficult to portray a lived experience in a memoir. There may be long periods of a person’s life in which nothing much of interest happens, punctuated by days and weeks of extreme significance. This results in some spans of time being shifted or condensed, especially when an author endeavors to fit one’s story into a graphic novel format. Indeed, some events of Other Boys seem to happen a bit abruptly. Once Damian finally opens up to his therapist, his life seems to make a complete turnaround immediately. It can be understood that this transformation was more gradual that what the book shows. The book’s setting in time also seems uncertain, as we see Damian and his brother playing with toys from the 80s like an Alf doll, and a Cabbage Patch Kid, and then hearing Brittney Spears references in middle school. Their toys could be secondhand, but this is never clarified. There are helpful labels at the beginning of each jump in time, which allows the reader to understand in which grade the experiences occurred.
The full-color illustrations are a highlight of the book. They are brightly colored and, as the author states in his end-note, intended to imitate the palette of his childhood including crayon drawings, video games, and fairytale books. There are some clever devices which add a playful feeling such as shaped frames to imitate the game in a section about Super Mario Brothers, and a backpack with facial features in a piece where Damian faces off against a bully. These elements add some whimsy to a heart-wrenching story, reinforcing the theme of hope in the midst of difficulty.
While Other Boys is a bit uneven in the narrative, it is an important and worthy addition to upper middle grade collections. Be aware that offensive terms for gay people are used in a few places, and the book is meant for readers mature enough to handle the subject matter compassionately. The moving timeline also requires a more adept reader, since the events do not move in a linear progression. Upper middle grade readers who allow themselves to empathize with Damian will emerge from the experience richer and more understanding.
By Damian Alexander
Macmillan First Second, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)