Monday, September 28, 2009

Realism, Romance, & Censorship: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

Bibliographic Data
Lyga, Barry. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. ISBN 0618723927.

Plot Summary
Fanboy is a geek and more intelligent than even most of his teachers, which makes him an easy target for bullies. He's kept a "List" of students, teachers and other people who have made his life miserable since 6th grade. He fantasizes about the school being taken over in a Columbine like incident and all the members of the List being struck down in the resultant gunfire. When he first meets Goth Girl aka Kyra, they initially bond over their similar fantasies of the school being violently taken over. But Kyra doesn't have a List, though. She wants everybody in the school to die. This is the story of how the two teens help each other, but in the end, just as in real life, both Fanboy and the readers of this story are left wondering if it's enough.

Critical Analysis
The plot of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl is very realistic in today's world of Columbine and similar incidents. A Google search for "Columbine wannabes" turned up about 576,000 hits. And almost everybody over the age of 18 can remember at least one incident of feeling alienated and different in high school. In this novel, feelings of wanting to actually destroy those who are making them feel that way are crucial to the plot. Donnie, nicknamed Fanboy by Kyra, fantasizes about somebody else taking over the school and himself being the hero of the day, while Kyra, the Goth Girl, has even stronger fantasies about doing the shootings herself. The problem that these 2 main characters have to deal with is that they both know, on some level, that these feelings are 'wrong.' How each of them deal with those feelings and their awareness of this 'wrongness' is the main storyline. There are also minor storylines about how Fanboy copes with his mother's pregnancy and new husband (the step-fascist), two-faced friends, clueless teachers, and adults who refuse to see him as anything more than a child.

The climax of the book takes place when Brian Michael Bendis, a real-life graphic novelist, refuses to read Fanboy's graphic novel. Feeling hurt and stunned by the rejection of his idol, Fanboy's feelings change. He now steps over the line and wants to hurt somebody himself instead of relying on faceless others to do the shooting for him.

           "I want to kill them all. No, better yet, I want to die, No, even better
     than that: I want to kill them and then die. I thought high school was the
     end of it, the end of the bullshit cliques and the groups and kewl kids.
     But it's not. It's just the beginning. It's just the beginning and it only gets
     worse from here. College won't be any better and after college won't be
     any better and I might as well finish it. Finish it now. There's no point.
     I'll always be a loser. I'll never have friends, real friends, friends I can
     keep." (242-3).

Only after Fanboy realizes that Kyra has stolen his talisman, his "totem," the bullet he's been carrying around since 6th grade, does he snap out of this dangerous line of thought. He realizes that rough as he may have it, maybe Kyra has it rougher. He goes looking for her to prevent what he's worried she'll do. But he can't get any adults to listen to his concerns for Kyra. Not even Kyra's father seems to believe him. When he finally finds Kyra and confronts her with his worries for her, she strikes back at him both physically and verbally.

          "Go away," she whispers, and stands up.

          "I'm trying to help you." I scramble to my feet, the moment lost.
     So close. "I'm just trying to help."

          "I don't need your help, fanboy."

          "You need someone's help, and I'm the only one around you haven't
     managed to scare off."

          "Bite me. Here." She flips the bullet into the air and I reach out
     for it as my lower gut explodes in pain and a familiar agony. I
     swallow the air, claw for breath and collapse to the ground. She
     got me right between the legs while I was distracted by the bullet....

          And she's gone" (306).

Fanboy finally manages to get home after Kyra's attack. Once there, he finds a text message from Kyra. She's still alive. He greets his mother and at the very end of the book, he finally asks his mother for the very first time if he can feel the baby in her belly. This is a very important passage in the book because the first time Lyga writes a scene showing interaction between Fanboy and his mother, Fanboy rejects the baby and his mom's attempts to bring peace between her son and husband. Fanboy has come a long way from who he was at the beginning of the book. Bendis's rejection, the interactions with Kyra, even finding out that his step-father isn't as bad as he always thought - all of these incidents have led him to the moment when he can finally accept himself.

One interesting thing about this story is how Lyga uses two techniques to hook the reader into caring about Kyra, this deeply troubled and suicidal teen. The first one is that the story is told in the first person narrative by Fanboy. As a result, we don't learn enough about Goth Girl and her feelings, just what Fanboy guesses at with his limited knowledge of girls specifically and the world in general. The second technique Lyga uses is to write an open ending to the novel. The reader is left hanging, not knowing what will happen to Kyra, but caring very deeply. For those readers, Lyga has written Kyra's story, due to be published in October 2009 under the title Goth Girl Rising.

The adults in this story, with the exception of Fanboy's mother, are left very much to our imagination. This is an effective literary device since Fanboy narrates this story, and he sees them as weak, characterless, shallow stereotypes. Cal, Fanboy's best friend, is characterized in greater detail. He is pictured as a typical middle class teen around Fanboy who changes into somebody totally different around jocks and girls.

          "Well, that's life being Cal's friend. When the jocks call, he goes.
     On the mean streets of hick rural high schools, you have to keep up
     your popularity and your cool factor if you want to survive as a black
     kid. And being seen with me--especially talking comic books--is the
     best way to see your cool stock plummet.

          Cal doesn't even really know he's doing it. I can tell because
     he never refers to it, never acts as if he's done anything wrong. It's
     just survival. Just high school crap.. It doesn't bother me. Not
     anymore. Not really." (12)

The story takes place in a "hick rural" town (12). Most rural towns don't have public transportation, so Fanboy, being only 15, has to rely on the schoolbus and other drivers to get him around. Some of the most interesting interactions between Kyra and Fanboy take place when Fanboy is trying to deal with Kyra's erratic driving in yet another new vehicle. We later find out that Kyra has been lying about all these cars and they might even have been stolen. This realization on Fanboy's part just deepens the concern that both he and the reader feel over Kyra's future. In another crucial scene that takes place in a car, Fanboy is going with Cal to a party. When Fanboy gets into the car, he finds that some of the jocks he's despised for years are also in the car. On the way to the party, Fanboy realizes that the boys who have picked on him for years pick on each other too, not just nerds. This is a real revelation to Fanboy.

          "I can't believe it. I just sit there, silent, as three of my
     tormentors gang up on a fourth. It's like I'm a diver who's
     been saved from a shark by other sharks.

          "--smells so bad," Lorenz is saying, "that his zipper has
     a hazard alarm hooked up to it!"

          More howls. Wow. The pecking order doesnt' just peck me.
     Cool." (255)

The theme of this book is deep and troubling - violence and/or suicide is not the answer. While many teens today are emotionally troubled, the two protagonists in this story seem especially troubled. By the end of the story, Fanboy has grown emotionally, and we as the readers wonder very much about whether Kyra has grown enough to survive.

The style is consistent with what I imagine a teen boy's thought processes are like. He knows that the Senior Goddess, Dina, is out of his league but he wants to look at her anyway. He doesn't because he's afraid somebody will notice and pick on him about it. He notices a female acquaintance's underwear on a regular basis and is embarrassed that he tries to keep track of the colors. He is both incredulous and embarrassed when Kyra exposes himself to Bendis, but can't stop thinking about the parts of her body that he saw. He fantasizes over Dina, the Senior Goddess, but the fantasy Dina keeps getting mixed up with the reality Kyra. Add this to his concerns over Kyra and her emotional fragility, and he feels like he doesn't know what he's supposed to be doing next. All the time, we as readers, are privy to this jumble of thoughts that are Fanboy's narrative.

Even though I haven't been a teenager in many, many years, this book touched me on a level that I haven't considered for some time. It reminded me of how tough it was, and still is, to be a teenager, a child/adult; and feel frustrated, useless, ignored, and uncertain. This book will also appeal to teens who will relate to Fanboy. Seeing that other teens, even if they are fictional, have the same confused feelings that they do and there's no happily ever after is a very strong feature of young adult problem novels. This book leaves us hanging, wanting more. What happened to Kyra, What happened to Fanboy?

Awards and Honors
  • Best Books for Young Adults, 2008; Young Adult Services Divison of the American Library Association.

  • Best Books of the Year, 2006; School Library Journal; United States

  • Book Sense Children's Picks, Fall 2006; American Booksellers Association; United States

  • Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to Ninth Edition, 2007; H.W. Wilson Company; United States

  • School Library Journal Book Review Stars, November 2006; Cahners; United States

  • Senior High Core Collection, Seventeenth Edition, 2007; The H. W. Wilson Co.; United States

  • Teen Books, 2006; Bank Street College of Education; United States

  • Teen List, 2006; Bank Street College of Education; United States

  • Top 10 Art Books for Youth, 2006; American Library Association-Booklist; United States

Review Excerpts
Gillian Engberg (Booklist, Sep. 1, 2006 (Vol. 103, No. 1))
Fifteen-year-old Fanboy is miserable at school, where he is bullied, and at home, with his pregnant mother and her husband, the "step-fascist." His only relief is the late hours spent creating his own comic book. Then he receives an instant message from Kyra, an enigmatic Goth who seems to be the only witness to the violence he endures, and the two form a cagey, charged friendship…. Lyga's debut novel is a darkly comic, realistic, contemporary story of bullying and a teen's private escape in artistic pursuits. Fanboy entertains plenty of violent thoughts. He carries a bullet, keeps a tally of his abusers ("The List"), and lashes out with sometimes-cruel remarks, which feel sharply authentic…. Fanboy's whip-smart, often hilariously sarcastic voice skillfully captures a teenager's growing self-awareness, and adds a fresh, urgent perspective to age-old questions about how young people cope with bullying and their own feelings of helplessness, rage, and being misunderstood as they try to discover themselves.

Amie Rose Rotruck (Children's Literature)
Fanboy's life consists of being abused in gym class every day, tortured by the very sight of a gorgeous girl named Dina, fighting with his mother and the stepfacist--stepfather, and working on a graphic novel that he hopes to show his idol, Brian Michael Bendis. Fanboy's only friend is Cal, who shares Fanboy's interest in comics and graphic novels but is also a jock. The only thing that keeps Fanboy sane is a bullet that he carries with him every day. One day Fanboy is e-mailed a picture of him being hit in gym class by “Promethea387” and asking “Why do you let them hit you?” This leads Fanboy to meeting Kyra, otherwise known as Goth Girl. The two of them begin a rather intense on-and-off friendship colored by their own issues and their feelings towards each other. Barry Lyga perfectly captures teen angst and ironic humor in this gritty portrayal of the life of a teenage geek. Fanboy's voice manages to be truly original and, at the same time, speaks to everyone who ever felt like a geek, even for a moment.

April Spisak (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December 2006 (Vol. 60, No. 4))
Fifteen-year-old Fanboy knows that he is an outsider: he is ignored or bullied at school, he feels misunderstood at home by his pregnant mother and her husband, whom Fanboy calls the “step-fascist,”…. Goth girl,” Kyra … sees Fanboy being bullied and decides to become his friend. Kyra won’t be ignored: she demands that Fanboy share his graphic novel with her and, though Fanboy doesn’t see this, she is clearly using their newfound relationship to avoid dealing with her own problems… Unfortunately, this Fanboy-centric narrative means that intriguing questions about Kyra’s behaviors go unanswered because Fanboy doesn’t think to ask them…. (The) characters strictly adhere to all-too-familiar stereotypes (of course the goth girl is a deeply troubled cutter and the comic-book geek has unrealistic expectations about the bodies of real women). Indeed, the most interesting and complex character in the novel is Fanboy’s stepfather, whose awareness that his wife “married down” is poignant, and whose patience with the years of unfriendliness from his stepson is never rewarded.

Book Hook
Goth Girl Rising (Fall 2009) is Kyra's story:
"After six months in the Maryland Mental Health Unit, Kyra Sellers, a.k.a. Goth Girl, is going home.

Unfortunately, she’s about to find out that while she was away, she lost track of more than time.... Kyra is back in black, feeling good, and ready to make up with the only person who’s ever appreciated her for who she really is.

But then she sees him. Fanboy. Transcended from everything he was into someone she barely recognizes.

And the anger and memories come rushing back.

Fanboy. The Spermling. Miss Powell. Roger.

Her mother.

There’s so much to do to people when you’re angry.

Kyra’s about to get very busy." (From "Goth Girl Rising" at Barry Lyga Dot Com)

Internet Connection
Barry Lyga's website

Lyga, Barry. Goth Girl Rising at Barry Lyga Dot Com. 2007 and Beyond. Accessed 9/26/2009 from

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