Patrick Ness has won every major prize for children’s books. He is widely praised for the diversity of his subjects and his ability to write about difficult subjects in a way that appeals and entertains. He is also a powerful storyteller. His latest book, Different for Boys, takes the subject of relationships between young males; physical, sexual and emotional.
Published by: Walker Books, 2023. Available from Amazon.
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‘Different for Boys’
Different for Boys is the story of four boys who all sit together in class because their surnames are alphabetically close. It is a knot that binds them, that draws them together and which must be untied before the boys are free to be themselves. In a few tense and emotionally taut pages their relationships are explored and developed.
Ant, Charlie, Freddy and Jack are fifteen. Ant and Charlie have always been best friends, with a mutual love of football. Recently they have begun to explore their sexuality with each other.
Ant, the narrator, is confused. He thinks he might love Charlie, but he isn’t sure. He doesn’t know whether what he is doing with Charlie means that he has lost his virginity. The big question that haunts the book is ‘what does losing your virginity’ mean for boys?
He has always loved football; it’s something he and Charlie enjoy together, but recently, he starts to enjoy playing rugby. He’s big and strong, and good at it.
Freddie is determined to get him into the game. Ant likes the idea, and is flattered, but Charlie resents the fact that Freddie is putting pressure on Ant, and maybe breaking up their friendship.
The big showdown comes when Charlie, overcome with jealousy and disgust, physically attacks Ant. Freddie comes to Ant’s aid, and shows himself to be a true, supportive friend.
And the great question is answered by Jack. He, openly camp, is the butt of Charlie’s hatred, but he brings tenderness and self-understanding to Ant.
The characters are distinct and very well drawn.
Ant, the narrator, is confused about his sexuality, and although he can experiment and joke about sex with Charlie, he senses that theirs is not the kind of relationship he wants. He’s a strong boy physically but emotionally he’s frail, anxious and bewildered. It is significant that there’s no guidance from any adult in his life.
Charlie is manipulative. He does what he wants to do and expects Ant to go along with him. He is fiercely homophobic and has no romantic feelings towards Ant. He resents the fact that Freddie is trying to persuade Ant to play rugby instead of football. This will possibly break up his friendship with Ant. He hates Jack for his cheerfully camp ways. Like Ant, Charlie is a confused, interesting and well-developed character.
Freddie is far less complicated. His passion is rugby, and he’s keen to include both Charlie and Ant. He is straight, but is open-minded and sympathetic when he becomes aware of what has been and is happening between his friends. His gentleness and fairness are in direct contrast to Charlie’s sense of outrage at the idea of homosexuality. His attitude is a fine balance point in the foursome.
Jack is open about his sexuality and really doesn’t care whether anyone finds him strange, offensive or unacceptable. He is as he is, and because of his self-composure, is well liked. At the pivotal, sensitive conclusion of the book his tenderness towards Ant provides a very lovely moment.
Mr Bacon is the class teacher. He is a shadowy presence, but essential in that he brings the boys together and separates them at the moment of confrontation.
Controversy and censorship in teenage fiction
In 1975 Judy Blume’s Y/A novel Forever was published. It dealt openly and with explicit sexual content with teenage love and sexuality, and was one of the most controversial books of its time. The young lovers in the story were in their late teens. The book was banned in many schools, which of course made it all the more popular. It is now a movie.
In 1991 Dear Nobody, my novel about a teenage pregnancy, was criticised by the eminent reviewer Naomi Lewis because it was about a subject that was unsuitable for children’s books. The protagonists were 17 and 18. The book was widely reviewed as a controversial novel. When it won the Carnegie medal Naomi Lewis shook her fist at me at the award ceremony. Dear Nobody has been adapted for theatre, radio and television.
In 2003 Melvyn Burgess published Doing It, about three teenage boys who are discovering sex for the first time. In an article in the Guardian, Anne Fine described the novel as ‘filth, whichever way you look at it’. The cult ABC television series ‘Life as we know it’ was based on it.
In 2010 Andersen Press published a Y/A anthology of short stories (curated by Keith Grey), called Losing It. All the stories were about having sex for the first time. Among the contributors were Patrick Ness, Melvyn Burgess and Anne Fine.
Times, opinions, values and experiences change. Nowadays there are many novels for young adults and younger readers about sex, sexuality, gender identity and young romantic relationships; about LGBQT experiences, pregnancy, abortion. All of these themes are reflecting the lives and preoccupations of young people today. My mantra is: trust the author. A gifted, sensitive and honest author with a responsible publisher will handle these subjects with care and respect – not as issues, but as mirrors of society in contemporary fiction.
Sensitive subject novels in school libraries
Remembering the days when Forever was kept under the counter in school libraries and only issued to responsible young adults, I was interested to hear a school librarian’s thoughts about the Ness book. I asked HM, the librarian at HVC if she would have any reservations about having Different for Boys generally available in her school library. This was her response:
No, I don’t think so. We have some pretty edgy books on the shelves and I try to steer readers off them if I think they won’t be suitable. We are fortunate in being a small enough school to know individual readers quite well. Books aimed at older readers are marked with a red spot indicating ‘teen fiction’. If I’m not sure I send a slip home to parents with the book details so they can look it up and tell me if they are happy for their child to read it.
Reviews of ‘Different for Boys’
As well as reviewing the novel myself, I thought I’d ask a school librarian for her perspective.
From a senior school librarian
In this beautifully illustrated short novel, Patrick Ness puts himself into the shoes of teenage Ant, who, with his three schoolboy friends, is coming to terms with who he is and with the boys’ changing relationships. The author gently explores themes of friendship and loneliness, acceptance and denial, and the tensions between the friends as they each grapple with their own experiences of adolescence.
Ant knows he is gay and begins the book contemplating stages of sexual experience leading to loss of virginity. Charlie has been Ant’s close friend since early childhood but is strongly homophobic and rages against Jack, who is comfortable in his own ‘camp’ sexuality. Freddie has returned after a time away from school much matured; masculine and obsessed with rugby. The boys’ different viewpoints lead to some conflict, but also to moments of tenderness and understanding. The tensions build as the story moves on, until an outburst of aggression brings a fresh perspective in the friendships and a new, more relaxed outlook.
Tea Bendix’s sketchy line drawings that intersperse the text perfectly chart the build-up of tensions between the boys until the moment violence erupts, then settle to reflect the new feeling of acceptance.
Throughout the book, the author uses self-censoring black boxes to disguise words and phrases unsuitable for younger readers, leaving them to decide for themselves what exactly is being communicated between the boys. The characters themselves frequently refer to the boxes and enjoy the freedom to speak freely, and rudely, that they allow. The blacked-out words bring a sense of fun and soften the content of what is technically an older teen read, making it accessible to younger readers.
Different for Boys is a book about boys growing up and finding out who and what they are. And how very different boys can be in their own worlds. And asking whether it really is different for boys who like boys.
– HM, senior school librarian, HVC
My thoughts on ‘Different for Boys’
Different for Boys will be widely welcomed and acclaimed. Patrick Ness is a game-changer. His recent novels are about teenage boys, their sexuality, their isolation and their relationships. He writes with perceptive honesty, in particular about gay relationships, and he does it beautifully. He is neither preaching nor teaching, but he cares deeply about his subject, about his own experiences and those of many of his readers.
The presentation: Different for Boys is a very handsome book with exceptional line-drawing illustrations throughout by Tea Bendix. However, I found the device of hiding sexually graphic colloquial words and phrases behind heavy black blocks visually ugly and distracting. Oh yes, better than scattering f****** etc throughout the text. I understand completely why Ness and Walker Books have chosen to incorporate boy talk in this way: to make it acceptable as a children’s book, and also to make the point that everybody reading the book will know what the blocks stand for anyway. Younger kids will giggle over it.
I personally found the device interesting, amusing but visually irritating. Ness’s narrator Ant makes a point of referring to the ‘black boxes’ several times, almost by way of apology and defence.
The dialogue, however, is astonishingly perceptive. I can hear these boys, and that means I can see them and care about them. Ant, the narrator, is gently and honestly portrayed. He goes through a lot in this short book, physically and emotionally, but we never lose sight of him or fail to identify or empathise with him. The same applies to the three others in the quartet, especially the close friend Charlie, who is a very assured character. Freddie and Jack are lightly drawn but their perspectives are an essential balance, and their dialogue vividly reveals their personalities.
Ness neither teaches nor preaches; he shows it as it is, and is unsurprisingly much admired and respected as a forthright novelist for young adults. I would recommend all teenagers and adults to read it. It is a moving, tender and powerful portrayal of a world that half of us will never know for ourselves.
About Patrick Ness
Patrick Ness has American and English nationality and writes screenplays and fiction. He has won many major awards, including the Carnegie medal twice (Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls; The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (The Knife of Never Letting Go) And the Costa children’s book award (The Ask and the Answer).
In an interview with Patrick Ness in her excellent and extremely thorough Teachers’ Guide to A Monster Calls (published by Ernst Klett, and intended for use in German schools) Mechthild Hesse asked:
Hesse: When you write for teenagers do you have a specific kind of young adult in mind?
Ness: I try to write for myself as a teenager, the books I wanted to read and wasn’t getting, the stories I wanted to be told. I think it’s impossible to write for other people; I’ve only ever had any success when I’ve written a story I loved myself. It’s only then that other people are interested in reading it. A paradox, but it’s worked for me.
Hesse: Do you write differently when you have adults in mind? Does any kind of simplicity play a role?
Ness: Absolutely not. The only difference when I write for adults is that I’m writing for me now instead of me as a teenager. Otherwise, it’s the same commitment, the same emotional commitment, the same seriousness and complexity. But really, it’s the story that tells me what it needs to be. And if you get that right, I think anyone could enjoy it. That’s my theory, anyway.
Over to you
Many of Patrick Ness’s children’s novels deal with sensitive and thought-provoking subjects. Are there other authors dealing with similar topics whom you would recommend? Let me know in the comments box below.
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Of course what I should have added, regarding censorship in libraries, is that there is huge demand amongst young people for books which explore and confront the issues of sexuality, gender and relationships between teenagers. We have a strong body of LGBTQI students and allies, who have enthusiastically raised funds to buy these sort of books through Pride and LGBT+ History events. Their library now has a wide-ranging and growing stock of “rainbow flag” books, suitable for all secondary age groups, which are extremely popular.
Thank you so much for this very important additional information, Harriet.