Totally Joe by James Howe

One of the books the seventh grade reads at my school is The Misfits by James Howe.  The Mistfits is about a group of friends, three boys and one girl, who set their middle school on end by trying to run an independent slate of officers for student council under the banner “The No-Name Party.”  Their goal is to stop name-calling at their school.

The Misfits is about other things of course, the usual host of issues most books written for seventh graders address including a character who comes out as gay about halfway through the book.  What sets it apart from so many coming out books  and one reason why the students love the book so much is that The Misfits is funny.  While we’re meant to be angered by the name-calling, we’re never asked to cry for anyone in the book, the major suffering everyone has gone through was gone through long before The Misfits begins.  Joe, the gay character, has no problem dealing with who he is nor do any of his friends or family.

We read The Misfits each year; the kids love it; they want to read more; there is a sequel called Totally Joe they’d love to read; it’s not in the school library.

A few students have found it at the public library, but the truth is most middle school students are rarely motivated enough to read a particular book to make it all the way across the yard to the school library let alone all the way across town to the public library.  You need a special card at the public library.

So this year, since more than enough of the students say they’d like to read it, I decided to get a set of Totally Joe for my classroom book clubs.  The general rule is that I can get a set of anything I want for classroom book clubs if its something the school library already has.  Since the library doesn’t have a copy of  Totally Joe and I already got into a little bit of trouble over the violence in Life of Pi earlier this year, I decided I had better re-read Totally Joe before I put it on the classroom shelves.  Honestly, I don’t really remember any excessive violence in Life of Pi, but  I was too involved in the story to read it critically.

There’s no violence in Totally Joe.  There was none in The Misfits.  Totally Joe‘s plot overlaps with The Misfits.  We get the same story from Joe’s point of view in the first part of the book. Joe then continues with the rest of the school year, the story of his first ‘boyfriend’ Collin, how he comes out to his own family, and how he meets the new boy at school Zachary.  There’s no sex in the book at all.  Not even a kiss.  Joe is grossed out by kissing.  He just wants a boyfriend he can talk to, hang out with, send notes to, maybe hold hands.

Late in the book after Joe’s friend Addie tries to start a Gay Straight Alliance at their school, controversy erupts when the parents of the school bully complain to the school board.  This part of the book is not as convincingly portrayed as the rest, the parent characters come off as stock and the resolution is far too neat, but this may be the result of having Joe as the narrator.  His version of events is true to a 7th grade boy’s perspective.  While it’s fair to say that the author sets up his anti-gay parent characters as straw-men, by the story’s end Joe has come to see the school bully as someone human which was the message of The Misfits, too.

Once you start to see people as human, it’s hard to hate them.

So, Totally Joe may get me  into trouble but this is my defense–the entire seventh grade read the first book which is on the school board approved list; there is absolutely no sex in the book at all unless one counts holding hand for about five seconds;  student interest in the book is very high; and the overall message of the book is a positive one.

Here’s hoping I get away with it.


Update: Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I have gotten away with it.  No one ever raised an issue over Totally Joe, which I believe is in the school library.  I’m saying “I believe” hear because it was not on the shelves on Friday.  At the faculty meeting Friday I saw the newest book in James Howe’s Misfits series, Also Known as Elivs.  I snatched it up right away to read over the long Memorial Day weekend. I also grabbed Addie on the Inside which was on the shelves and which I had not read yet.   I thought it would be fun to have a James Howe Week this week, review all four books.  

But I couldn’t find my old reviews of The Misfits, so I’m jumping that one to go straight to Totally Joe.  I plan on having Addie on the Inside, which I quite liked, up tomorrow and Also Known as Elvis on Wednesday.  

As for The Misfits, while we all loved the book, we have since replaced it with Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.  We had no particular reason for doing this other than we’ve done The Misfits for years and years and felt ready for something new.  I still see students reading it on a regular basis.