Welcome to Boys, Girls and Other Hazardous Materials
by Rosalind Wiseman, set to be published in early January of 2010. Does that name ring a bell at all? Aside from this earlier post by Kim, which I’ll get to in a minute, this is the same author who wrote the book Queen Bees and Wannabes, a non-fiction title that was the basis for the hit film Mean Girls starring Lindsay Lohan.
I think that Boys, Girls, and Other Hazardous Materials could go in the same direction, and I think that it would also be a hit!
Wiseman’s story follows high school freshman Charlie Healey (whose real name is Charlotte) as she navigates the tricky waters of fitting in, making friends, and figuring out exactly who she is. Charlie’s going to a new high school — one that is just outside her old district — in order to avoid Lauren and Ally, who made her last year in middle school miserable. They got her in huge trouble on a class trip to Washington D.C., with a punishment of not only being suspended from school for a bit, but she also lost the trust of Nidhi, a girl who she really wanted to bond with. What Charlie doesn’t acknowledge is that she’s really going to this high school because she’s intelligent and talented; the new high schooler’s perspective’s a bit different than that of readers, her peers, and the adults in her life.
When Charlie gets to school for orientation, though, she meets and befriends Sydney right away, who is the type of girl you want to hate: tall, thin, beautiful, and genuine. Charlie’s excited to make a friend so quickly, and as we learn, it’s a friendship based on more than adoration. Oh, and that same day she meets Will, who had been one of her best friends for a long time and had moved away. Throughout the book, their relationship develops stronger than when they were friends at a younger age, and this relationship will be tested in many ways throughout their freshman year.
It’s at this point you’re probably thinking this is all set up for the Mean Girls scenario, right? But you’d be wrong. This time, it’s the boys who are mean to one another, and it centers on the ideas around hazing and initiation. Charlie is witness to an awful incident near the end of her freshman year that leaves an innocent person injured, and she must make the decision whether to let it go or to test these relationships she’s built and rebuilt through that tumultuous year. Add in a subplot of reconnecting with Nidhi, becoming a strong writer for the high school’s newspaper, and a fast-paced, engaging writing style, and it’s no surprise that this is the sort of book that will fly off shelves. Wiseman’s entrance into the growing world of young adult literature is certainly a welcome one!
Before delving into what makes this book such a great one, let me step back and critique some issues I had. First and foremost, the new cover is deceptive and is a VERY poor choice. The initial cover — the one my galley has — is the black cover with red bomb. It doesn’t tell you anything about the story, and I think this is important, since this is the sort of story that unwraps itself and doesn’t lend to an easy “telling” on the cover. The new cover, as seen here, pictures a very thin girl kissing a boy. Kissing might be an understatement, even.
There was no making out in this book. There were no girls ogling over boys nor boys ogling over girls. In fact, this was a very clean read through and through; in the instances where crushes or dates were brought up, they were very realistic, awkward, and there was never one mention of their sex drives. I would feel 100% comfortable handing this sort of title to those who don’t want a book that will make them blush, and it’s the sort of books parents wouldn’t mind having a kid read.
But you know? This cover says EXACTLY the opposite. How am I supposed to sell the merits based on a cover that clearly suggests otherwise? Oh, and Charlie makes clear in her prologue that she’s not a stick thin, hair-model type girl. So why is his cover that way?
Back to the good, though.
Boys, Girls, and Other Hazardous Materials delves into a topic that really isn’t covered much: boys as the “mean girls.” Throughout the story, we see how boys are mean to one another and mean to girls in a way that is absolutely realistic. There is the picking on, then there’s the tormenting verbally or physically (in this instance, there’s a scene where a group of boys intentionally clap through a class presentation given by Sydney which makes all her hard work look worthless), then there’s the outright harassment and pain infliction. Besides there being retribution for these actions, there’s a lot in the way of discussing what power and influence do in terms of getting people out of trouble for their own actions.
Wiseman, in her end note, talks about how this was a tough book to write and thanked a class of students who helped her edit it. It shows: this book is put together so well and so realistically; I was able to put myself right back into my freshman year of high school and live so many of the same moments that Charlie did. Wiseman’s writing style is smooth and lively. This is a book that teens will relate to — there’s crushing, there’s involvement, there’s sports and discussion of sports in ways that don’t put it down or make it the be-all-end-all of high school, there’s praise of intelligence and confidence, and there’s good kids. You know what else this book has that makes it a knock out?
Almost all of the kids in this story have strong parents who are good influences in their lives, and the kids who don’t, well, you see what happens. Wiseman achieves something here that is rare: good, realistic, dependable parents who the kids actually have relationships with. Another element important to mention is that Charlie is keen to seeing discrimination and understanding enough to know it’s bad without moralizing or making it a crusade. Nidhi is Indian and Hindu, and it’s this fact that causes a lot of the problems arising between Charlie and former friends Ally and Lauren. Wiseman is really spot on with this issue, as she is also spot on with pop culture references that won’t necessarily date this book.
There’s been much buzz lately about books being picked up for film, but I certainly hope this one does. There is plenty of action, great dialog, compelling and realistic characters, and many wonderful messages about being happy with who you are. Charlie is a winning character, and I think that so many teens will find themselves rooting for her the entire time, since they can see bits and pieces of themselves in her. This is a clean read, with a lot to latch on to. Although there is more to enjoy in this book, I think it’s one that will generate a lot of discussion and lend itself easily to a book group.
Here’s a classic high school story in the making!
* Obviously, the publisher was kind enough to send an ARC for me. There was no expectation of a review, much less a positive one.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).