Happyface by Stephen Emond

Do you sense a theme this week? It may or may not have been intentional.

Stephen Emond’s debut Happyface is unlike many books I’ve read recently. Told through a diary format, to include email messages, pages of sketches, comics, and instant messages, this is the story of Happyface. But who is Happyface?

That’s the entire premise of the story. As readers, we gain insight into exactly who Happyface is through this journal, filled with fragmented thoughts and drawings. We know Happyface has had a rough home life, and he hasn’t always had luck with the ladies, especially Chloe. At the beginning of the book, we know Chloe will play an important role in Happyface’s life, but we don’t know how, especially when Happyface and his mother leave their home and move to a new city to get a new lease on life, away from dad. This means a new school . . . and new girls.

Happyface used to be a loner, but the move seems to have made him a little more popular. He’s making friends at the new school, and he’s found a new girl to crush on: Gretchen. But Gretchen’s got a bit of a past she’s hiding too, and Happyface will have a hard time breaking through to find out what that past entails. It makes sense that she’s the one who has given Happyface his moniker.

Although so much revolves around the obsession Happyface has with Gretchen, there’s more depth to this story. Chloe will make a reappearance, and we will discover why it is that Happyface’s mother and father divorced.

Unfortunately for me, the story took too long to develop in this book. I felt like we don’t know anything about Happyface for the length it took to get to the Big Event that gives us as readers a lot of feeling for him. His journal is real, like that of a high school boy focused on girl issues, but with the Big Event, I would expect any boy to write about that issue more. Likewise, when the Big Event is brought up, it’s at a very awkward moment, and having been given no heads up about it prior to the announcement, I felt tricked as a reader. There was ample opportunity to introduce it slyly in other spots, which would have made it felt more realistic, rather than a convenient explanation for other plot points and character issues.

As a reader, I’m never sympathetic for Happyface. I think he’s weak, and because I don’t get enough into his head, I can’t say that I’m particularly sad that he’s too scared to ask any of these girls out. In fact, I think he deserves what he gets at many moments, particularly when it comes to Trevor, the other boy in Gretchen’s life.

The ending of the book really was the icing on the cake for me, though. I felt it was far too much of a message, and it felt too much like a Full House ending, with everyone living happily ever after. All he had to do was remove his mask. That’s not a spoiler. I kind of wish we got a little more time with Happyface, to see how things panned out after his great revelation. We only get about nine months with him, and in that time, he goes through a heck of a lot.

What I thought would be such a fantastic book for boys might end up being disappointing for them with that sort of ending. Fortunately, this book has an incredible format going for it, as it reads sort of like a manga. I think the wimpy kid aspect to Happyface will appeal to older fans of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, though the didactic ending will leave them feeling a bit cheated.

I handed this title off to some of my 9th grade patrons, though, and the responses I got were pretty positive. They enjoyed the glimpse into the life of the kid, and they, too, drew the comparison’s to Kinney’s title. They suggested it as a good read for anyone in middle or high school, though I’d think middle school might be a bit young for some of the issues brought up here. Everyone loved the format — it is unique and stands out as memorable for that reason.

So while this wasn’t my favorite book, I have a feeling it’ll get some great teen reception because of the readalike quality to Kinney’s highly-popular titles and because of the great format.

Happyface will be available March 1, 2010 by Little Brown Books.

* The publisher sent me an ARC of this title. They also clearly paid me sums of money to give it a glowing review and ignore any and all flaws I as a reader might find because obviously, every reader will love every book. Seriously, though, I strive to point out the strengths and weaknesses of every book I read, so why I need to explain that I got an ARC is ridiculous…but I am really appreciative for the publisher’s support in letting me preview titles and offer them to kids to look at, too.

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