You’ve seen the stories on television and read them in the papers. A female teacher has a sexual relationship with a student. How could this happen, you think? What kind of life will that student go on to have? Why didn’t anyone see what was going on? Barry Lyga’s riveting new novel, Boy Toy, takes you inside just such a relationship.
Josh Mendel has a secret. The problem is, everyone knows what it is. Five years ago, Josh’s life changed. Drastically. And everyone in his school, in his town—seems like the world—thinks they understand. But they don’t. They can’t. Now Josh is about to graduate from high school, still trying to sort through the pieces. There is Rachel, the girl he thought he’d lost years ago. Then there are college decisions to make, and the most important baseball game of his life coming up. His parents. His friends. His guilt.
Five years ago, Josh had a sexual relationship with his teacher, Eve. And now she’s getting out of jail. Her return forces Josh to confront his past, and figure out what his future will hold.
Breaking new ground in young adult fiction, Barry Lyga tackles a taboo topic with respect for his readers. But make no mistake: this is no “problem novel,” written to help teens. Lyga says, “I don’t consider the book to be ‘about’ what happens to Josh. It’s primarily about what happens years later and how he comes to terms with it. When I talk about the book, I don’t say, ‘It’s about child abuse.’ It’s really about that scary precipice of graduation, when you’re supposed to become an adult but you’re still enough of a kid to be scared by your future. At that age, you have to figure out what to do with the baggage you’ve accumulated. Josh has heavier baggage than most.”
Graphic but never gratuitous, wrenching but always realistic, Boy Toy grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go.
Boy Toy deals with the very tough yet timely subject of sexual abuse by a teacher. Did you have a personal experience similar to Josh’s?
I guess I should get this out of the way from the get-go: No. I was never molested or abused by a teacher. After writing a book as autobiographical as Fanboy, I figured I would get this question!
It’s funny, though—there’s still a lot of me in Josh. After striving to make him as different from Fanboy as possible, I didn’t think there would be much of me in there, but I surprised myself.
What made you decide to write a book about this sensitive subject?
Well, I don’t consider the book to be “about” what happens to Josh. It’s primarily about what happens years later and how he comes to terms with it. When I talk about the book, I don’t say, “It’s about child abuse.” It’s really about that scary precipice of graduation, when you’re supposed to become an adult but you’re still enough of a kid to be scared by your future. At that age, you have to figure out what to do with the baggage you’ve accumulated. Josh has heavier baggage than most.
I’ve had a sort of strange, low-grade obsession with these sorts of sex scandals for years now, beginning with a scandal in the school district in which I grew up. They always seem to have certain elements in common, and I became fascinated by the psychology of these young women who throw away their lives for the very transient thrill of having sex with their students. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to write a story about it. And then I realized that the story had to be about the kid, not the abuser. That just opened up a whole world of possibilities for me, since it meant I had show all of the abuse from the point of view of someone who didn’t know why it was happening . . . which made for some great drama in terms of Josh’s own conflicted feelings.
You write very explicitly about Josh’s sexual relationship with Eve—do you think that’s appropriate for a teenage reader?
Believe it or not, I drew a very specific line for myself when it came to the sex in the book. And I stayed behind that line. Now, I admit that I walked right up to it, stood on it, maybe at one point leaned way over and pinwheeled my arms for balance, but that line was still there and I never crossed it.
That said: Yeah, this book has sex in it. Graphic sex. Graphic child molestation. I think teenagers will recognize it for what it is—a necessary part of the story. I don’t think you can get into the head of a kid who’s been abused and just skip over the tough parts. That seems like cheating to me.
The sex isn’t there to titillate. It’s not gratuitous. It’s there so that the reader can experience everything Josh experienced. It’s there so that the reader can feel everything Josh felt. It’s there to help the reader identify completely and fully with everything Josh knows, fears, and sees. Without it, the reader would not understand Josh’s guilt or shame or confusion, and the story would be weaker for it. In fact, there would be no story at all. If I were telling a story about a kid who is injured in a sports accident, I would have to show that accident, right? If I want the reader to identify with the character and feel his pain, I would have to show the accident. So here it’s necessary for me to show the sex. And since Josh is only twelve at the time of the molestation, we see the sex through his eyes, through the eyes of a boy who can’t possibly understand what’s really going on.
Is it appropriate for teenagers? I would say absolutely yes. It gives them context for the very important, very difficult decisions Josh makes throughout the book. I don’t think just saying, “And then, five years ago, Josh was molested,” would drive home the guilt, shame, and—yes—arousal Josh felt and still feels. The confusion of it all. A part of Josh enjoyed what happened to him as a kid, and that’s something that he has to deal with. It’s part and parcel of the whole problem, and we can’t just ignore it.
Sex is tough, complicated, and messy, both in real life and in fiction. Sexual abuse is all of those things to an order of magnitude higher. To pretend it’s not or to gloss over it would be to do a disservice to readers.
The events in the book uncannily mirror some stories in the news right now. How do you think that will affect the reaction to your novel?
I think the book mirrors reality because—like I said before—these stories tend to have elements in common, and I used those elements. I’m not sure how this will affect the reaction. There was a school shooting shortly after Fanboy came out, but no one really made any sort of connection there. There may be some people who think this book was written to capitalize on some recent headline or other, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve been thinking about this for years.
As a writer, how are you so able to capture the confusion and guilt that Josh feels?
When I write stories such as Fanboy or Boy Toy, I really immerse myself in the mind of the kid in question. I set forth a basic foundation for the story (“I’m being beaten up in gym class.” “I’ve been molested as a child.”) and then I just think, “OK, now I’m this kid. What do I think and feel and need right at this moment?” In Josh’s case, he was going through something that no child should go through and it was impossible for him to understand why—he couldn’t be inside Eve’s head. So he would have no idea why any of these things were really happening . . . and it just seemed natural that he would blame himself. That’s something most molesters rely on—a kid’s tendency to assume he or she has done something wrong. Once I realized Josh felt guilty, it was just a matter of saying to myself, “I’m Josh. I feel guilty. Now what?” And being in Josh’s head took me the rest of the way.
Baseball plays a big, almost metaphorical role in the book. Did you play baseball in high school?
Strangely, no! I’m the most uncoordinated person on the planet, and sports are not kind to me. That goes double for when I was a kid. When I set out to write Boy Toy, I wanted the protagonist to be different from Fanboy, so I deliberately didn’t allow myself to go into any of my geek comfort zones. I settled on baseball because I thought it would work as a nice structural device for the story, and also because it worked really well with Josh’s obsession with math and numbers.
Both Fanboy and Boy Toy are set in the same high school, yet the characters overlap only peripherally. What’s the idea behind that?
I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but originally there was no idea behind it at all—it just happened. I started to write the book and I got maybe two paragraphs into it when I suddenly became depressed. I thought to myself, “God, I have to invent a whole new town and a whole new high school.” And then, right on the heels of that, I thought, “Says who?” I realized I already had a perfectly good town and high school, so why not keep using them? So in addition to being a story I always wanted to tell, Boy Toy also became an opportunity to expand the environs of Brookdale a little bit, and even give little nods to characters from the first book. It became fun for me to think of how people might or might not cross paths.
You are active on MySpace and have your own website and Blog (at www.barrylyga.com). Do you think this is the best way to reach teen readers these days?
I’m not sure if it’s the best way, but it’s definitely a good and effective way. The best way is probably through some sort of text messaging system that speaks directly to their cell phones. Or maybe some sort of download for an iPod. But MySpace and blogging definitely get a lot of attention and grab a lot of teen eyes.
Fanboy received great critical and popular attention. What surprised you the most about the reaction?
Probably that it “received great critical and popular attention”! Really, you write a book in a vacuum and then you hold your breath and pray to God that maybe one other human being on the planet will read it and not absolutely hate it. So when word begins to filter in that maybe—just maybe—you haven’t completely embarrassed yourself on the page, it’s a very welcome shock. So, yeah, the fact that there was a reaction was the first surprise. I guess what really surprised me more than anything else was the reaction from teenage girls. I really thought that some of Fanboy’s fantasies would turn off the average teenage girl, but they’ve really embraced the book and that’s terrific.
You’ve been speaking to teens around the country. What have you learned from them?
Not to underestimate them. Not that I ever did, but if I was ever tempted, meeting and speaking to them quickly disabused me of the idea! They’re savvy and smart, and they know what they like.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book titled Hero-Type, which is set in Brookdale once more. It’s about what happens when a kid becomes a hero . . . and then realizes that maybe sometimes it’s better to be a villain instead.