Different for Boys

Image of Different for Boys
Release Date: 
March 14, 2023
Walker Books US
Reviewed by: 

"thoughtful . . . simply wonderful writing."

Patrick Ness is gifted writer who is incredibly versatile. Each of his books is distinctive. Each gets at the core truth of some aspect of life as a teenager. In the case of Different for Boys, the subject is being gay in high school and how that's socially loaded very differently for boys than it is for girls. The novel's opening grabs the reader right away with a list of criteria for "losing virginity," cutting right to the heart of the sexual confusion and exploration that drives the plot forward.

Anthony "Ant" Stevenson is the narrator, and the text is leavened throughout with black boxes censoring words that parents and teachers don't like teens to use, even though they're an integral part of everyday vocabulary for them. The boxes won't keep this book from being censored, however, by those school districts that fear such stories "groom" kids, making otherwise straight students "turn gay." For those schools smart enough to include this book in their libraries, the book will prove a thoughtful inspiration for interesting discussions, as well as essential support for boys like Ant, struggling with being accepted by friends while being true to themselves.

Ant is in love with a boy, Charlie, who's been a close friend since elementary school. But while they may do sexual things together, Charlie is adamant that he's not gay, just being practical. In fact, Charlie is openly, loudly, disparaging of gay men. Ant doesn't confront Charlie about this. He understands why Charlie is the way he is and feels protective of him.

"Charlie isn't a bad guy. He isn't despite how he's acting and what's going to happen in the rest of this story. He's just got . . . issues. I mean, I know, yeah, fine, everybody's got issues, but Charlie's issues aren't too nice to him and they give him a rough time and that sometimes makes him act like a total XXXXX [black box]. But he's not a bad guy. He isn't. If the world were better, Charlie would be better."

This compassion, this understanding for the fear and pain that drive Charlie is one of the wonderful elements of the book. Nobody here is a stereotype. Each person is vividly realized in all their complexity. Another strong feature is the simply wonderful writing, on a sentence by sentence basis.

For example:

"And then he's silent in a way where somehow I know what it means. You ever noticed that about silence? That sometimes you can just tell what kind of silence it is? Sometimes silence is real loud, louder than anything."

Atmospheric drawings by Tea Bendix add to the haunting effect, creating a portrait of isolation and tense fear as the inevitable collision happens. Ness carries us through Ant's experience with a deft hand and a compelling voice. The ending could have been sappy or too convenient or unsatisfying, but instead the book ends as it began. with the curious, passionate spirit of Ant, eager to explore the world and his place in it.