Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers

I actually read two other books before I got to this one (Nation by Terry Pratchett and The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman), but I tore through Debbie Harry Sings in French today and needed to talk about it!

Johnny isn't really a bad kid. After his father dies in a car accident and his mom falls apart, Johnny takes over paying the bills, clipping coupons and going grocery shopping to make sure he and his mom can survive. To him, it shouldn't matter that he dresses all in black, wears eyeliner and black nail polish, and dyes his long hair black, so long as he's the good kid taking care of his mom. And with all of that going on at home, can you really blame him for using alcohol as a way to soften the harsh edges of his world and help him get to sleep?

After a near-fatal mix of alcohol and drugs, however, Johnny's mom has woken up to her son's behavior and has had enough. She ships him off to rehab, where he kicks the alcohol habit, and then ships him off to his uncle Sam, claiming she wants to get him away from the bad influence of his druggie friends.

Naturally, Johnny isn't happy about this turn of events, but his uncle and his kid cousin aren't so bad - his uncle actually talks to him like an adult and is willing to trust Johnny so long as Johnny shows he can be trusted. He even tells Johnny's mom that he's out studying one evening when in reality Johnny is at a concert at a local club.

To avoid thinking about alcohol, or how his mother has essentially abandoned him, Johnny devotes himself to music. During his goth days he was a fan of goth and industrial music and even, perhaps shamefully, Marilyn Manson. But his tastes take a dramatic change upon the discover of Debbie Harry. She's beautiful, sexy and tough - everything that Johnny wishes he could be.

With the help of a supportive school counselor, and the coolest (and hottest) girl in the school with her own troubled past, Johnny explores what it means to be the "bad" kid sent away from home, with an unrequited love for New Wave music and stiletto heels.

This was an extremely fast read - I started it on the subway ride to work, read a little bit before work, then again on lunch, and finished it on the ride home. All in all, about an hour and a half to devour the whole thing, and I certainly didn't want to put it down. While there are lots of books out there about kids with drinking problems, dealing with parental displeasure over their appearance, absent/dead parents and even, increasingly, LGBT kids, this one had the fresh spin of dealing frankly with cross-dressing, proving emphatically that liking to wear the clothes of the opposite sex does not prove ones sexual orientation.

From glancing at the reviews over on Goodreads, it seems that a lot of people think that there are a few too many problems in the novel that take away from the "focus" of transvestism - there are even some suggestions that this would have been more powerful if the story hadn't been about "bad" kids. To this I say, the problems are necessary. Perhaps the alcohol issue was overcome too easily, and Johnny adapts to cross-dressing pretty easily, but I can also easily rationalize the potential problems and thoroughly enjoy the book.

In all honesty, neither Johnny nor Maria are bad kids. Bad things have happened to them, they've made poor choices, but both are determined to make good now. They help and support each other in the face of adversity and are open to new experiences. They don't always have the soundest judgment, but who does in high school?

My final verdict: this book is an excellent addition to LGBT young adult literature. While Johnny is not L, G, B or T (to his knowledge, at least), he certainly faces homophobic attacks because people think he might be one of those letters, or at least think repeatedly calling him a "fag" is the wittiest insult ever. It's a charming story about love, music, and an unconventional way of finding yourself.
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