Given all the news recently about the inconceivably arrogant, morally chthonic behavior of certain people in central PA - people who make me type in all caps, people whose f-ing job it was to teach teenage athletes about discipline and integrity and in the process turn them into admirable men, and yet who somehow valued winning or the status quo or... something - I mean, I just can't fathom what possible motive there could be for keeping silent - over the safety and well-being of a legion of children...
Yes. Given that, I would like to offer up a healthy, happy novel about a healthy, normal boy, a boy fortunately unmolested by predatory old men - a boy whose only real tormentor is the tail that wags his dog.
That's right - I'm talking about Bobby's boner. Allow me to relate a conversation I had with my boys.
Zhou (3rd grade): What's so funny?
YNL: This book I'm reading, The Downside of Being Up.
Milo (5th grade): Can I read it?
YNL: Mmmmm... not now. I think you'll get more out of it in a couple of years.
Z: Well what's it about?
YNL: It's, um... it's actually about boners.
M: What's that mean?
YNL: Well, it's when your penis gets stiff, like sometimes when you wake up in the morning. That can happen to older boys just for no reason, like in the middle of the day. It happens to Bobby, the kid in this book all the time, and he's really embarrassed about it.
Z: Why is he embarrassed? It just a thing that happens.
YNL: You're right, it's just a natural thing, but when you get older, it tends to happen when you're thinking about a person that you like - a person you like romantically.
Milo: AAAUUGhhh! [falls off chair in disgust]
YNL: Right. So you can see that you might not want everyone to know what you're feeling. That's private.
Ok. So - I am genuinely committed to 100% transparency about this stuff with them - just because I'm a female doesn't mean I'm going to shunt all the penis talk off on Dad. I feel that the minute you refuse to talk about something, you are mythologizing that thing, putting it in a place that is approached only with undue reverence or fascinated shame.
Besides (and speaking of which), my husband was raised largely by his sisters in a Catholic household, so he's not that comfortable singing the schlong song anyway. But I have to admit I was relieved when Milo refused to countenance any further talk that involved people having romantic feelings of any kind for anyone and changed the subject to the book he was reading, Cartoon History of the Universe. They're only 8 and 10, after all. We've got time.
Poor Bobby Connor, however, is right in the thick of it. Thirteen years old, in love for the first time, plagued by loser parents, an angry sister and an embarrassing best friend... and helplessly hoisting a pants-pole about eighteen times a day.
The effort Bobby has to put into hiding his un-wished-for wood makes him seem a bit obsessed with the wang, but he's got a pretty healthy attitude. He doesn't think he's a pervert, which is important. Later in the book, when other people start thinking he's possibly a pervert, he rightly realizes that the problem is theirs.
I have to give Alan Lawrence Sitomer a lot of credit. This is a tricky subject area to navigate, and bless the man for setting sail in these waters. It's a little bit of a hesitant journey, however: Bobby talks frankly about the boners, about his boner, and admits being insecure about its size; but the only mentions of porn and masturbation are by Bobby's profane old Gramps, a farty, disheveled character who is a dead ringer for Alan Arkin's character in Little Miss Sunshine, and in both cases Bobby reacts kind of like my Milo did when I brought up the subject of romantic love.
Characterization is a bit uneven, and I became hyper-aware of all the 'popping' that went on in the book - Gramps pops jelly beans into his mouth, Bobby and his would-be girlfriend pop M&M's into their mouths every day, and when a bunch of grapes was glimpsed in a bowl on the kitchen table, I tensed up, correctly anticipating more popping. There is also the unlikely plot device of a kid being punished at school for sporting a stiffy, and some out-of-proportion persecution by a teacher. But Sitomer teaches 7th grade, he probably knows better than I do what goes on in middle school.
Really, don't let me quibble. The book is great as far as it goes, and to my knowledge unique in its subject matter for this age range. I read every single boys' puberty book that crosses my path hoping for a frank and reassuring discussion of the unwelcome math-class boner (Lynda Madaras can't be beat for frank and reassuring), but I have never hoped for frank, reassuring and funny.
And check it out - Alan Lawrence Sitomer has basically the same take on Penn State as I do.