SELFLESS is a comic-drama about identity and the many factors that shape it: family, friends; race; religion; social class; and the myriad fears and fascinations that afflict us all as we try to discover who we are. Jonathan Schwartz is the main character, and we spend a great deal of time with him and his three best friends (all boys) as they navigate through high school and college in the 1980's. The book depicts adolescent boys in a hysterically graphic but true-to-life way as they focus most of their time and energy on things like filling out charts for rating the girls at school (categories include, "Face, Chest, Butt, Legs, Eyes, Hair, Clothes, Sports Ability, and, lastly, for tie-breaking purposes, Personality"), or ticking items off on “The Purity Test,” a list of 100 questions that determined what was called one’s “Purity Rating” ("the point of a decent score was to confirm an adventurous nature, not to be disgusting.")
But in the midst of the boys' hilarious single-mindedness, we see and begin to worry about the fundamental lack of authenticity in their relationships, obviously withgirls, but also with each other. It takes the intrusions of family crises for all of them—most especially for Jon, whose family is positively overflowing with dysfunction—for them even to begin to rise above these limitations.
Folks who've read the book often remark that, as a long-time 7th grade teacher (nearly fifteen years), I am clearly in touch with the teenage boy. The truth is I remember my own teen years all too clearly (not that I did any of the things Jon, Jake, Cory and Milo do—I swear! Okay, not that I did most of them. Fine, not that I did some of them.). But, from what I see as a teacher, things are much the same among boys all these years later (I'm 39 now). In the larger picture, they always will be: we will all have to blunder our way down the perilous path that is growing up. All the characters in the book, including Jon's two challenging sisters, struggle to find a place in the world. For one of them, the struggle is a war.
Because of the graphic nature of the boys' language and some of the off-color scenarios they engineer, the book is appropriate only for older teens. Feedback as been very interesting in terms of gender. I’ve been told the book was “hilarious” and “addicting” by both boys and girls. Girls, though, report having shaken their heads continually as they read, muttering, “Boys,” the whole time (maybe with the word 'pathetic' thrown in every so often—okay, very often. Fine, pretty much every page). Boys report that they see themselves in Jon and his friends, often only too well. It's a book they say that did a rare thing: it made them laugh and think at the same time.
As an author, I can't hope for anything more.
David Michael Slater is the author of nine picture books, including CHEESE LOUISE; THE RING BEAR (an SSLI Honor Book); JACQUES & SPOCK (a Children's Book-of-the-Month Alternative Selection); and FLOUR GIRL (a 2008 Mom's Choice Award winner). Seven more titles are scheduled for '09; Slater's teen series, SACRED BOOKS, recently launched with THE BOOK OF NONSENSE (a finalist for the Associaion of Booksellers for Children's Best of 2008 list and Cybil Award nominee); Finally, he has a film in development, MOCHA COLA HIGH, with Right Angle Pictures.
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