Stick by Andrew Smith (Feiwel & Friends, Oct. 2011)-13 year old Stark (Stick) McClellan feels he is ugly because of a deformity (he was born without his right ear) and more than anything worships his 16 year old brother Bosten. Days are spent in school, where he’s quite often bullied, or hanging out with his best friend Emily. He feels like his parents never wanted them, and they’re not the nicest people. When at home, his life is rigid, defined by rules and his parents’ wrath if they aren’t followed, and their wrath can be brutal. When he’s with Bosten or Emily, he’s free, or as free as he can possibly get. Soon, he discovers Bosten is gay, and the fallout that follows his parents finding out prompts Bosten to leave home, but Stick is determined to find him, so he sets out on his own and must brave a sometimes hostile world to find the person he loves the most.
SF/Fantasy readers will probably recognize Andrew Smith from his books The Marbury Lens and Passenger, and while contemporary fiction isn’t something I usually reach for, I thought I’d step out of my comfort zone with Stick. I’m so glad I did. Stick is told in Stark’s voice, which is the voice of a boy whose self -worth is nearly non-existent and doesn’t know the touch of a loving parent. Stick and Bosten’s parents don’t touch in order to give hugs and comfort, only to cause pain. The words of dialogue are spaced out in places to give the reader a sense of how Stick’s hearing loss affects his life, and is actually very effective. This book is a book of change: change in the nature of Stick and Emily’s relationship (Stick is very much aware of his growing attraction to the opposite sex), and of course, the change in the dynamics between the boys and their parents. There are adults in Stick’s life that are kind to him, especially Emily’s parents and until the revelation that Bosten is gay, Bosten’s best friend Paul’s parents. While there is nothing gratuitous, sex is handled very frankly and Smith is refreshingly honest about what goes on between the ears of a teen boy. As the mother of an 8 year old boy, it gave me some insight into the future that while uncomfortable at times, it definitely wasn’t unwelcome, and was enlightening even.
Stick’s quest to find his brother is marked by moments of shocking violence and even more shockingly, to Stick, kindness from strangers that have absolutely nothing to gain and no reason to help him or be kind to him other than that they can. I read most of Stick with a lump in my throat, on the verge of tears for this boy who feels he isn’t worthy of love, but is loved, just not by the two people who should be his place of safety. There are very dark moments, but moments of such bright hope that they eclipse the darkness: his time with Emily and her parents, the days spent with local kids when visiting his Aunt Dahlia in California, and of course, the unwavering love of his brother. Teens looking for stories about love, loyalty and self acceptance will find much to love here, as will adults looking for not only a window into the teen mind, but also a wonderful story that’s nearly impossible to put down. Smith doesn’t use a mallet to get his message across. He doesn’t need to. His characters speak for themselves in subtle, heartbreaking ways. I wept for Stick, and rooted for him. Stick is a special book, and in the right hands, it can be a transformative one.