This coming-of-age book by Laurie Halse Anderson is published by Viking, a division of Penguin Group, and written for kids ages 12 years and older. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Tyler Miller's summer of community service for vandalizing his school has produced one positive result: The skinny teen has developed muscles, so his dream girl, Bethany, finally notices him. Trapped in a bland life with an overbearing father and a mother with a penchant for gin, Tyler revels in Bethany's attention. When she invites him to a party and offers herself to him sexually (while she's intoxicated), it takes all of Tyler's willpower to refuse her advances. Then nude pictures of Bethany at the party surface on the Internet, and fingers point in Tyler's direction. Other students torture Tyler for his presumed involvement. Then he is isolated from his classmates by the school for his own protection. Meanwhile, police officers investigate him, Bethany's brother jumps him and his dad continues to remind him that he's a loser. Tyler contemplates killing himself with his dad's gun, until he chooses to make a better life for himself rather than die.
When Bethany's mom invites Tyler into the house on a Sunday afternoon, Tyler nervously lies about having church activities. Bethany's mom is impressed that Tyler is both handsome and spiritual, and she says she's sure the Lord won't mind if he takes a few minutes to visit Bethany. Tyler writes a compare/contrast paper about God and Satan and gets a zero. He says everything about Christmas is holy to his mom, not just the church stuff, but all the decorations, family photos, etc.
Tyler's workaholic dad has vowed never to inflict physical abuse like his father did, but his verbal abuse — screaming matches with his wife and visible disappointment in the family — alienates him from the family. At the end of the book, his father shares some healing moments with Tyler and demonstrates a desire to be a better dad. His mother, Mrs. Miller, is a pet photographer, drinks too much gin and makes constant excuses for her husband's bad behavior. The two attend marriage counseling. Bethany's mom warns her not to have any cake because, with her injured leg, she's not in a position to exercise. Most of the principal's attempts to discipline Tyler involve long, trite lectures.
On a bad day, Tyler prays to every god he's heard about that he will die. He doesn't want to leave a mess for someone else to discover or clean up, though, when he contemplates killing himself. He thinks if he did, it would be such bad karma that his soul might be sent back to live the same miserable life. When Tyler has a dream about kissing Bethany, he says it is a sign, a magical intervention from the saints and spirits of dweeby guys.
Words like a--, d--n, b--ch, h---, screw, slut, whore, butt, crap, douche bag, b--tard, p---, boobs, BS, WTF, the s-word and the f-word are used frequently, and the Lord's name is often taken in vain. When Tyler vandalizes the school, he misspells the word testicle and makes crude remarks about the principle's manhood. Tyler frequently plays a video game called Tophet [a fictional game] in which he guides and empowers his demon through the 66 levels of hell. The game involves a lot of killing and the casting of spells. Tyler often fantasizes about doing violent things to his dad. Instead, he takes a baseball bat to his father's prized train set and destroys one of his CDs. Tyler is bullied and eventually beat up by classmates, because most think he is guilty of posting the nude photographs of Bethany online. Bullies, also, torment Tyler's friend because his friend is small, and the bullies can get away with it.
Tyler and the building maintenance crew lust for and fantasize about the wet tennis team members at a car wash. Tyler frequently informs readers of his erections (using terms like penis, trouser snake, hard on, boner and others) and often elaborates on his erotic fantasies about Bethany. He makes allusions to masturbating and to viewing pornography in magazines or on the Internet. On the first day of school, senior guys prowl for virgin freshmen. Tyler is thankful for art history, a class that allows him to look at breasts. While going through Tyler's wallet, Bethany finds a condom. At a party, a drunk Bethany dirty dances with Tyler before coming on to him in an effort to have sex. After an intense inner battle, Tyler stops making out with her and says he won't take advantage of her while she's wasted. She accuses him of being gay because he won't sleep with her. A nude photograph of Bethany appears on the Internet. Tyler is accused of taking it and posting it online.
ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2008; International Reading Association Top Ten Books of 2007; The New York Times Bestseller List, 2007 and others.
Criminal activity: As the book begins, Tyler is completing a sentence of community service for vandalizing the school. He'd considered bombing it (in the evening, so no one would get hurt), but decided it was too risky so he used spray paint to rage against its authority in his life. The maintenance men he works with, while doing community service, teach him how to steal soda from the vending machine. When Tyler thinks of leaving home, he steals money from his dad's room.
Lying: Tyler frequently lies to his parents so he can go to parties or keep them from fighting as much. His sister also lies so she can attend a party. Tyler's dad lies to his boss and co-workers so they will perceive him as competent.
Alcohol and drug use/abuse: Tyler's mom drinks too much gin and tries to cover up her problem by saying she has migraines. Tyler's dad usually has only one scotch per night, but drinks three on an evening that's especially stressful. Several times, Tyler takes four ibuprofen and chugs half a bottle of NyQuil to get to sleep after a trying day. Bethany's brother's name is Chip. His breath smells like beer and the Tic Tacs he uses to cover it up. Tyler says his school's homecoming game always happens on the Friday of Columbus Day weekend to give everyone an extra day to recover from their hangovers. A party Tyler and his sister attend has kegs and smells like beer-vomit and weed.
Prejudice: Mr. Miller's boss makes a questionable remark about the “illegals” his wife always hires to do their landscaping.
Obsession with death: Tyler says thinking about death relaxes him. His favorite video game is about death. When he's falsely accused of distributing nude photos of Bethany, he thinks through the many ways he could kill himself. He loads his father's gun and puts it in his mouth, nearly pulling the trigger.
Modesty: Tyler mentions a day when many of the girls at his school have dressed provocatively, causing the male students to be awash in lust. When the guys express their desires, the girls get angry. Tyler's 14-year-old sister secretly gets a belly button ring and folds down the top of her mini skirt at school so it will show. Another time, she takes off a parent-approved shirt in the car on the way to school so she can wear a skimpy top.
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.