Friday, February 3, 2017

Reality Boy, A.S.King

Title: Reality Boy
Author: A.S.King
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 353
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Mental Health, Media, First Love
Age Range: 8th Grade and Above

Gerald Faust was five years old when his family appeared on the Network Nanny show. Ever since, he's been living under the shadow of his outrageous behavior, which helped him earn the nickname "The Crapper". Despite the nanny's intervention, by the time Gerald is 15 his family is in shambles, and he is carrying around more anger than is healthy. His oldest sister has moved back into the house, bringing with her a dangerous attitude and a rat-faced boyfriend. His middle sister has gone away to school, leaving him alone to deal with his mother's emotional neglect, his father's drinking, and his other sister's murderous rampages. He deals with his pain and anger by creating a fantasy world in his head, where he can disappear for hours at a time. When he meets Hannah, however, a girl who's just as desperate to escape her world as he is his, his defense start to crumble, and he finds he must deal with the demons, literal and figurative, that have been plaguing him for almost twelve years.


"Dear Children Featured on Supernanny,

I apologize."

That was my overwhelming feeling upon reading Reality Boy. I am (now) ashamed to say that I eagerly awaited every episode of Supernanny. There was something wholly satisfying about watching Nanny Jo talk tough to parents and kids about their behavior. Frankly, it was more satisfying for me to watch her have "come to Jesus" meetings with the parents than anything that happened with the children. As a school teacher, I think it was a little bit of wish fulfillment on my part; Nanny Jo could say things to parents about setting boundaries and promoting responsible behavior in their children hat I could never in a million years get away with.

But the sad fact is, these were real families with real children who had no say over whether their misbehavior was going to be broadcast on national television. And it never occurred to me, not once, that this could be more damaging to them than their parents' less-than-stellar parenting skills. Hence the apology above. While Gerald's situation is clearly an extreme form of what the families on this popular nanny shows went through, it does raise an ethical dilemma about exploiting children for entertainment.

You feel sorry for Gerald right from the start. It is obvious that he is in tremendous emotional pain, with only two respites from the real world. He has developed a rich internal life, a place that he can escape to filled with all of the elements of what a happy childhood is. Disney characters and ice cream and playing on the swings with the sister who isn't a psychopath. The other place is the special education classroom his mother somehow convinced the school he should be in; a place where no one judges him for his five-year-old behavior. But when Gerald meets Hannah, his inner world starts to fall apart, and being in his SPED class starts to feel like hiding instead of living.

I love the irony of the title. Gerald's life was defined by reality TV, which never actually showed reality, and his life is now defined by a fantasy world he has created that allows him to escape reality. I also love that Hannah, while she forces Gerald to make some changes for the better, doesn't "fix" him. She's got troubles of her own, and their relationship is not all sunshine and roses. It's a story of two broken people, each with their own emotional issues, supporting each other. They don't always make the right decisions, but each of them is trying in their own way to find the home they've always wanted, in each other.

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