Kathe Koja, Buddha Boy (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2003)
I got to the point about eight years ago where I finally gave in to the temptation to predict an author. After the back-to-back triumphs that were Skin and Strange Angels, I figured that from here on out, anything Kathe Koja would release would be brilliant, and every book she released would find its way onto my top ten for whatever year in which I read it.
Then she started writing kidlit. I approached Straydog with some trepidation, but it not only made last year's best-of list, it topped it. So I had no such qualms hunting down her second piece of young adult fiction, Buddha Boy. Needless to say, I wasn't surprised, at least not by the quality.
Justin is an Everyman in an Everyman's high school; if you went to high school in America, you'll probably recognize all the archetypes to be found here. The school gets a new student, Jinsen. To call Jinsen, an aspiring Zen monk, different would be the understatement of the year. And we all know what happens to different kids in high school.
Justin, however, assigned to a class project with Jinsen, discovers that Jinsen is one of the finest artists Justin has ever come across, and thus grudgingly befriends the kid the others at school call Buddha Boy. From all this springs this small, delicate tale.
Koja's writing is, as usual, short and to the point. Even the slowest reader will probably get through Buddha Boy in no more than a couple of days. Most people will be able to find someone here to identify with (though many won't like what they see in the book's looking-glass), and the story is compelling enough to draw the reader through, perhaps in a single gulp. Nothing surprising there.
What is surprising, perhaps, is the language she chooses. It seems, especially in comparison with Straydog, that Koja's language is slipping back towards that she used in her adult novels. Not that she talked down to the audience in Straydog or that she elevates them here; it's a slight difference in tone, a barren quality from Skin and Strange Angels that was (despite the painfulness of Straydog's subject matter) absent from the previous book.
She's got a new one coming out any day now, The Blue Mirror. I can't wait. **** ½
When a new artistically talented boy shows up at Rucher high, calling himself Jinsen instead of his real name, and acting "strange", sophomore classmate Justin doesn't understand why, but he also doesn't know why Jinsen tolerates the continual harassment by the other students without complaint. More of a portrayal of friendship than of Buddhism, Buddha Boy shows how the practice of religious tenets can turn a person's life around. Koja manages to do this in a non-preachy way, noting through Justin's observations that "all religions are about the same thing" but that religion "doesn't seem to make any difference" in making people better or changing the way they act. Several chapters begin with Justin's comments on karma or other issues and then flash back to the events that formed them. Justin's growing concern about the way his classmates treat his friend, and how the school officials ignore it to serve their own interests, trigger actions that result in "karma" for both of them.