Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Buddha Boy

Koja, Kathe. 2003. BUDDHA BOY. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374309981 [Suggested Grade Levels 7 to 10]

This novel looks at the character of Jinsen, also known as Buddha Boy, who definitely takes first place at being “the weird kid” at Edward Rucher High School. He wears big tie-dye t-shirts, creates incredible artwork and begs like a Buddhist monk in the cafeteria at lunch hour, and not surprisingly gets picked on by the popular kids who shun those different from themselves. Jinsen remains amazingly unaffected by them; he understands their behavior since he was once like them, picking on others and getting expelled from school. This all changed when his mother died and an art teacher taught him not only about drawing and painting but about Buddhism; now he recognizes the hidden divine nature in others, even those who hassle him and destroy his artwork, saying simply, “We’re all gods.”
All this is filtered through the eyes of the narrator, Justin, who has his own problems with his divorced parents and the typical school woes but is able to learn from Jinsen’s example. Justin often fights for Jinsen’s cause more than Jinsen himself does, such as when the bullies destroy his sketchbook and a school banner he created; he rails against the unfairness of it all, only to realize that it’s all part of the cycle of life, as Jinsen has shown him. This may be a hard truth for young people to appreciate, but it could make them think about how their behavior affects others and what they can do about it.
This book presents a very real portrayal of the behavior of youth to one another in a school setting. It would definitely hit home with sensitive teens but could either draw them in (“Someone else understands”) or repel them (“I see enough of this every day at school, so why should I read about it, too?”)
There is also a focus on familial relationships: Justin’s relationship with his divorced parents, as well as Jinsen’s with his late mother and his old aunt who lives with him, forcing him to be the responsible one and not enjoy being a kid as much. Justin gains perspective on his somewhat distant relationship with his mom (or “Audrey”) when he sees Jinsen’s wistfulness at talking to her and realizes how fortunate he is; gladly this was not portrayed heavy-handedly. Also, Justin’s dad is an artist, so through him Justin has something he can relate to Jinsen about, and as he learns more from Jinsen about art he can also relate better to his dad.

This novel serves as an introduction to Buddhism for the younger seeker. It doesn’t focus on the religious aspects so much as presenting it as a way to be, through the idea of karma, the “be here now” elements and the “way of seeing” that influences Jinsen’s art (for example, “the way his drawing of a tree was a tree”). Students could read more about this philosophy and create a presentation or display to inform others.

Nonfiction books on Buddhism for teens:
Fischer, Norman. Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up. ISBN 0060505516
Metcalf, Franz. Buddha in Your Backpack. ISBN 1569753210
Winston, Diana and Noah Levine. Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens. ISBN 0399528970
By Shannon McGregor

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