The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth GIrl, Barry Lyga

Monday, February 26, 2018

I first discovered Barry Lyga at the Illinois Reading Council Conference. My best friend and I were I Hunt Killers. As a lover of mysteries and thrillers, how could I not bring it home with me?
browsing the booksellers' stalls (and let me tell you, the exhibit hall at the IRC Conference is children's/YA book heaven), when I was stopped in my tracks by a book with the provocative title of

That book, and the two that followed it completing the trilogy, gave me a lot of respect for Lyga's storytelling and character writing. Imagine my excitement at discovering that the I Hunt Killers books were only a few of the many books he's published. Diving into his body of work, I decided to go back to the beginning, and start with his debut novel, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. 

The book's narrator is Donnie, a nerdy sophomore who loves comics more than anything else. While his school years have never been easy for him, this year is becoming especially challenging. His parents are divorced, and his mother remarried a man who could not be more different than Donnie. She is currently awaiting the birth of her first child with the man Donnie calls "step-fascist". His best and only friend, Cam, has started loving lacrosse and his new-found popularity more than the Donnie and the comics obsession they used to share. The icing on the cake is the bully in his gym class who has taken to punching Donnie so hard in arm or shoulder every day that he's developing a permanent bruise. Donnie's only salvation is the graphic novel he's been working on, called Schemata. But even that starts to suffer, when the drama going on in his life interferes with his time and creativity. Into this dismal existence comes Kyra, aka Goth Girl, a loner with an "eff you" attitude about anyone or anything that she disdains-which is pretty much everyone and everything. She challenges Donnie to stand up for himself, and thus begins a friendship/relationship that allows Donnie to grow and become more assertive. Over time, Donnie begins to realize that Kyra's rough exterior is protecting a vulnerable girl working to be tough, and his ability to help her makes gives him more agency in his own life, and to change his general attitude towards certain things in his life.

Lyga has done an admirable job in this novel creating characters that feel real, with problems that I think a lot of young people can relate to. Certainly issues like divorce, exclusion, isolation, and mental illness are common enough. Even the "popular" kids in high school can feel as though they are not enough; that if someone uncovered the "real" them they would reject them, much as Donnie feels rejected for his love of comics.

I wonder how much of Donnie is modeled on Lyga's own experiences. Lyga spent many years working in the comics industry, and before the last decade or so, comic shops were essentially seen as the natural habitat for nerds, geeks, and weirdos. Lyga's love of and knowledge about comics is clear in the book, and it helps give the story authenticity. The story itself is a fairly common YA trope-two misfits find each other and fall in love while thumbing their noses at conventional popularity-but it is written with such compelling characters and enough nuance as to not feel formulaic. I'm not sure I can say I loved it as much as I loved the I Hunt Killers series, but I can say I loved it differently, since The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and I Hunt Killers are so different in theme, mood, and tone they could almost be written by two different authors. But I did love it.

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