Goodreads: The Boys in the Back Row
Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: October 6, 2020
Matt and Eric are best friends, but now Eric is moving away. Before he goes, the boys plan an epic last adventure. During the annual marching band competition at an amusement park, they will sneak away to a comic con to get their favorite comic signed by the artist. But unexpected complications arise when a bully learns of their plans.
The Boys in the Back Row is an unabashed homage to male friendship. Focusing on the bond between middle schoolers Matt and Eric, the story celebrates a masculinity strong enough to allow the boys to admit that they care for another, even when the other kids at their school make fun of them. The plot revolves around their final big adventure together–sneaking away from a school function to attend a comic con. But, at its heart, the story is about far more than shared interests or even shared adventures. The love the two have for one another is the real story here–as is their comfort with sharing it.
Books with male friendships can be difficult to find, both in middle grade and YA. So I was thrilled to see The Boys in the Back Row start to fill this gap in the market. In doing so, it also subtly addresses the topic of toxic masculinity, showing how the fear of not fitting in at school causes the other boys to deny their emotions. Lacking a safe place to share their inner selves and fearing the social repercussions if they do, the other boys perform a type of masculinity that degrades women and gay individuals. Some of these kids are obviously the villains of the story–the bullies who make Matt and Eric’s lives a nightmare. But, sadly, a good portion of the school often participates in the bullying either by laughing or standing by idly. These kids–the bystanders–are often the ones who cause Matt, our narrator, the most pain.
The Boys in the Back Row takes a stand against toxic masculinity and apathy by revealing their hurtful effects. Some of the kids escalate their toxic masculinity into physical violence to demonstrate their dominance, but readers can see that much of the harm results from the failure of the other kids to step in, as well as their tacit participation in the bullying cycle by spreading rumors. And, sadly, the book also illustrates how so much bad behavior can go unnoticed even by teachers who have their students’ best interests at heart. The teachers cannot be everywhere, nor hear everything. So student apathy allows bullying to grow unchecked. In this depiction, The Boys in the Back Row feels very, very real.
Ultimately, however, The Boys in the Back Row is not a depressing book. Matt and Eric’s friendship and support for one another proves stronger than any hate and the book ends with a message of love. Readers who have been searching for a book that validates male friendship will want to check out The Boys in the Back Row.