By Maureen Tai, 10 January 2020
Bradley thought a moment, then said, “Give me a dollar or I’ll spit on you.”
Pop psychology attests that you become who you hang out with. When we meet Bradley Chalkers in There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, he doesn’t hang out with anyone at all. He sits in his own row at the back of his fifth grade class. He is pugnacious. He lies. He does not do homework. He destroys books. His teacher has given up on him, and he is banned from the school library. He has never earned a gold star in class. He has not been to a birthday party in three years. He is unliked by everyone. His parents are distant. His older sister pokes cruel fun at him. His only companions are his battered assortment of collected miniature animals, fashioned from brass, ceramic, glass and ivory. So far, so sadly perplexing. Why is Bradley so troubled and so very unlikeable?
In his typical style, Sachar doesn’t give us much by way of introduction or backstory. With honest, no-holds-barred prose, taut pacing and punchy dialogue, we are plunged right into Bradley’s perplexing psyche. We are compelled to follow him, mesmerized with dread, as if watching a train wreck in slow motion, as he interacts with the new boy in his class. Jeff Fishkin, friendless as all new kids are, sits at the desk next to Bradley’s and naively offers friendship. Bradley recoils, spitting (almost) and hissing like a cat that’s been poked with a stick. No one has made such a gesture before, and Bradley is confused, unable to understand, much less respond to this simple act of kindness.
His life becomes even more complicated as a new guidance counsellor joins his school. Ms Davis, or Carla, as she prefers to be called, is young and attractive, unburdened with any personal experience of Bradley’s behavioral issues. He is brusque and intolerably rude when he meets Carla, but she responds calmly with patience and kindness. It becomes clear, even as Bradley lashes out in inexplicable anger and hatred, that he has been afforded little to no compassion by those around him. This realization is heartbreaking.
Everyone has experienced frustratingly knotted shoelaces, with each knot made over the other without much thought to the eventual consequences. Bradley’s internal knots are just as knitted together and hard to unravel, and worse, once prised apart, he threatens to redo them with greater ferocity. Bradley Chalkers is his own worse enemy. But even when the story sees our flawed hero take one step forward and two steps back, with the support and belief of just one individual, Bradley heads in the right direction. By the end of the novel, we see him emerge more untangled than not, with hope and with promise.
Sacher’s great skill is in creating multi-dimensional characters that embody the truth about all humans: none of us are perfect. We are all messy and we have messy interactions with those around us. Jeff is shy and deep down, a decent lad, but he too disappointingly spurns Bradley midway in the book. Colleen, a classmate with a crush on Jeff, is frivolous and easily swayed by her girlfriends’ opinions. Carla, for all her uncanny ability to understand the students and to see and bring out the good in them, is impotent when faced with angry parents who are disconnected from the emotional turmoils of their children. Such a tangled web we weave.
There is truth in the old adage, “the world is your mirror.” In reality, we are all mirrors, of ourselves, and of each other. Imperfect reflections that can waver and change, and that can only be fully understood and appreciated with time, compassion, kindness and always, a dash of well-placed humor. Be prepared with some tissues. You’ll need them.
For ages 8 and above.