Being a Boy by James Dawson
NOTE: Due to the nature of this book’s content, some of this review’s language could be considered quite rude!
This is one of those books you can only marvel at for never having been written before. No matter who I speak to about it, everyone says exactly the same things; ‘This is so useful’ ‘Exactly what’s needed’, and, interestingly, ‘where’s the girl’s version?’
It’s actually pretty tough being a boy. After all, how on Earth are you supposed to be cool and pull a girl (or boy) when you’ve got hair sprouting from truly odd places, your voice is on a rollercoaster and apparently your face wants to do a dalmation impression? Luckily former PSHCE teacher James Dawson is on hand to provide the answer to all things Growing Up in this brutally honest (but still absolutely hilarious) guide to being a teenage boy.
As you’ve probably guessed if you follow me on twitter or even read a half dozen of my reviews on here, I’m a girl. Not an especially girly girl, but a girl nonetheless. That said, I had to wonder when I heard about this book just how well I’d be able to review it since I’m not exactly it’s intended audience. I shouldn’t have bothered wondering – this book is marvellous and even though it’s technically aimed at teenage boys, I daresay teenage girls could get a fair amount out of it too.
For starters it’s written by someone who a) knows how to write for teenagers (Dawson is an acclaimed YA author and former Queen of Teen nominee so he knows how to write) and b) has bothered to find out what it is about puberty and growing up that teenage boys actually have questions on. Every other book on puberty I’ve ever seen has always been aimed at roughly the 9-11 age group and has tackled only the clinical bits, but this is the first I’ve seen tackling the issue for teenagers, who will of course have completely different concerns than their younger siblings.
As Dawson points out, boys aren’t as likely as girls to discuss the finer points of puberty in a comfy huddle or compare notes with their mates. Wheras girls will happily discuss their bodies habits of routinely bleeding (and are in fact encouraged to do so), boys don’t have the same option – to be a boy you have to be manly and of the strong and silent type and definately not discuss bodily habits or compare notes on cocks. It just Isn’t Done and is completely and utterly unfair, as Dawson makes quite clear. What he has done instead then is to create the perfect book for a boy to find out all the answers to the questions he’d really want to ask, such as whether maturbation will really kill/harm you. This way he wouldn’t end up resorting to the Internet, typing in ‘masturbation’, and ending up with god knows what X-rated and entirely unhelpful adult website which doesn’t answer his question AT ALL (but does throw up a whole bunch of new ones). As well as answering this question, other helpful answers include how to be a boyfriend (including how to start a conversation with a girl, why kissing is NEVER an opening to sex and to always be upfront), how to create a capsule wardrobe (and never have a clothes dilemma or look like a prat ever), and how to avoid being a a willy-waggler.
The really impressive points though for me were the whole chunks of the book that discussed the parts of sex education I think can easily get avoided by schools and /or parents; porn and sexuality. Dawson approaches it in a way I certainly didn’t encounter in any of my PSHE lesson (which were not all that long ago really). We never discussed whether going out with girls actually made you a lesbian or not, or whether there was the possibility of multiple sexualities or fluid sexuality. We glanced on homosexuality maybe, but that was all, and this was not an especially conservative school. Dawson though presents everything factually and explains that some boys likes girls, some like guys, some like both, but at no point is sexuality so certain as it can be labelled gay or straight accurately. He makes it absolutely clear that it’s perfectly fine in today’s society to be anything/or. Somehow being into boys or into girls or into both seems a lot less frightening when a book tells you frankly that you know what? you’re not the only one and it’s all ok and it doesn’t mean you’re always going to be *insert sexuality here* for all eternity anyway.
The other part that really impressed me was, as I said, the highlight on porn. Teenage boys will see porn at some point whilst growing up. Some will even seek it out (ok, ‘some’ might not be the right word there), but the problem arises when teenage boys see porn and think this is how sex is actually going to be. Dawson points this out beautifully by writing out the start of a story following a teenage girl as she walks home. The sceanrio he’s written can only sound menacing (it certainly did to little female me), but he goes on to say this is actually a description of the opening of a porn film. He almost belabours the point that porn is not sex and gives a blow by blow description of just why it’s not. It’s absolutely the sort of thing that needs to be said and although it’s not something I can imagine all parents being thrilled about their teenage sons reading, I must admit to thinking that to avoid it would be to do their sons a disservice. Even if they haven’t encountered porn (how?! Are they under an Internet rock?!) themselves, certainly their friends will have and this sort of book nips it straight in the bud that ‘no’ can ever mean ‘yes’ and that ‘jack rabbit’ sex is ever pleasant.
I don’t think this book is just for boys though. Nope, even though there are whole sections about penises and whatnot (an unclean peen must never be seen! (pg 63)) there are sections that girls could get a lot out of too. Case in point, The Pecking Order (pg 16) which goes through the whole zoo of different classmate types. From the laidback uber-cool Insoucient Lion to the nasty little Shitweasel to the Tragic Vole, every character type is easily recognisable as being a particular type of teenage boy in your average class. I’d also say a good chunk of these characters you can apply to your everyday girls school too. Certainly I went to a girls school and I can immediately pick out which ones were the Tragic Voles and which ones the Pea-Brain Peacocks in my class (and no, I won’t tell you what I was, but it definately wasn’t the Insoucient Lion). From what I’ve seen of secondary schools as part of my work now, I’m pretty sure not too much has changed when it comes to girls and their friendship groups/frenemies and I’m sure this map of the social hierarchy for boys could be used by a lot of girls to see their female classmates with the same sort of clarity. Shitweasels aren’t exclusive to boys after all.
Above all though, this book is funny. It’s not the literary equivalent of an educational video from the 1950’s with a formal voiceover in a BBC accent, which is what I usually have running through my head whenever I look at a ‘bare facts’ style book on puberty. Being a Boy acknowledges that yes, sex and puberty is serious but geez, it’s all a bit ridiculous too! As Dawson puts in in the first few pages, ‘Let’s face it, there’s nothing funnier than a penis, so we may as well laugh about it’ (p6). Take it from a girl, when puberty is explained by this author, it’s just as funny if you have a lady garden instead of a peen.
That’s not to say that jokes and irrevereant terms are exchanged for facts. This is one of the most comprehensive and detailed books about puberty and sex I’ve ever had the pleasure to see (and that is not a sentence I thought I’d ever be writing). It shows that Dawson is a former PSHCE teacher and there is a section at the back for contacts and more information. There is also a part for parents too, making it explicitly clear that whilst this is a book about sex it is not by any means a sexy book. It’s supposed to be the perfect answer to getting a teenage boy the answer he needs even when he can’t or won’t actively ask the questions of a parent or other adult. One of my favourite lines in the whole book and one that sums it up nicely is ‘…you might have to lead him to this book – after all a book about sex and puberty is potentially cringe-tastic… I’m not being standoffish or glib about these important issues, I’ve simply sugared the pill.’ (pg 171). That, for me, is the book in a nutshell – funny, but without compromising on content.
For putting the whole puberty business into perspective as the ultimately utterly ludicrous process that it is, I have to congratulate Dawson. Everything else, from the truth about porn to how to dress to being a boyfriend is all just the detailed and excellent gravy. There’s too much I love about this book to mention it all here but know that I do think it is a truly marvellous book and one I will happily be recommending to teenage girls as well as boys. After all, if boys and girls could see things more clearly from the others’ point of view, I’m willing to bet it’d stop an awful lot of awkwardness and make puberty just a tad easier.
Find Being a Boy here.