The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis (review)

It’s been awhile between blog posts lately due to general chaos on the home front. As ever, good books have been saving my sanity. Here’s one of my recent favourites…

Sidekicks Will Kostakis YA FictionThe Sidekicks by Will Kostakis
Penguin RRP: $19.99AUD

It strikes me as odd that being gay is still a football of use to politicians, as evidenced in recent pre-election campaigning here in Australia. I respect that people have different views on marriage equality and related issues, but why penalise people for loving each other, whilst simultaneously freaking out about hate, intolerance, fear and terror in other arenas? What are we teaching our kids by saying we need to vote as a nation on whether gay people are acceptable to us or not?

All of which brings me to an awkward 2-part review of Will Kostakis’ excellent young adult novel The Sidekicks, which is about being gay – as well as many other things. You may know Will from the terrific Stuff Happens series for younger readers or his previous YA novels.

Part 1 – The elephant in the room

I do not wish to define this clever, complex story as a ‘gay book’, but the fact that it includes a sub plot about a gay relationship has been the first point made in many other reviews. There would be a big gay elephant in the room if I didn’t give my opinion on this aspect of the text.

This is a book about teenage boys and their complicated friendships (more about this in Part 2) but one of the boys is in the process of coming out and experiencing his first gay relationship. Words like ‘poof’ are thrown around as casual insults amongst the boy’s peers, so it’s no surprise that he’s reticent to show his true colours at school.

Significantly, on the author’s own (very entertaining) blog and social media spaces, I watched him having to defend himself as a school he’d previously visited as a guest author asked him, kindly, not to promote The Sidekicks on a future visit for fear of offending people.

We have a concern about promoting your new book at our school […] We were reading over your blog and I think it might not be appropriate, and parents might not be happy… said the school.

Strangely, the school HAD allowed Will to promote his previous novel – The First Third – which also includes a gay character. The only thing that had changed in the meantime was that Will himself had mentioned on his blog that he, too, is gay.

Schools do have a tough time balancing the interests of kids with the preferences of parents, and they’re within their rights to pick and choose what they stock in their library. But it does beg the question – how do we ever foster a culture of tolerance and acceptance of diversity if our kids’ reading lists are censored?

As the old adage says, it’s difficult to truly understand what someone else is going through unless you walk a mile in their shoes. When it comes to diverse life experiences, reading someone’s story is an excellent way to gain insight into the lived experience of being gay (for example) or indeed being a teenage human with all manner of challenges and hang-ups regardless of sexual preference.

Will Kostakis is a writer who manages to get right inside the heads of his protagonists and present their worldviews without condescension or sanitisation. It’s important to note that the The Sidekicks doesn’t include any graphic sex scenes, but it does include some tender, romantic moments with all the ineptness and unspoken anxieties you’d expect from any teen encounter.

When my children are old enough to read any books about teen love, I’d like to offer them books that talk sensitively about the emotional side of burgeoning sexuality. Too many teen reads are driven by naïve fairy tale romance or sad, aggressive encounters. Let’s celebrate young love in all its scary, clumsy glory! I hope that the more young people come to understand diverse representations of love, the easier it will eventually be at the policy level to accept diversity in the wider population.

Importantly, though, this book has much more to offer than a gay subplot.

Part 2 – The many other reasons to read this book

The Sidekicks is a story about teen friendship. For some, the teens will be the time that they cement lifelong relationships with people who know them better than anyone else. For others, this will be a time of isolation and fear of never quite finding your tribe.

Ryan, Harley and Miles are three very different young men who have one thing in common – a mutual friend named Isaac. When the enigmatic Isaac suddenly dies, these three ‘sidekicks’ must figure out who they are and what their role is in each other’s lives with their best friend gone. Each of the three has their own personal challenges, strengths, weaknesses and secrets; and some of these were things they only shared with Isaac.

They are thrown together the morning a school assembly is called to announce Isaac’s death. Knowing the three had a special connection to Isaac, kids begin to stare and whisper – waiting to gauge the boys’ reactions. Champion swimmer Ryan is dragged out of the assembly by anxious academic Miles, who needs to get access to Isaac’s locker. In the locker, there is money – lots of it! What was Isaac up to before he died?

The book is delivered in three sections, covering the period after Isaac’s death from the three boys’ perspectives. The section headings reflect the boys’ key defining features: The Swimmer, The Rebel and The Nerd. This taps into the long tradition of discussing the high school experience via stereotypes (think The Breakfast Club with its Jock, Prom Queen and Geek).  In this case, though, Kostakis seems to have deliberately used these labels to invite discussion about the fact that we are always so much more than a one word definition.

The idea of identity being fluid and multifaceted is also shown via the boys’ descriptions of Isaac, who clearly showed different sides of himself in each of these separate relationships. Our ‘self’ is in some ways constructed in the moments of our interactions with others and the boys come to understand this as they unpack and compare their different knowledge about Isaac.

By inviting us inside the mind of each boy, we become voyeurs to the process of self-actualisation. Each boy strives to prove he is more than the label ascribed to him, yet holds his own preconceptions about the other boys based on those same limiting definitions. Meanwhile, peer pressure, bullying, drugs and reckless behaviour are showcased as just some of the tough terrain young people navigate on the road to finding themselves.

Kostakis’ writing style is witty and conversational. There are some big laughs in this book as well as plenty of poignant moments. Depending on maturity, it’s ideal for readers from 13yrs+ but it’s a good read for adults, too. In fact, parents of teens (or pre-teens – forewarned is forearmed!) might really benefit from this beautifully executed reminder of how darn complicated life can seem when you’re growing up.

Buy a book today at your local bookstore or here…

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