The theater kids are putting on a school show, and, like the TV series Glee, the lead actor is a recently recruited football player. But unlike Glee, or Smash, or Rise, the show they’re doing is not a musical, but William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”….in junior high school. And there is something else that’s different: There is not a single Jew or gay kid in The Outstanding Life of an Awkward Theater Kid: God, I’ll Do Anything―Just Don’t Let Me Fail(Harvest House Publishers, 175 pages.) It takes until around page 71 to realize why.
Flex, who narrates the story, lives in a small town called Empty Factory, Indiana. He tells us he joined the school play in order to get closer to the girl he likes, KK; the theater teacher Mr. Edgren cast him despite an awful audition because, Flex explains, the production needed somebody who could lift a prop sword and wear a heavy crown — and none of the regular theater kids, Flex implies, were strong enough to do that.
But Flex says he’s no good at theater, he hates it, he’s scared of it, and he thinks the theater kids look down on him. He’s not learning his lines or attending rehearsals,which annoys everybody, including his father, who’s a football coach. Page 71:
“I know you feel trapped Flex,” [his father says.]
I do, extremely. Finally, I talk.
“What are my options?” I ask.
“Well, without Christ, you’d have no options…But with Christ, we can pray….”
For the rest of the book, both Flex’s father and mother quote specific verses from the Bible, to help lead Flex to do the right thing. One of Flex’s friends wants to be a “hot priest.” The theater teacher Mr. Edgren leads the cast in the ”Our Father…” prayer before the show on opening night. (So are they attending a Christian school then?)
Now, of course, theater should be for everybody, and the authors — writer Ted Kluck and illustrator Daniel Hawkins — have arguably created an unmistakeable theater book. There are numerous direct quotes from “The Winters Tale,” although the readers never learn its full plot (which is a wise choice, given how convoluted that plot is), nor (less wise) given any modern translation or guidance through the difficult speeches, other than KK’s humorous explanation in this illustration:
There is a cleverness in casting Flex as Leontes, since both characters are “jealous and bitter and driving everybody away.”
So, the book is steeped in theater allusions. But it becomes hard to figure out who this book is supposed to be for. It’s explicitly geared for readers aged eight to 12, but I’m guessing people of that age interested in theater might be insulted by this book — or perhaps just feel excluded by it.
From the first chapter, when he attends a theater party, Flex mocks the affectations of theater kids, especially the way they dress, wearing scarves, and carrying New Yorker tote bags, but also what they eat — kale and kombucha.. Later he tells a friend (the one with priestly ambitions): “I hate these kids. They all think they’re better than me. They walk around all smug, drinking their tea and eating their kale and talking about politics and protest movements….”
Yes, with the help of those Bible-quoting parents, and some good-hearted friends, Flex becomes more tolerant, and comes to understand that the theater kids were as intimidated by him as he was by them. He even makes friends with the most affected of the theater kids (scarves, tote bag, and kisses girls on both cheeks), someone who is not even given a name, just “Actor Boy.” (Does it make sense that Flex wouldn’t tell us Actor Boy’s actual name after they finally become friends, rather than keeping him a generic type, aka a stereotype?)
I think it no coincidence that Actor Boy, despite his scarves and other coded affectations, explicitly mentions his girlfriend, and that the “lovely” theater teacher Mr. Edgren is explicitly given a wife and a newborn child.
Much of this is subtle. But there is a passage where Actor Boy’s father, a failed actor who is intense about the craft, grabs Flex’s shoulder to make an emphatic point. “If this were Massachusetts, I could sue him for that–inappropriate hand-to-shoulder contact, which is an actual law they actually have. Unfortunately this is Indiana, where you can still grab somebody’s shoulder.” This doesn’t sound like a 12-year-old football player turned theater kid. It sounds like an author choosing sides in the current partisan divide.