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The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung – Books Review

Title: The Boys in the Back Row

Author: Mike Jung

Publisher: Levine Querido

Release Date: October 6, 2020

RATING: 4 Stars

Eric and Matt are the best of friends. They love comic books, playing in the band, and most importantly, each other. Armed with their support for each other, they can face any problem, or bully for that matter, that gets in their way. However, Eric and Matt’s friendship will be forever changed when Eric moves away at the end of the year. The news devastates them but they plot a last, risky adventure before Eric leaves. On the last day of their marching band trip, they plan to ditch and sneak away to a comic convention to meet their favorite comic author. As with all daring plans, there are more obstacles than they could have imagined, putting more than just the trip in jeopardy.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung is a refreshing, down-to-earth novel about friendship. Eric and Matt face countless microaggressions, including being called “gay,” bullied about their race (Matt is Korean American while Eric presents as white), and needled for their nerdiness. Eric and Matt face them all together, leaning on each other to overcome them while demonstrating their love for each other just the same. Jung’s affectionate story of male friendship is the perfect antidote to the toxic masculinity that pervades some middle school experiences. Jung’s characters are interesting and engaging. He carefully takes the time to develop them as whole people and build reader investment in their well-being. This investment may leave readers feeling unfulfilled by the ending. The last adventure plan goes awry in such a way that its telling disappoints because it feels inconsistent with the rest of the narrative and its loose ends get too quickly tied up. Surely, readers would gladly consume a few more chapters that would provide the detail and attention the next phase of this friendship deserves. Still, Eric and Matt’s friendship is indeed beautiful. It sends a positive, important message about male relationships and their healthy place in social development. It also is inspiring to see how their mutual support enables them to overcome any challenge.

Middle grade readers will love The Boys in the Back Row. It is a celebration of quirky friendships, and young people will easily connect with Eric and Matt. With a more lighthearted tone but plenty of opportunity for analysis and in-depth discussion, teachers may find this novel as the perfect remedy for students that need a little more levity than gravity in the 2020-2021 school year.

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and publisher, Levine Querido, for an eARC of this book!

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study of comics!
  • Literature Circles – Use novel for small groups or choice reading with a variety of books that include references to comics or include the effects of microaggressions.
  • Book Club or Book Exchange – Share the novel with students that enjoy reading about themes of friendship, school, and comics.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • History of Comics
  • Comics
  • Microaggressions

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with The Boys in the Back Row. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • Two Naomis by Olugbemisiola Rhuday-Perkovich (Character Connections, Themes)
  • Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead (Character Connections, Themes)
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Character Connections, Themes)

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