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Geography Club, by Brent Hartinger

March 30, 2013

Bibliographic information (APA): Hartinger, Brent. (2003). Geography Club. Harper Tempest: New York, USA.

Category: Controversial, Challenged or Banned*, & Realistic Fiction

Subcategories: LGBTQ Fiction, & Award-winning

Descriptive Summary: Russel Middlebrook thinks he is the only gay kid in the whole of his high school. That is, until he meets another high school kid, Kevin Lander (one of the popular kids!!) through a gay chat room. Soon after that, he finds out that his friend, Min, is bisexual and from there about some other kids just like him as well. Now that Russell and his newly discovered friends do not feel quite so alone anymore, they form the ‘Geography Club’ at their school as a cover to meet and spend time with each other (without anyone else knowing what they really have in common). Things do not go quite as planned, however, when other people want to join the so-called ‘Geography Club.’ Not only does it soon become clear that you need to have more in common than a shared secret to keep friends, it also soon becomes clear that while you can close yourself in, you cannot close the world out forever. Perhaps, most worrying of all, secrets have a way of being found out at the worst possible moments.

Book Talking Hooks: According to the ALA Challenged or Banned Books List of 2009-2010, Geography Club has been challenged at the West Bend Community Library in Wisconsin in 2009, on the grounds that it is “obscene or child pornography” (Doyle, “Books Challenged or Banned in 2009-2010,” 2010, p. 5). There are passages that do deal with physical intimacy, (both the heterosexual and homosexual variety), and this might be what attracts some teens to read it. This is not to say that the references to intimacy are especially graphic, but just the fact that it is controversial might be the attraction. For example, Russell finds himself in an awkward situation where sex might be a possibility and he has to think of a way to get out of it really quickly (Hartinger, 2003, p. 117).

Geography Club also strongly evokes feelings of empathy. When another school outcast, Brian Bund, is being picked on (2003, p. 9, 137, 164, 184), author Hartinger is realistic in his portrayal of teens. Brian may be being picked on, but Russell does not get up to help him, lest he be bullied too.  Young adult readers who enjoy scenes of the particularly emotional kind will enjoy that characteristic in this novel.

This is a really relatable book for teens that feel alone, not just because they might be LGBTQ, but for any other reason. Russell said, “the fact is, there is a difference between being alone, and being lonely. I may not have been completely along in my life, but I was definitely lonely” (Hartinger, 2003, p. 11, 103, 225). Many teens can relate to this feeling because it is a very realistic one for many.

Hartinger also creates a strongly vivid feel in terms of atmosphere, especially the sense of the awkward. For example, Russell and the others have being LGBTQ in common, but little else and it takes a while for them to become real friends. That transition is strongly laden with awkwardness and tentative efforts to connect (Hartinger, 2003, p. 39, 53, 59, 69, & 219).

Evaluative Comments: 4/5. Discovering you’re not alone in the world can be one of the most relieving feelings ever. That is the sensation this novel creates in the reader, and it might be especially effective for young teens that are coming to terms with being LGBTQ (Hartinger, 2003, p. 29, 35, 39, & 137). I like that positive message in this novel, because it is one of hope.

I, personally, am not really sure why this book was challenged. There are indeed references or passages on physical intimacy, but I do not find them graphic, demeaning, violent, or unlawful. Indeed, I am surprised that this book was challenged in specific reference to pornography, because there is not one single detailed account of sex in the novel that could be classified as “pornographic.” Given that there is one reference to sex, I would perhaps evaluate it as being suggestive, but not graphically inappropriate (Hartinger, 2003, p. 47, 124, 127, & 131).

There is, however, some occasional strong language and references to drinking that I can see some parents objecting to, but it is never portrayed in a positive light. On the contrary, Russell feels uncomfortable and turned off by it, rather than attracted to it (Hartinger, 2003, p. 84, 99, 119, & 171). This novel does not argue for meaningful physical encounters (straight or otherwise), or drinking. If anything I would say it makes the case for the reverse.

Readers’ Advisory Notes: Geography Club is heavily issue-oriented and angst-filled as well as emotionally powerful. Moments of coming to terms with oneself are oddly bittersweet, and heavily laden with significant atmosphere. It is, however, also inspirational and overall, a good read. Readers who enjoyed this book might also like to try Absolutely, Positively, NOT, by David LaRochelle.

Reason for Inclusion: As mentioned above, this book was challenged in the United States of America and I wanted to see why. I was interested to see if the fuss was about graphic descriptions of sex, or if it was the element of homosexuality that was the problem. Personally, I would say it was probably both, but in neither case would I have considered the content sufficient grounds to ban the book.

The book was also recently made into a movie adaptation (due to be released in 2013), so I also chose it to appeal as a cross-over form of entertainment; teens who have either read the book or seen the movie might like to try the other medium as well.

Geography Club is also the first of a series of books called the Middlebrook Series. Series titles are good choices because they encourage young readers to keep improving their language skills. This novel is a good enticer to encourage that trend.

This book has also been chosen as an ALA Popular Paperback, a YALSA Must Read Book,”and one of Booklists, Top Ten Best First YA Novel among many other honors and awards (as listed on the author’s official website).

Suggested Audience: USA Today wrote that Geography Club (and other books in the Middlebrook Series) are, “entertaining for all readers, regardless of their sexuality,” and I would completely agree (Brent’s Brain, “The Russel Middlebrook Series,” 2013). I would recommend this book for teens aged 14 and up, but perhaps most especially for teens that might be feeling isolated in connection with LGBTQ topics personally.

References

Brent’s Brain: Home of Writer Brent Hartinger (2013). “The Russel Middlebrook Series.” Retrieved from http://brenthartinger.com/the-russel-middlebrook-books-2/

Entertainment Canada (2012). “Geography Club Movie: Brent Hartinger Book Adaption Begins Production.” Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/28/geography-club-movie-brent-hartinger_n_1633866.html

Doyle, Robert, P. (2010). “Books Challenged or Banned in 2009-2010.” Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/banned/bannedbooksweek/ideasandresources/free_downloads/2010banned.pdf

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