There's an old saying you may have heard: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Boy Meets Boy may be a lighthearted love story, but it's actually pretty subversive in its portrayal of gay teens as not only normal, but even beautiful. The layer of humor is the honey, as opposed to the vinegar of confrontational activism—sometimes the way to change the world is simply to paint a loving picture of how things could be.
When Paul says of Infinite Darlene, "She is dressed immaculately in a vintage Charlie's Angels T-shirt and white pleather miniskirt. (I have no idea how she pulls it off. In fact, I have no idea how she pulls it on)," (18.26) we see the honey (let's call it the Laugh Honey, and feel free to steal that for your band name or comedy troupe) poured over the fact that there's a cisgender male freely wearing traditionally female clothing to high school. There's a whole lot of hope in that passage for a world with more acceptance and less violence.
Boy Meets Boy is a story about teenagers as told by a teenager, which places it squarely in the young adult lit category. Adding to its YA status is the fact that it won the Lambda Literary Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature in 2003, thereby marking it as a classic of the genre. Also, David Levithan is an editor for Scholastic and has collaborated with John Green and Rachel Cohn—so he's pretty much YA all the way.
The title's pretty literal here: Boy Meets Boy is a book in which two boys meet. It's also a reference to a classic, well-worn plotline you'll see if you watch TV or movies for, like, a night: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Think Ross and Rachel on Friends, Andie and Blane in Pretty in Pink, and a little ditty called Romeo and Juliet. In other words, you've seen this story so many times it probably makes your eyes glaze over by now (unless you're a sucker for romantic comedies, in which case bring it.)
Boy Meets Boy however, is a phrase that makes you stop and think for a second, kind of like a wedding card in a gift shop that says Mr. and Mr. might make you glance again. Just in case you weren't sure the title referred to a romantic relationship, it's spelled out in candy hearts on the cover, removing any doubt.
The use of a well-known romance cliché to normalize a gay relationship was actually pretty subversive back in 2003. The world was becoming more tolerant of LGBTQ relationships, but it was by no means the norm. Not only did David Levithan write some beautiful sentences, he gave LGBTQ teens a positive representations of themselves in YA lit, and in doing so he might have even saved a couple of lives (this book came out years before the It Gets Better Project began).
Next time you're sick of the universe and everyone in it (it's okay, it happens to the best of us), read the last chapter of Boy Meets Boy—it's only two pages long, and it will remind you why friends, music, and dancing can heal your soul. When Paul takes a minute to boogie down with Noah and his friends on the mountain before the Dowager's Dance, it's not just a pre-party—it's a celebration of relationships lost and found.
Throughout the book, Paul has conflicts with Noah (the boyfriend breakup), Joni (the best-friend breakup), Kyle (the I'm-regretting-our-breakup), Ted (the I-can't-believe-you-don't-understand-the-pain-of-my-breakup), Chuck (the why-oh-why-can't-there-be-a-breakup), and Tony's parents (the if-our-gay-son-never-has-a-big-gay-relationship-there-can't-be-a-big-gay-breakup). It seems like Paul's going to be both friendless and boyfriendless, but in the last chapter, everyone comes to their senses and remembers how much they love each other.
Well except for Chuck of course, but sometimes tolerating someone's presence is almost like love.
The last two paragraphs of Boy Meets Boy reference the classic Louis Armstrong tune What a Wonderful World, the first verse of which is: I see trees of green/red roses too/I see them bloom/for me and you/And I think to myself/what a wonderful world. Levithan riffs on these lyrics when Paul says,
I see trees of green and dresses of white. I see Infinite Darlene whooping for Joy as Amber attempts to dip her to the ground. I see Ted cheering them on as he strums an air guitar. I see Kyle and Tony talking quietly together, sharing their words. I see Joni leading Chuck in a slow dance. I see candles in the darkness and a bird against the sky. I see Noah walking over to me, care in his eyes, a blessed smile on his lips. (28.7)
And, in keeping with the many music references throughout the book, the last sentence is, "And I think to myself, What a wonderful world" (28.8).
In an interview with the American Library Association, David Levithan said that Boy Meets Boy was "about creating an ideal town (situated next to a less than ideal town)." He didn't give either town a name, but because Paul (who is from the ideal town) and Tony (who is from the less-than-ideal town) meet at the iconic New York City bookstore the Strand and go home together on a commuter train, and Infinite Darlene later references a football game in Passaic, we can assume the book takes place in New Jersey. As Levithan – who is, himself, a Jersey boy now living in New York City -- put it, "Some books were made to reflect reality, but [Boy Meets Boy is] more about creating reality, and showing where it can go."
So what kind of reality does he create? Well essentially it's everything you would have wanted if you were a gay kid in the 80s, as Levithan was, though the book takes place in the present day.
There's a gay record store with plenty of retro vinyl, a funky vintage clothing store, an ice cream shop called I Scream that sells horror-themed cones, and a cemetery with a diary in a lock box on every grave in which visitors can write messages to the deceased. The lake at the park even has paddleboats shaped like ducks on which boys can freely kiss without fear. We're looking at a setting through a rose-tinted, soft-focus lens for sure.
Boy Meets Boy is super delightful, with a funny narrator, likable characters, and the kind of daily drama to which most high-schoolers can relate. In order to show an ideal world of LGBT acceptance, Levithan took a standard young adult lit storyline and sprinkled it with magical realism. These moments may make you go, "Huh?" at first, but after a couple of instances of cheerleaders riding Harleys around the gym and the school quarterback freely walking the halls in a push-up bra and white pleather miniskirt, you'll get used to them.
Plus the book is short, which means you can easily tear through it in a day. The only thing that could make Boy Meets Boy slightly difficult is if you're not well-versed in American pop culture, since it's chock-full of references.
Remember the incredibly sweet scene in Boy Meets Boy when Paul makes a list of one hundred beautiful words, writes them on a scroll, and puts the scroll in Noah's locker? We have a feeling that's totally David Levithan's dream love note. After all, what could win the heart of an author whose day job is being an editor like a list of obscure words in the handwriting of his beloved? That's the fun thing about being an adult writing teen romance: you get to reimagine your adolescence as you wish it really happened.
Levithan (and, by extension, Paul) delights in word play, painting pictures like, "There is a roar through the stands as the quiz bowling team is announced. They come sprinting onto the court, rolling for pins while answering questions about Einstein's theory of relativity." (4.39)
See what he did there? Lots of schools have quiz bowl teams, in which students from competing schools answer academic questions, but Paul's school has the first quiz bowling team we've ever heard of. By turning a noun into a gerund, Levithan has created a striking visual for himself to play with.
Then there's the fact that Paul and Tony speak their own made-up language, in which "Hewipso faqua deef?" is a perfectly valid question, and "Tinsin rabblemonk titchticker" is a perfectly valid answer (6.30-31). It's safe to say that both the author and narrator delight in the infinite twists and turns of English syntax.
Boy Meets Boy isn't the most symbolic book in the world—it's a pretty straightforward narrative. However, there are a number of what we'll call Things Made of Paper, such as origami flowers, scrolls full of words, mash notes passed between classes, and photographs that are actually printed instead of emailed.
When we see all these old-fashioned Things Made of Paper, we remember the preciousness of the handmade. What's more romantic than having your love interest's fingerprints all over a thing he made just for you? Um, pretty much nothing.
So check this out—when Paul prepares his week-of-stuff-to-get-Noah-back, here's what he has to say about the first night:
I unlock my closet or origami paper—over a thousand sheets of bright square color. I turn them all into flowers. Every single one. I do not sleep. I do not take breaks. Because I know that as well as giving him the flowers, I am giving him the time it takes to make them. (25.3)
That's what it's all about, really. When Noah takes the time to print photos and Kyle takes the time to draw the dowager's portrait in her tomb, they're giving something of themselves. Paper is a symbol of meditation and investment in Boy Meets Boy, and the characters are meditating on and investing in people they love.
What's that, you say? Well, heteronormative is basically the way things are. In other words, heterosexuality is the default—it's the way most people see things in our society. Statistically speaking, most people are straight—according to the world-famous sex researchers at the Kinsey Institute, between four and nine percent of participants surveyed between 1948 and 2011 identified as homosexual or bisexual. And while that certainly indicates that plenty of folks identify as straight, it also affirms that plenty of folks do not.
Boy Meets Boy takes place in a homonormative society, giving straight readers insight into what it's like to live in the world if you're gay. However, the book also shows gay kids what they can eventually hope for—that while they'll likely never live in a world in which most people identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, they do have the option of living in a community in which most people don't identify as straight.
Giving gay teen readers in small towns a glimpse of downtown New York City (where Paul and Tony meet), or San Francisco, or Provincetown, gives them a glimpse of a better world, of a place where nobody bats an eye at homosexuality. And this isn't fiction—these places really do exist.
How's this for imagery:
To our left, a posse of Joy Scouts takes guitar lessons from a retired monk. (We used to have a troop of Boy Scouts, but when the Boy Scouts decided gays had no place in their ranks, our scouts decided the organization had no place in our town; they changed their name and continued on). (10.62)
Can't you just picture a bunch of boys earning their rainbow flag badges?
Paul also says,
We hold hands as we walk through town. If anybody notices, nobody cares. I know we all like to think of the heart as the center of the body, but at this moment, every conscious part of me is in the hand that he holds. (10.61)
In their town, two boys can walk down the street holding hands without being consumed by fear. When you're not thinking about the possibility of being gay-bashed, you can have normal teenage crush feelings—and normal crush feelings rock (even if they get a little rocky sometimes).
Boy Meets Boy is Paul's story, and he's telling it to us. Hanging out with Paul on the page is a lot like hanging out with him in a diner late at night: we get the intimate details straight from the source, who's not afraid to throw in a little snark about other characters he doesn't like, such as Tony's parents:
I can't even talk to Tony anymore—I tried on Sunday, but his mom hung up on me, muttering something about the devil's influence, which I think was a little overstated. (15.3)
There's also his jab at Claudia's outfit the first time he sees her:
A girl has appeared behind him. She is dressed in a lethal combination of pastels. She's young, but she looks like she could be a hostess on the Pillow and Sofa Network. (1.37)
By telling the story from Paul's perspective, Levithan paints him as a sympathetic character, even when he's being kind of catty. Think about it: this is a guy who could sound like a real jerk if we got the story from Noah's perspective… or Ted's… or Joni's. But because we're in Paul's head, we see that though he screws up sometimes, he's basically a good guy. He lets us know he loves his friends a lot and would do anything for them, like holding Tony when he has a breakdown:
He is shuddering and shaking and gasping. He has kept all this white noise inside him, and now some of it is coming out. His face is newborn raw, his arms wrap around his body. I move over to him and hug him tight. I tell him that he's brave. (24.76)
So instead of seeing Paul as the evil ex-boyfriend who kissed another guy, as we might if Noah were telling the story, or the nosy, judgmental friend we might see through the Joni filter, we see him as a bumbling but lovable person, which makes us relate—after all, we're bumbling and lovable too, right? See how that works?
One fateful night somewhere in the NYC 'burbs, a boy named Paul goes to a bookstore to hear a friend DJ. He starts dancing, knocks some books off a shelf, and a cute newcomer named Noah picks up the books and hands them back. They flirt awkwardly, Noah looks over his shoulder at Paul as he leaves, and they have officially met cute. Oh hey title, thanks for laying that one out for us.
Having gotten the characters introduced and interested, it's time to get them dating. And guess what happens next? They start dating. In fact, Paul and Noah have the world's cutest first date, complete with a boat ride. They also meet each other's families. Everything's going along just swell, until…
Paul, in a moment of weakness, kisses his ex. Wah-wah. Does Noah find out? Of course Noah finds out—this is the boy loses boy part. There's also a third act misunderstanding, which is that the boy Noah thinks Paul kissed (Tony) is not the boy Paul actually kissed (Kyle). So when Noah tucks a note into Paul's backpack that says, "I can't believe you kissed him," (16.34) he's not talking about who he thinks he's talking about. Ah, romance.
Paul pulls out all the stops to get Noah back, which is how boy regains boy. If this book were an 80s movie, this would be the hard work montage. Over the course of a week, Paul gives Noah origami flowers, a scroll of words, notes, letters, a serenade, and twenty rolls of film. On the last day Noah responds by giving Paul a series of photographs saying "wish you were here." Yay—the boys have made up. Paul asks Noah to the Dowager's Dance, Noah says yes, and we just know things are going to work out for Tony too.
The storyline of the Dowager's Dance threads through the main (read: love story) narrative of Boy Meets Boy. Paul's planning the thing, and he might not even have a date, but at the very end, everybody goes to the dance with the person they should have, except maybe Joni and Chuck (and by maybe, we mean definitely). The posse descends upon Tony's house to convince his parents to let him go to the dance, and they do, because we've got to see Tony shine at least once here. They make a pit stop on the way to the dance to have their own little outdoor party on the side of a mountain, just to celebrate being friends. Boy Meets Boy's happy ending is a resolution wrapped in pink sparkly wrapping paper, with a pink sparkly ribbon and a rainbow lollipop tied into the bow.