Anthony “Ant” Stevenson has done everything on the list. First base, second base—heck, he’s hit a home run, rounded all the bases and done it all more than once for good measure. The question of whether he’s lost his virginity, however, remains unanswered. When does that actually happen for boys, he wonders. And who gets to decide?
Meanwhile, at school, Ant and his two pals are reunited with their former friend turned drama geek, Jack, who definitely, probably is gay. Being gay is fine or whatever (right?), but Jack’s presence triggers a flickering response from Ant and his cohort, forcing them to confront the raw edges of their masculinity and reveal who’s been going around the bases with whom.
A quick read with numerous emotional revelations that pack a hefty punch, Different for Boys is almost too intimate, like taking a peek into Ant’s private diary. He is at once brave but conflicted, romantic but still a teenage boy “with teenage hormones.” Acclaimed author Patrick Ness’ spare prose allows readers to fly through the story, hungry to dive deeper into Ant’s sexual reckoning.
Teenagers have sex in this novella, but you won’t actually read anything about it in the pages. Ness deploys a fourth wall-breaking technique in which a majority of the sexual and/or profane words are not only redacted by black boxes but also commented on by the novel’s characters. “It’s that kind of story,” says Ant. “Certain words are necessary because this is real life, but you can’t actually show ’em because we’re too young to read about the stuff we actually do, right?” This narrative choice means readers can only imagine what’s being said or described behind these redactions, which simultaneously brings readers closer and holds them at a distance. It also inspires us to reflect on what words and ideas are considered acceptable to articulate, aloud or even just to ourselves, and how those limits reflect what we value as a society.
For all that is missing from Ness’ text, Tea Bendix’s thoughtfully rendered illustrations more than fill in the gaps. Their loose, unfinished style is reminiscent of sketches in a teenager’s notebook, perfect to enhance the intimacy and tension of Ness’ prose. Emotional and with just enough cheek, Different for Boys feels like the voice of a new queer generation.