But first – a little note …
There are things I want to say. About this book, and its author … but also about the state of Australian politics right now, and how it’s overwhelmingly children and teenagers being betrayed by our national discourse, or lack thereof. Some may think I’m drawing a long bow, at the mere thought of politicizing and reviewing this book – but Mr Kostakis was in the news just yesterday, because conservative politics have almost certainly crept into his private and author life, unfairly and with great discrimination, hitting right on a topic I’m extremely passionate about.
So. There are things I want to say … but I won’t say them all here (beyond how they oh so sadly and ironically echo one of the storylines in ‘The Sidekicks’). Because here’s the thing: Will’s private life and his sexuality are not the most interesting things about him. I’m sure they inform who he is as a person – but allow me to throw some Aristotle at you, and say; “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Will is an intelligent, funny – I really want to use the word ‘rapscallion’ here too – charming and thoughtful guy. And he’s one of Australia’s best and brightest young adult writers, who I’ve heard speak so passionately and honestly about the business of writing, and writing honestly, with young people. He helps students to crack open their imaginations and just write – and he encourages them to read, read, read! and become readers for life. That’s Will Kostakis. And Will has written a devastating and devastatingly funny book called ‘The Sidekicks’ that I really want to tell you all about, because I loved it and want to recommend it to you.
There are things I want to say – and I will say them, elsewhere (though you could just look at everything I’ve ever written about diversity, inclusivity and YA to know my thoughts). But here is where Will and ‘The Sidekicks’ deserve my undivided attention and applause – as a fantastic new Australian YA book, written by one of our most celebrated authors.
… though if I could say just one tiny thing, it would be – sometimes the people who write the books really are as awesome as their words on the page suggest, and they more than live up to the characters they create and we love. Will’s one of those guys too, and we in the Australian youth lit community are damn lucky to have him.
From the BLURB:
The Swimmer. The Rebel. The Nerd.
All Ryan, Harley and Miles had in common was Isaac. They lived different lives, had different interests and kept different secrets. But they shared the same best friend. They were sidekicks. And now that Isaac's gone, what does that make them?
‘The Sidekicks’ is the new young adult book from Australian author Will Kostakis.
Will is the author of fantastic 2013 book ‘The First Third,’ which went on to win the prestigious Gold Inky Award in 2014 (in which teen readers chose the shortlist, and selected the winner!). So, Will’s third book and first after ‘The First Third’ (wow, tongue-tied) was a most-anticipated fare … and I’m happy to say, it absolutely lives up to high reader-expectation.
The book is in fact three linked novellas – from the points of view of three boys after the tragic death of their mutual friend (and actually, Isaac is the only thing these boys have in common). The book opens with Ryan, ‘The Swimmer,’ and sets up a lodestone scene the next two boys will come back to – when they’re called into the Principal’s office to learn of Isaac’s death the night before.
From there we see how each of these boys – Ryan, Harley, and Miles – cope with the death of Isaac, and how he fit into each of their lives … and maybe, how they can each fit into each other’s lives as they embark on this new normal, without the glue that held their tentative friendship together.
Ryan refers to himself, with little ego, as; ‘Ryan Patrick Thomson, Olympic hopeful.’ He’s a minor celebrity at his private Catholic school, and is well aware that his currency on the swim team grants him certain leeway, which his mother (as Head of the English Department) is quick to counteract. Ryan also has a boyfriend that nobody – except Isaac – had any idea about. In a candid discussion with sympathetic teacher Mr Collins, Ryan confronts the idea that in only letting his best friend know the truth about his sexuality, he has compartmentalized his life;
‘I didn’t want to leave my legacy to one person, and risk it being lost. I gave as much of myself to as many people, so that when they put all those pieces together, that would be the mark I left on the world.’
I will say that of all the boys, Ryan’s novella was the most powerful and there may have been a slight dip in the action when his chapter concluded. There was just so much nuance there, particularly when his sexuality was at logger-heads with the casual homophobic rhetoric he was hearing from his fellow students, and even the teachers at his Catholic school – all of which added to his paranoia, and wish not to come out to his friends and family. That being said, once I got over my reader-grief at losing Ryan as narrator, I could really appreciate what each boy’s point of view bought to the story – and in many ways, how they each helped to build a picture of who Isaac was.
Each novella – Ryan, Harley and Miles – takes a different look at grief. For Ryan, it’s coming to grips with the loss of the person who knows you best – right down to your biggest secret. In many ways, the book is about a certain degree of selfishness is one’s grief, when we look at how the loss of someone affects us, as individuals. This is also partly because Isaac was a bit of an enigma to all his friends, as we see each of them had a very different relationship and connection to him, he played a very unique role/function in each of their lives – as people tend to do in high school, when you’re more likely than ever to be narrowed into your most public ‘persona’.
For ‘The Rebel’ Harley, he and Isaac (or ‘Zac’ as he insisted on cooler calling him) found mutual ground in partying and getting wasted. With Zac’s death, Harley is forced to confront feelings of guilt, and also abandonment – a feeling he can’t help but connect to Zac’s departure, since Harley is still combating feelings of rejection since his American-born mother moved back to the States – making Harley feel as though he and his father were merely an uninteresting stop-over in her life.
Harley is someone who has tried not to get close to anyone for fear of rejection, but with Zac’s death comes the stark realization that he craves affection, from the very people he insists on pushing away – one of whom is his friend, a girl named Jacs, who has her own thoughts on Harley’s attempts at keeping his distance;
‘… Growing up, he’d say we spend our lives wrapping rubber bands around people. Some bands are so tight that you can feel them pulling you together. Some are loose and stretch for miles, there’s so much give you hardly notice them. But you’re still connected, and sooner or later …’ She releases the band and it snaps back into her wrist.
Miles, ‘The Nerd’, triggers a mystery sub-plot in the book when, immediately after learning of Isaac’s death, he rushes to the dead boy’s locker to retrieve a mystery bag … Miles’s chapter plays around with form, and is often laid out like a screenplay. This is partly because of how he and Isaac connected, as both were in a young filmmakers programme at school. But it’s also a way for Miles to candidly discuss his emotions that don’t come easily, and there’s certainly suggestion here that he’s somewhere on the spectrum.
Something I loved about this book was that, in many ways, Will Kostakis has taken the cliché male characters that sometimes appear in YA books (and pop-culture, or society generally), and made them multi-dimensional, relatable and real. The prosaic ‘Breakfast Club’ labels of The Swimmer, The Rebel, and The Nerd feel very tongue-in-cheek, and what’s clever is how Kostakis breaks them down to normality and humanity – takes them beyond the label of ‘Sidekicks’, and makes them the heroes of their own stories.
Harley, arguably, is what that marvelous parody Twitter account ‘Brooding YA Hero’ is poking fun at. Miles feels like he could be akin to all those nerd-lite characters John Green loves to write, those who could be built with a John Green Plot Generator. While Ryan reads like the perfect tick-box ‘Book Boyfriend’, outwardly designed for girls to swoon over.
But those are what they’d be if broken down to their most basic traits – The Swimmer, The Rebel, and The Nerd – the faces they show the world are not all that they are … and the book is really about how grief confronts them, and frees them.
I’ve often said that I crave contemporary YA books in which male characters are actually allowed to show their emotions, in a plot that’s not cloaked by quest or end-of-the-world catastrophe. ‘The Sidekicks’ is exactly why I crave those sorts of stories – in a book that shows the honesty and intimacy of male friendship and complicated friendship groups. A book in which the seemingly typified male characters are so much more than the sum of the parts they’re often broken down to, by various pop-culture portrayals and societal expectations. This book – like the multi-layered, and nuanced characters – shows grief to be a prism with many sides. It’s devastating and devastatingly funny, and just makes me excited for whatever Will Kostakis writes next.