Review: The Boys in the Back Row

November 21, 2020

Cover of The Boys in the Back Row, where two boys, one holding drumsticks and the other a flute, have a conversation, while behind them, pictured on a giant drum, shadowy figures race toward an amusement park and a building with smoke trailing from one window.

The Boys in the Back Row is a middle grade novel by autistic author Mike Jung that explores friendship between boys. Matt, a Korean American sixth grader, and Eric, who is white, met during school band practice. This year, their band is going on a field trip to a popular amusement park. After finding out that Eric is moving away at the end of the year, they plan on leaving the field trip without permission to meet one of their favorite comic book artists at a convention being held nearby.

The Boys in the Back Row brought back a lot of band memories for me. It captured the social hierarchies based on types of instruments and who plays them, the band director who occasionally (or frequently) loses his temper, and the way being in band affects your sense of time, as a year-long class mostly based around a few anticipated events. I even played the same instruments as Matt, as we were both flute players who briefly joined the percussion section.

In addition to its relatability to band geeks, The Boys in the Back Row is a nuanced and emotional exploration of friendship, particularly friendship between two boys. Matt and Eric are loving and affectionate with each other, and are bullied and called queer in a derogatory way for this. The book explores the effects this has on them, and addresses how anti-queer bigotry and misogyny are connected and harm everyone, including Matt and Eric, who are straight, cisgender boys. Concepts like toxic masculinity are even called by name, which is something I’ve never seen before in a middle grade book aimed at boys. I only wished that there was a positive openly queer major character in the book, because the character most heavily implied to be gay is a homomisic bully.

Although Mike Jung has called his characters neurotypical, Matt could easily be read as autistic. He’s passionate about his interests, has trouble understanding other people, prefers to follow the rules, and is empathetic, observant, and honest. These traits allow Matt to perceive others in a way that reveals the ridiculousness of toxic masculinity, and how some more progressive people can fail to complexly examine and address it.

The Boys in the Back Row is an excellent book for older elementary and middle school boys, and kids of any (or no) gender who need to see the topic of masculinity directly addressed in a book for people their age. It’s also great for geeks, especially band and comic book geeks. And I look forward to reading Mike Jung’s upcoming books with officially autistic characters.

Content Warning for The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung: Bullying, including physical violence, destroying belongings, degrading interests, verbal attacks, and the use of slurs and insults around queerness, race, gender, and disability. It also has an unexpected ending, if that bothers or upsets you.

Here are some places and formats this book is available in as of November 21, 2020. (I am not a part of any affiliate programs and do not receive compensation for links, clicks, or purchases, unless otherwise stated.)

Bookshop has multiple editions, including hardcover and audiobook editions. (I am an affiliate of Bookshop. Buying from this Bookshop link will help support both the work I do on this website and independent bookstores).

Barnes & Noble has hardcover, Nook, and audio CD editions.

Amazon Kindle edition (US).

Indiebound (US) can give you a list of independent bookstores near you where this book might be available.

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