Johnson’s semiautobiographical debut is a small-town story of letting go of the past.
Lester Smith, a blond, white high school senior, is living in a small, mostly white seaside town on Puget Sound in 1996. Struggling to cope with his father’s absence, he is obsessed with “Johnny” Milton and Paradise Lost (his father wrote a retelling set in the 1960s). When a young, new, white teacher, Jeff Traversal, takes over AP humanities and the yearbook, Lester’s two favorite classes, and tries to shake things up, Lester is less than pleased. His friends don’t really understand: Freesia, Hermione-like, is excited by the prospect of a teacher who is invested in their learning, and “BF” James (“BF” standing for best friend, not boyfriend), his one black friend—tall but untalented in basketball—isn’t in the class. While Lester starts out seeing Traversal and his push for change as the enemy, they ultimately, perhaps inevitably, join to form a Dead Poets Society–like gang. While the writing is at times pretentious and awkward (“the day Frisbees me forward irrevocably toward fifth period”), it is perhaps fitting for a story narrated by someone who could be well on his way to being @guyinyourMFA. Lester’s carefully crafted sardonic apathy may frustrate readers as much as it does his friends, family, and teachers, but his voice is, for the most part, undeniably compelling.
Clichéd but full of heart. (Historical fiction. 14-18)