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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine: Pop Stars Are People, Too

Kids sure grow up quickly these days. That's especially true if you're an 11-year-old pop star with legions of pre-teen female fans. No, it's not Justin Bieber, it's Jonny Valentine — the star of Teddy Wayne's sadly funny (or funny, but sad) new novel.

Chronicling the ups-and-downs of a cross-country arena tour (ending on Valentine's Day at Madison Square Garden), this novel puts Jonny's too-early collision with drugs, sex, hipsters, rejection, and loneliness on full display. Clearly, these are all things a bit above his age-grade. And he's confused. He wants to be a humble, normal kid — but that's impossible, thanks to his fame and his ridiculous fake-boobed mother/manager Jane, a stereotypical over-controlling parent/manager.

Jonny's only real friends are his bodyguard Walter, his tutor Nadine, and Zach, the mid-20s lead singer of the opening band on Jonny's tour, and the subject of a newly developed hero-worship. But these aren't his real friends, because they're paid to be near him — and they can all be replaced on a whim, as his mom/manager does throughout the tour. And that's sad — both for Jonny and for the reader.

The best/funniest parts of this novel are the frequent commentaries on and examples of how celebrity is often staged and disingenuous. For instance, Jonny goes on a "date" with another pop star/actress for publicity, and of course, is carefully coached on how to answer interview questions. But we all willfully ignore how stupid Hollywood entertainment executives think we are. And we're obsessed with these manufactured celebrities anyway.

For his own part, Jonny just wants something real. He invites the fake-date girl to hang out with him when they're back in LA, but she just laughs at him because she doesn't like to mix "business" with her personal life. And he spends much of the tour exchanging secret emails (he has to sneak Internet access, though, as his manager/mom won't let him go online) with his estranged father. Will they have a touching reunion at the end?

I hope you get the sense by now that this is far from a bubblegum YA novel. It's actually really smart. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel are when Jonny is "discovering" and telling us some truth that seems to him the most profound thing in the world. For instance, shooting a piece for a TV morning show at his old grade school, all the kids in the hallway are supposed to act natural and walk right by him in the hallway, but they can't help but glance at the camera. Jonny opines: "Everyone wants to be famous more than they want to see someone famous." Well, duh.

But this story is a lot of fun, too. Wayne certainly took a big risk with this novel, because it works or doesn't work for you depending on whether you like Jonny's voice. Young narrators can cause problems, but not here. I really liked Jonny's voice. And I think you will, too. Highly recommended!

6 comments:

  1. Two things - first, the fact that you acknowledge that Jonny's mother is a stereotype, that the people around him are predictable and expected (manager, bandmates, "love" interest, etc.)... it doesn't seem to bother you, but it's the sort of thing I don't like in a book. You liked Jonny's voice, but what did you think about the other characters? Were they given personalities beyond their stereotype? Are they anything more than tools for the message Wayne is trying to connvey?

    Then the story itself. Maybe it's just because this reminds me of Louis Sachar's Small Steps (which is thoroughly "young adult", but hardly "bubblegum"; in fact, I can think of very little young adult fiction that is truly "bubblegum"... a whole other discussion). Small Steps has a leading narrative about a teen pop star that seems to be very closely mimicked by Wayne's novel. It had many of the same cliches and stereotypes, but the reason that book succeeded overall was because of its split narrative, which balanced the story out quite nicely and made sure that the cliches were never too overwhelming. I honestly don't know how The Love Song of Jonny Valentine could pull that off...

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  2. The other characters - especially the bodyguard Walter and tutor Nadine - are definitely fully formed and interesting characters. The mother is a stereotype, sure, but there's other parts of her as the narrative moves along that gives her a bit more dimension (whether or not you continue to dislike her). Jonny's voice — and then how he interfaces with a world he really doesn't understand, but is totally expected to — are really the defining characteristics here. And once you get to know Jonny, you discover that, other than being a label-created teen pop star (natch), he himself is far from a cliche.

    I don't know the Sachar book, so I can't compare. But I definitely didn't mean to imply that all YA is bubblegum - but you can see how this, in the hands of a less capable writer than Wayne - could certainly have descended into that category.

    Maybe this doesn't break new ground, exactly - but it's still an entertaining read.

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  3. I just started this the other day and I was surprised by how quickly I flew through the first few chapters. I'm not far enough to draw too many conclusions quite yet, but it's definitely a unique, smart look at a pretty fascinating part of our culture.

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    1. It's definitely a lot smarter than I thought it might be going in - it had the potential to descend into cheap jokes and cliche. It does a little bit, but not much. And it's just immensely entertaining!

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  4. I enjoyed this book right to bits. It was different from anything I'd read. It almost made me feel uncomfortable...maybe embarrassed? Americans are so nuts over celebrities. Ick. ;)

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    1. Yeah, I'll never look at the GF's issue of US Weekly the same way again. :)

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