How to Be Manly, Maureen O’Leary Wanket, Giant Squid Books, 356 pages
I just finished Maureen O’Leary Wanket‘s How to be Manly and I can’t shut up about how warm and funny it is, how wonderful and real.
I’m hoping to snag O’Leary for a bloggy interview in the upcoming weeks. I cannot wait to pick her brain, find out more about her writing process, maybe
steal borrow a few ideas.
For what is it about a good YA novel that is so captivating, so endearing, so emotionally tender?
Face it, adolescence isn’t an easy time, and most of us have horror stories of our middle and high school years. Why then, are we are so quick to reminisce about those awkward and not-so-great times?
Whatever the case, O’Leary perfectly captures both the innocence and bravado of adolescence in 16-year-old Matty Sullivan (oh, oh, Matty, you are such a dear!).
Matty is overweight, and the book opens in the Hefty Boy section of a department store, where he’s struggling to squirm into a size XXL jeans.
“Triple X would have been more comfortable but no way was I going that far,” he says.
Matty lives with his grandmother and grandfather (who battles dementia). His mother is dead and his father is a dead-beat. What makes the book isn’t the realistic and endearing situations so much as the voice, which is smooth and funny and ironic, exactly the way a teenage boy views the world.
“Mrs. Grant looked nice when you first met here,” he says about his Algebra teacher. “But as soon as she started teaching she was terrible. She was too strict and she loved to get mad over nothing.”
Matty’s life changes when he discovers a book called “How to Be Manly” at a garage sale. He steals it (because he’s too embarrassed to buy it), takes it home and begins to follow the advice.
The result is both hilarious and yet tender. And this is what elevates How to Be Manly from the ranks of just another YA novel. As Matty navigates the world of adolescence by joining the football team, discovering flaws in his family and trying to fix those flaws in the worst possible way, he begins to not only lose weight but develop the self-esteem and direction to start him on the path toward manhood.
I won’t give the plot away but I will say that it moves fast enough to keep teens engaged while still allowing enough introspection to keep serious readers happy.
The characters, especially Matty, his grandmother and grandfather, are so real and flawed and brave and strong and awkward and stumbling and beautiful that you want to invite them all over for dinner. You want to order one of Grandma’s cakes. You want to sit on the porch with Grandpa and hold his hand.
“There was no more mad at all in Grandma’s face. Just a wide-eyed look that was way worse than the crying.”
O’Leary ends the book perfectly, which is to say that the ending doesn’t offer an easy resolution. Lessons are learned, relationships grow and evolve and yet, as in real life, there are still loose threads, still areas of sore spots in Matty’s life.
And I suppose this is what made me turn back to the beginning as soon as I finished so that I could reread favorite passages. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in Matty’s world a bit longer. And this, I think, is the highest praise I can give a book: The need to linger, to revisit scenes and conversations, to stay in a place that feels like home.
I highly, highly, highly recommend How to Be Manly, especially to teens, mothers of teens, aunts and uncles of teenage nephews and, most especially, to teachers. This is a great book for middle and early high school reading lists.