CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 35. . . .May 11, 2018
Toronto, ON: Penguin Teen, Sept. 25, 2018.
244 pp., hardcover & E BOOK, $21.99 (hc.)..
ISBN 978-0-7352-6377-2 (hc.), ISBN 978-0-7352-6377-2 (E BOOK).
Grades 10-12 / Ages 15-17.
Review by Rob Bittner.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
The Kens are flawless. Ken Hilton, in baby-pink short-shorts and white socks pulled up to his knees, is at the helm. No one runs faster than him: no Ken Roberts, who wouldn’t dare, but not even Ken Carson, who is technically the jock Ken.
There are minor differences in each Ken, but they’re all made from the same face sculpt. Literally. Ken Hilton’s dad is a plastic surgeon, and they have each been created from the same mold, with nothing much distinguishing them from their tiny plastic muse. Except that the Ken doll has more humanity.
The Kens rule the school. Their toned bodies and sculpted faces make them the pinnacle of perfection and the envy of everyone around them. They are bitchy and rude, glamorous and terrifying. They will chew you up and spit you out without a second thought. But one of the problems with being as extra as the Kens is that it’s easy to get bored. When Ken Hilton decides they need to make over one of the other students in their image, the gossip starts flying. And as Tommy Rawlins watches the Jumbotron at the pep rally and notices his face filling the screen, he can’t quite figure out if his dreams have come true or if all hell is about the break loose.
In a world where queerness is King (or Queen, in this case), being the uncool gay kid is a surefire path to low self-esteem, and Tommy is no exception to this rule. Tommy wants nothing more than to be popular and be loved by the Kens, so when his wish comes true, he falls into their world hook, line, and sinker, leaving his friends behind. Reid’s use of exaggeration and melodramatic narration mirrors the world in which Tommy and the Kens live, holding true to his signature style from When Everything Feels Like the Movies. In this novel, however, Reid employs much more nuance and slightly less unsettling imagery, making the overall narrative much more enjoyable.
Tommy and Blaine (the gorgeous new boy) have a complicated relationship, at times romantic and, at times, dangerously unhinged. What Tommy doesn’t expect, however, is Blaine’s plan to undermine the Kens and possibly destroy the very foundations of their community. This might not be the worst plan, but it leaves Tommy wondering if it’s worth sacrificing his newfound popularity and perfection for. Having alienated longtime friends Allan (possibly the most realistic character in the novel) and Tutti, and with his parents having absolutely no concern for anything besides social media hits, Tommy has no choice but to follow Blaine’s charismatic leadership. What he doesn’t know for sure, though, is whether or not he’s just a pawn in a much bigger game.
A self-proclaimed provocateur, Reid is not one to shy away from humour or observations that cross lines of acceptability; however, in this particular narrative, I do worry that a couple of flippant references to school shootings and police brutality may have caused him to stray into some problematic territory. I was unable to tell if Reid was attempting a deeper critique of contemporary society’s obsession with conformity and looks, or if the novel was as surface level as the Kens themselves—okay, maybe not that surface level.
Whatever Reid’s intent, Kens is certainly an intriguing sophomore novel that will spark much discussion among young readers, critics, and academics alike. Fans of Mean Girls and Heathers will find a lot to love here.
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies (SFU) and is also a graduate of the MA in Children's Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.
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University of Manitoba
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