Stoner & Spaz
Written by Ron Koertge
Candlewick Press, 2002, 169 pp.
“…everybody, and I mean everybody, stands in front of the mirror and wishes they were different” (p. 128).
Ben Bancroft goes to movies at the Rialto Theater by himself a couple of times a week. It’s not a supercinema; it plays movies that people have already seen or never wanted to see and Ben has seen them all. As a teenager with Cerebral Palsy, he doesn’t seem to have many other social options, and besides he loves watching the classic films and noting how the directors suck him into the larger than life stories. It seems he knows what he is, a spaz, and has come to some sort of terms with this. He does what he can to make his grandma happy: gets good grades, wears the preppy clothes she buys him, and stays out of trouble (not that anyone has ever offered him a chance at trouble). Ben is funny, but his smart aleck quips are wasted on the regular ticket taker and usher he speaks to a few nights a week on the way in and out of movies. One night Colleen, the girlfriend of their high school’s toughest drug dealer Ed, shows up next to Ben at the crumbling concessions counter. Colleen is forward and a bit rude, and probably under the influence, but unlike everyone else, she talks to Ben without any hesitation or pity, and although Ben has no idea why, he allows himself to carry along in Colleen’s drug-fogged current and enjoy the company. Both find safety in each other’s polar lives, but their burdensome family backgrounds and accepted spots in teenaged hierarchy threaten to push Ben back to the seclusion of feature films and Colleen to her purse full of narcotics.
Stoner & Spaz is a short and darting novel that would likely appeal most strongly to high school readers, and its content points towards mature themes. It is not organized into chapters, but is simply spaced into short sections that allow the reader to continue seamlessly through the pages and finish the story in a sitting or two. The main characters Ben and Colleen are so well portrayed that they are able to present the life of a high school student with a disability and addiction without the shock value or melodrama of made-for-television movies played in the middle of weekday afternoons.
Although there is a fairly deep dark pool of the murky side of teenage life revealed within the pages of Stoner & Spaz, it is refreshing to see the main characters finding themselves and making their way through it in ways that are not glorified or horrific, but tangible and realistic. Ben’s self-deprecating humor involving his Cerebral Palsy helps to reveal some of the physical limitations that at times frustrate and burden him; but over time he must come to admit that some of his social alienation and boundaries are self-imposed due to where he assumes a “spaz” in high school fits. Ben’s rise and fall of self-confidence and anxiety in living with CP creates an authentic glimpse into his world for the reader and also allows for the universal connection with the up and down ride of the high school experience.
Companion books that explore the topic of young people facing physical challenges, specifically Cerebral Palsy, can be found in Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper (2010), Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer (2007), and Small Steps by Louis Sacher (2006). Possible companion books that approach self-discovery and addiction topics for Stoner & Spaz include Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks (1971) or Crank (Ellen Hopkins, 2004), a more contemporary story similar to the Sparks’ classic. Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher (2001) also carries a theme of addiction.
Ron Koertge is the author of several young adult novels although he never intended to write for teens initially. As self-declared “old” guy, a friend of his pointed out he was “chronically immature” and he must have agreed in some way, because he began writing for teens and has been highly successful. Koertge’s focus on Cerebral Palsy in this novel was the outcome of his wife, who works with individuals with disabilities, sharing about a young man with Cerebral Palsy she had encountered who had a great sense of humor. On the same day, he writes, he had engaged in conversation with a former student who had recently been in rehabilitation for addiction. Koertge’s creative author’s mind began wondering “what if those two knew each other?” His ability to weave such a situation into story is evident in his many recent young adult novels including; Lives, Knives, and Girls in Red Dress (2012), Now Playing: Stoner and Spaz II (2011), Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs (2010).
Bruce Broxterman, University of Cincinnati