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The Boys in the Back Row

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Best friends Matt and Eric are hatching a plan for one big final adventure together before Eric moves away: during the marching band competition at a Giant Amusement Park, they will sneak away to a nearby comics convention and meet their idol – a famous comic creator. Without cell phones. Or transportation. Or permission. Of course, their final adventure together is more than just that – really, it’s a way for the boys to celebrate their friendship, and their honest love and support for one another.

240 pages, Hardcover

First published October 6, 2020

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About the author

Mike Jung

10 books101 followers
Mike Jung is the author of the middle-grade novels Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2012), Unidentified Suburban Object (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2016), and The Boys in the Back Row (Levine Querido, 2020). His essays can be found in the anthologies Dear Teen Me (Zest, 2012), Break These Rules (Chicago Review Press, 2013), 59 Reasons to Write (Stenhouse, 2015), (Don't) Call Me Crazy (Algonquin, 2018), and The Hero Next Door (Crown, 2019). He's a founding member of We Need Diverse Books.

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5 stars
136 (29%)
4 stars
190 (41%)
3 stars
102 (22%)
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25 (5%)
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4 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 139 reviews
Profile Image for Donalyn.
Author 8 books5,914 followers
December 5, 2020
Mike Jung makes me long to be a middle school teacher again. He perfectly captures the angst and humor of middle schoolers and the importance of friendship during this age. Outstanding. I think it has great read aloud potential, too. I can’t wait to try it out with kids!
Profile Image for Ann.
Author 9 books212 followers
July 6, 2020
*I suppose this review contains spoilers. I really liked it and want to talk about it. No major plots twists revealed (I think) and I don't spoil the ending.*

There are very few authors who can make me laugh from page one and don’t fizzle out halfway through. Their humor for their characters and the life situations they face (even adversity) keeps building and growing inside the reader till you’re almost deliriously happy (though you may shed a tear). Louis Sachar is such an author. Mike Jung is another. This kind of brilliance isn’t always recognized.

Jung’s third middle grade novel, The Boys in The Back Row, is his best so far. It would be easy to say that MC Matt Park is a Korean American, comic-book loving, school band playing, nerd with progressive parents and a best friend Eric with whom he’s not afraid to show affection while being pursued by Cro-Magnon bullies Kenny and Sean. All that’s true, but Matt doesn’t fit any stereotype. He keeps throwing curveballs that delight him as much as the reader.

Kenny: “I said, are you a girl? Or are you just gay?”
Matt: “If you’re asking for a kiss, the answer’s no.” I said, surprising myself.”

Matt’s parents are terrific people; they eat kale and quinoa and joke about mansplaining. Matt’s dad shows disappointment when Matt joins the drum section (the back row)—he used to be “the boy flute player” or “the boy piccolo player.” Mr. Park: “I was just going to say it would be meaningful if you’d play piccolo at the competition--” It’s possible to confound even the most understanding parents! The big marching band competition is going to take place at World of Amazement. As it happens, DefenderCon featuring with Matt and Eric’s favorite comic book artist is happening a mile away the last day of the event—the day when they’re supposed to be enjoying the amusement park. The day they could sneak out and… a plan starts to hatch, kind of sort of because they’re honest kids and one of the bullies (a closeted nerd) finds out and wants in. While a mutual comic aficionado, Sean doesn’t like “chick heroes,” especially if they don’t have enough “boob window.”

There’s a lot of boy banter in BITBR. For me, it’s like aliens on the other side of the moon. For some, it will be painfully, hilariously recognizable and perhaps give them nerve to hold their own. Some of the bon mots: “…whipping your head around to see which nerd exterminator shouted “queers” isn’t a winning strategy…” “Why do dogs eat their own vomit?” “What the heck are you talking about?” “It’s in the Bible… ‘a dog returns to its vomit,’ or something like that.”

There’s some useful wisdom: “Mom and Dad like to say how it’s ok to cry, crying is healthy, boys need to cry too, blah blah blah, but they don’t understand how *dangerous* it is to cry in front of other kids, especially other boys…”

Progressivism is naturally folded in as part of the Park family universe. Some adults will either not understand these discussions or find them inappropriate for kids. But the targeted audience is more likely to be familiar with the subject material then their elders. Reverend Cinnamon and the Unitarian Church introduce the following topics for discussion.
“-- focusing on voter suppression, it’s so obvious –"
“—it’s typical trans-exclusive radical feminist nonsense –”
“–that Oregon Trail game totally erases Native genocide, don’t –"

Girls exist in the book in the form of the Oh sisters. Another Korean American family that the Parks sometimes have dinner with; daughter Skye is a real-life super girl. Also, in The Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. It’s Matt’s favorite novel and he brings it along on the school trip to much ridicule. Jung’s lovely bow to a writer friend and boys who read books with covers featuring girls in flowery dresses. (Yuyi Morales also gets a shout out from Matt's friend Hector: "He pronounced "Yuyi" like "Juji," although not quite--the J sound was a little squishier or something.")

The dialogue is incredibly well-constructed—it flows and hops. There’s some beautiful description to set the scene, like when everyone arrives at the auditorium dressed up for the Spring Concert. “The fact that it’s dark outside makes it feel brighter inside, even though the lights are all the same as when it’s daytime.”

Matt isn't just constantly barraged by gay insults but by racist ones too. He's called Chicken Chow Mein and told his last name is Wang. He's told to open his eyes. And Skye Oh rolls out as "Skye Ho--you slanty-eyed--OW!" on a bully's tongue, right before she takes him down.

Mostly, it’s a book about Matt and Eric, “dork strong, united by harassment.” Their friendship flies in the face of toxic masculinity and shows while it’s okay to be gay it’s also just fine for boys (one Korean American, one white) to be affectionate, inseparable best friends.

Comic book nerds aren't pushovers. They're irreverent, plucky and brave. "Funny" books are as important as "serious" ones. (And as award-worthy.) I needed this book, right now--and I think young readers will keep on needing it and the story it tells. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!

PS My friend Edi Campbell sent me her ARC which had a post-it note and some passages underlined. I'll pass it along with my additions.
Profile Image for Kelly.
Author 7 books1,211 followers
May 20, 2021
A fabulous book that subverts toxic masculinity at every angle as it explores a sweet friendship between two boys who love comics.
Profile Image for David.
Author 58 books1,011 followers
March 10, 2020
What a lovely book! I was transported back to my close, meaningful friendships with other "soft," dorky boys as we tried to be fun-loving, mischievous dudes ... just not jerks like other dudes.

Mike's funny, loving, adventure-filled romp will delight kids. Especially recommended for boys ages 10 to 14
Profile Image for Shaye Miller.
1,236 reviews81 followers
January 19, 2021
Matt and Eric are the best of friends. But when they discover that Eric will be moving away, they decide to pull off a sneaky jaunt to a comics convention while their school is on a field trip to a nearby amusement park. Over the course of this story, a number of modern issues are addressed, like racism, sexism, bullying, and homophobia. For example, Matt plays the flute/piccolo, so some boys make fun of him for playing a “girl instrument.” They also make fun of him for reading Two Naomis, which they’re claiming is a “girl book.” The bullies also refer to Matt as “Chicken Chow Mein” and his female friend as “Sky Ho.” Due to the boys’ close relationship, they’re mistaken as a romantic couple on more than one occasion, but they don’t let that prevent them from remaining close and talking about the implications of the claims. Y’all, EVERYONE needs a friend like Eric! He’s smart. He’s loyal. And his quick wit and sarcasm gave me the giggles. Why am I not hearing more about this book?! Please give me more stories with sweet, misunderstood, dorky boys who aren’t scared of meaningful, male friendships!

For more children's literature, middle grade literature, and YA literature reviews, feel free to visit my personal blog at The Miller Memo!!
Profile Image for Debbi Florence.
Author 31 books179 followers
March 5, 2020
Pitch-perfect friendship story between two 6th grade boys that hits all the right beats. We need more stories like this about boys and close friendship! Full of heart and humor.
Profile Image for Cande.
1,030 reviews180 followers
January 1, 2021
Mix feelings about this one, I don't think the story was quite successful.

For starters, the synopsis is very misleading. The whole convention that mentions? It doesn't happen until the last 80 pages of the book. That doesn't mean is terrible, but if I have known more about this book, I would probably haven't picked it up.

The story follows two boys that are best friends while they navigate middle school and band and bullies. They're quite close and not scared of showing affection and love, so of course, bullies have a great time calling them queer and gay. For a book that promises to be about boy friendship and toxic masculinity, there's a lot, and I mean A LOT of homophobia. And sure, it's called out and challenged, but honesty, it's also exhausting to read about. Because here's the thing, they are not queer themselves so the story centers homophobia around straight boys?

Here is where I think Mike Jung wasn't successful, stories about friendship and toxic masculinity and challenging homophobia in society are so important. I agree. But I don't understand the point of a book that revolves around bullies being homophobic when the characters are not gay? It feels quite insulting, to be honest. Yes, the book tackles other themes but it's overwhelmed (or at least, I was overwhelmed) by the amount of homophobia in almost every single chapter. The whole climax of the story is a gay character being outed, a side character, and a character that I had a lot of trouble with.

This boy is one of the bullies and I hate this trope, the bully is homophobic because they're queer themselves. Having internalized homophobia doesn't excuse terrorizing others and I feel like this trope always tries to sympathize with the bully and NOT HERE FOR IT. And it was especially hard in this book because he's just a secondary character and being the Worst, while the straight boys were the ones confronting the homophobia?

As I said, I just feel super weird about the whole book and with a lot of conflicting feelings. I don't know, maybe I just need to sit down for a while and think about this story.

ARC was provided by Levine Querido in exchange for an honest review.

Profile Image for Sam Bloom.
950 reviews16 followers
September 23, 2020
Can I give this 8 stars? 9?? 10 gazillion?! Seriously, what a fucking BEAUTIFUL book about awkward, sensitive tween boys and friendship and comics and band. Cannot overstate how much I wish I could buy a copy of this book for literally every 4th-6th grader on the planet.
417 reviews
June 9, 2020
source: eARC from Edelweiss

The Boys in the Back Row is an unabashed homage to male friendship. Focusing on the bond between middle schoolers Matt and Eric, the story celebrates a masculinity strong enough to allow the boys to admit that they care for another, even when the other kids at their school make fun of them. The plot revolves around their final big adventure together–sneaking away from a school function to attend a comic con. But, at its heart, the story is about far more than shared interests or even shared adventures. The love the two have for one another is the real story here–as is their comfort with sharing it.

Books with male friendships can be difficult to find, both in middle grade and YA. So I was thrilled to see The Boys in the Back Row start to fill this gap in the market. In doing so, it also subtly addresses the topic of toxic masculinity, showing how the fear of not fitting in at school causes the other boys to deny their emotions. Lacking a safe place to share their inner selves and fearing the social repercussions if they do, the other boys perform a type of masculinity that degrades women and gay individuals. Some of these kids are obviously the villains of the story–the bullies who make Matt and Eric’s lives a nightmare. But, sadly, a good portion of the school often participates in the bullying either by laughing or standing by idly. These kids–the bystanders–are often the ones who cause Matt, our narrator, the most pain.

The Boys in the Back Row takes a stand against toxic masculinity and apathy by revealing their hurtful effects. Some of the kids escalate their toxic masculinity into physical violence to demonstrate their dominance, but readers can see that much of the harm results from the failure of the other kids to step in, as well as their tacit participation in the bullying cycle by spreading rumors. And, sadly, the book also illustrates how so much bad behavior can go unnoticed even by teachers who have their students’ best interests at heart. The teachers cannot be everywhere, nor hear everything. So student apathy allows bullying to grow unchecked. In this depiction, The Boys in the Back Row feels very, very real.

Ultimately, however, The Boys in the Back Row is not a depressing book. Matt and Eric’s friendship and support for one another proves stronger than any hate and the book ends with a message of love. Readers who have been searching for a book that validates male friendship will want to check out The Boys in the Back Row.
Profile Image for Sashi Kaufman.
Author 4 books51 followers
May 4, 2021
I think this could have been an incredible book if it were written for YA not MG. I don't think the author has a strong sense of what bullying really looks like in middle school. This had that feel of a 1950s meet me at the flag pole and and I'll kick your butt kind of bullying.
That said, I loved the friendship between the main characters and love a book set in the world of band dorks -just wish it were high school band dorks.
Profile Image for C.J. Milbrandt.
Author 20 books161 followers
January 8, 2022
Matt has always been best friends with Eric, the kind that do everything together and know what the other is thinking, just by looking them in the eyes. But Eric's mom gets a new job, and it means moving away. With their inseparable-duo status imperiled, the boys hatch a plot that'll let them have one big, final adventure together.

School bullies and band geeks and fan boys. Amusement parks and comic book stores. Super heroes and limited editions. Marching bands and quite possibly the best parents ever. So much fun. You can't help but root for these two friends.
Profile Image for Erin.
2,147 reviews28 followers
October 7, 2021
THE anti-toxic masculinity middle grade book. So incredibly sweet and refreshing.
Profile Image for Brian.
291 reviews116 followers
December 29, 2020
A middle-grade book about drum line, comics, and friendship, with a subplot about acceptance and the nuances of being human? I know, I know, it sounds like this book was written specifically for me. But I’m certain that hundreds of young readers will find themselves in this wonderfully crafted book. This will be a perfect addition to the classroom library.
Profile Image for Damon Verdema.
120 reviews3 followers
January 30, 2021
I have SUCH mixed feelings about this book. It hits on so many important topics, plus being centered around band life, I was convinced I would absolutely love it, but... mmeh.

First things first: this book was the first middle grade book that I've read that used phrases like "toxic masculinity" and "found family" (and many, many more). Plus, it was the first middle grade book I've seen acknowledge the existence of nonbinary people! These are incredibly important topics, and I'm so glad to see them in a MG book. But... I think it went a bit overboard. It takes a LOT to cross over from teaching to preaching, and having nearly every interaction between the MC and his parents be a teaching moment ended up being a bit too far for me.

Profile Image for Mark Holtzen.
Author 2 books15 followers
September 9, 2020
So Good! Wonderful portrayal of how boys can be sensitive, funny, show platonic love, handle bullying w/humor and insight, dodge and stand up for racism, and so much more. I laughed while being wowed with Mike's handle on this story. It has inspired me to dig into my own quiet, sensitive boyhood to harvest some friendships of my own. Loved it. Keep it up, Mike!
Profile Image for Dan.
1,059 reviews76 followers
January 17, 2021
Like many reviewers this book brought me back to middle school. What fun book about friendship!
Profile Image for Sean Kottke.
1,891 reviews28 followers
December 6, 2020
This is a very enjoyable read about middle school sci-fi/comics fanboys taking advantage of a particularly well-timed band trip to sneak away on a quixotic mission to meet a revered comics artists at a nearby comic-con. I couldn't escape the feeling that key elements of the story were pulled from my life: in 1985, my high school band performed in the annual Chicago Christmas Parade. The night before the parade, there was a party in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Chicago for all of the bands that were participating in the parade. TARDIS 22 flier I was more excited by the prospect that TARDIS 22, the biggest annual Doctor Who convention in North America, was taking place in the very same hotel. So, as soon as I got into the hotel lobby, I pocketed my band party name tag, popped on my Doctor Who Fan Club pin, and ran off into the lower depths of the hotel conference center to crash a different party. I had encounters with nearly every featured Who actor present before my watch alarm informed me I'd better head back to the band party or risk missing my bus. When I got back there, security almost didn't let me back in. They saw my Doctor Who pin and figured I was "one of them" and not a part of the high school festivities. It took a team of my friends who had been wondering where I disappeared to to rescue me and assure security that I belonged there. My mom was a chaperone on the trip, so I can only imagine the worry I must have caused her. Nevertheless, I regret nothing, and was the envy of the local chapter of the Doctor Who Fan Club when I got back home. This book provides wonderful reassurance that that level of quixotic scheming remains alive and well among adolescents, and in the service of nerdy non-romantic pursuits.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,020 reviews17 followers
September 26, 2020
Thank you for Edelweiss and Levine Querido, an imprint of Chronicle, for early access to an E-Arc of this book.

Best friends Matt and Eric share many connections including a love for comics and a love for being in the marching band. They are geeky teenage boys who get each other and have each other's back. When Eric finds out he will be moving away at the end of the school year, both boys are devastated. How will they stand up to the bullies without each other for back up? Who will understand and love their geeky ways? Life just won't be the same. Determined to have a final memorable adventure before Eric moves, the boys start planning to sneak away from a marching band field trip to an amusement park in order to attend a comic convention with the goal of meeting their comic book hero. If they get caught, there will likely be unimaginable consequences, but they feel it will be oh so worth it for one last celebration of a great friendship. A heartwarming story about the bonds of friendship, I really enjoyed this middle grade story and look forward to recommending it to students.
Profile Image for Hiroko Z.
97 reviews
January 27, 2022
Matt sits in the back row of band class with his best friend, Eric, and the two are inseparable. But soon they find out Eric will be moving at the end of the school year! Their band will be performing at an amusement park, where at the same time and city, there will also be a local comic con with one of their favorite authors. So what do they do? They make a plan to sneak out and go visit the author, not only to meet the author, but as an ode to their love and friendship together as they plan their last adventure.

This book was very sweet, and Matt and Eric’s friendship was great. I also really appreciate this book getting me out of a reading slump, at least temporarily as I could not put it down. It also tackles toxic masculinity and racism pretty well, and I haven’t read many books, especially middle grade novels about platonic love and friendships, especially boys which is something that should be normalized. My one complaint is the amount of homophobia in this book, not from Matt or Eric but from bullies who sees the boys relationship as “gay”, and the way it handled the bully’s internalized homophobia, which I understand is unfortunately one of lifes realities on both parts, but it felt pretty repetive at points considering the MC is not LGBTQ+, although I do appreciate the MC knowing the bullies actions are not okay.

All in all I think this book is necessary and I highly recommend it to people who like realistic fiction.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Christine.
675 reviews16 followers
May 30, 2022
I bought this book because I was curious about it and Levine Querido publishes the most marvelously made books (from the weight of the paper to the rich colors of the endpapers).

While I thought it was a very accurate portrayal of middle school boys, I found that, honestly, not too much happened in this book and I didn't particularly connect with the characters.
Profile Image for Eva.
663 reviews30 followers
August 25, 2021
Me, extremely doubtfully: Well I didn't....not....like it.....
I just don't quite understand like. What the Point of it was, maybe? Like, the ending wasn't really cohesive and it felt like a 'Day in the Life Of' but spread out across too large a span of time.
Profile Image for Brenda Kahn.
3,667 reviews53 followers
July 25, 2020
Wow. This was terrific. I honestly wasn't sure going into it that I would enjoy it, but I did. Loved the voice. Loved the humor. Loved the authenticity. Cried at the end.
Profile Image for Shannon.
69 reviews
December 23, 2020
I really enjoyed this book. Love the love between the two main characters. Matt especially has wonderful emotional intuitive moments. A good recommendation for boys that visit the library.
Profile Image for Abby Turner.
1,282 reviews53 followers
January 27, 2021
I really liked these boys and their persistence in being their true selves. The bullies were frightening and used very awful words. I felt adults should have been alerted sooner, but Eric and Matt's responses were probably closer to reality. Fun to read and quickly paced it should be an easy recommendation to middle schoolers.
Profile Image for Johnny.
52 reviews
December 2, 2020
Sixth graders Matt Park and Eric Costa are best friends, which can be a hard when one of you is the only boy who plays flute at your school. Matt, however, has decided to play drums for marching band this year so he can spend more time with his best friend. While playing the bass drum is decidedly boring compared to flute, there is excitement in the band room when Mr. D announces that they'll be playing in the spring music festival at the World of Amazement theme park. It only gets more exciting when they realize that their favorite comic artist will be signing books at a nearby comic convention. All this excitement is soon countered by the news that Eric will be moving away at the end of the school year. The two friends plot on last adventure by sneaking away from the music festival to get an autograph, but their local bullies seem intent to get in their way.

This book does a great job at portraying a friendship between two geeky boys. Matt is twice an outsider, being the only male flutist and one of the only Asian students in his school. While the story refers to many bullies at the school, the two main bullies, Kenny and his sidekick, Sean, direct racist insults towards Matt and other non-white characters, and homophobic comments towards Matt and Eric. A strength of the book is that it really explores how challenging it still can be for adolescent boys to be friends in a healthy, authentic way, due to pressures to be macho and harassment from others. It differs from many other books that center "geek culture" in that it is not focused on over-the-top action and some sort of overcoming of geekiness or geekiness turning out to be a super power. The characters simply are who they are: two friend who are band geeks with a love for comic books.

This book is definitely competent, but suffers somewhat from odd pacing and insufficient character development. The scheme to sneak away from the band trip is introduced early in the book, but there really isn't any tension around making the plans. Sure, the bullies find out about the plan and threaten to derail it, but the threats are mild. I only really lost myself in the last three or four chapters when some action comes out of left field. It also seems like the adults in the school are oblivious and incompetent, which may be the case in many school settings, but it's hard to believe Matt or any of the other bullied students can't find an adult ally at school. Also, given Matt's relationship with his parents, it's surprising he doesn't turn to them for help.

If it weren't for the unique nature of the friendship and the different take on geek culture, this book would probably be three stars. I could see this book, however, being a lifeline for boys in grade 5-7 who are working on developing the confidence to be themselves and resist societal pressures to be hyper masculine.
Profile Image for Celestemcolon.
334 reviews
January 28, 2021
There were a lot of great things happening in this book.
Boys sharing feelings - honestly makes this book a winner for me.
Having read a book the MC reads, I was thrilled, as I hope my son will also read that book.
Trying to flip some common held beliefs about gender and racial stereo types is a tall task for any book, even more so for those written for middle graders, so this one held it's own and helped the boys stay true to themselves. I hope my son will one day have a friend that will plan a quest with him and also make him know he'd be missed if they were going on diverging paths.
Profile Image for Binxie.
549 reviews1 follower
February 22, 2021
Jung had a commendable goal to write a book about male friendship, but it didn't ring true to me at all. I did not hear a believable tween voice from any of the characters. The time frame of the events of the book should have been condensed. Too many events were used to make a point, not to add to the authenticity of the story. All in all a big disappointment.
634 reviews
March 28, 2021
This was very anticlimactic because they never made it to the con. I will not purchase because no middle school kid is patient enough to deal with the flat plot line and then the climax doesn’t happen.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 139 reviews

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