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Geek Girl’s Fictional Junk Food-o-Rama “The Boy Who Could Reverse Himself” by William Sleator
I was very drawn to some of the oddest books in the library when I was a starry-eyed little sprocket. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to recognize it as a lifelong pattern of reading that has taken me towards books that range from just surreal to trippy to out and out bat-guano psychotic. Those early forays into the weird world of science fiction and fantasy have led me to discover Tom Robbins as well as Tom Holt and Jonathan Lethem. I’ve gone on to read Umberto Eco and Jonathan Carroll, too.
One of my favorite books when I was younger was The Boy Who Reversed Himself by William Sleator, which I am happy to see is back in print. Sleator was an author who I found highly dependable when I was trying to expand my horizons in the realm of sci-fi. The thing that I liked the most about his work was that he never treated his audience like they were a bunch of dumb kids. He gave us credit for being able to look up unfamiliar words on our own (if we wanted to) and didn’t shy away from putting some pretty complex ideas into his books. It never felt like I was reading a book that had been watered-down so that kids would be able to understand it.
When I first picked up The Boy Who Reversed Himself, it stood out amongst the other books in the Teen section of my favorite library because it didn’t have a garish cover. The background was in muted gray tones, and it had the faces of a boy and girl that had been reflected. It honestly did not look like a kids’ book, since that cover seemed much more mature than the other covers crowding the rack. So many of them depended on screamingly bright colors and busy fonts to attract the eye. It might have seemed a little bit dated, long before I knew what the word dated meant in that context, but I was curious. After reading the description on the book flaps, I decided that I would try reading it.
The Boy Who Reversed Himself is about a girl named Laura. There’s a boy in her class who is odd. She thinks that he is strange and funny-looking and hardly gives him a moment’s thought. When Laura ends up getting some of her homework locked in her locker at school, Omar helps her get it. The homework, however, has been reversed. Laura can’t just ignore that. She badgers Omar until he finally reveals his secret. He can travel through 4th dimensional space.
Naturally, Laura manipulates Omar into teacher her how to use the 4th dimension, too. She quickly discovers some surprising perks and drawbacks to using the 4th dimension. Despite Omar’s warnings, Laura decides that she’s ready to explore on her own, only to quickly find herself in over her head.
Sleator has a great feel for how teenagers talk and behave. Laura was never portrayed as a particularly mean girl. She simply traveled in much different social circles than Omar did. Mostly because, as a new kid, Omar didn’t have a circle at all and didn’t seem like he was going to have much chance of finding one. Likewise, Omar wasn’t hopelessly pathetic. He was at a different school with a group of unfamiliar kids, and he wasn’t really into the idea of trying to make himself fit in. Omar wasn’t trying to pretend that he was too cool for all that friend stuff, either.
Instead, because Laura has reached out to him, no matter how dubious her motives, Omar decides to take the one chance he sees to at least have one friend at school. He, like most teenagers, isn’t thinking for a single second about what kind of trouble Laura might get into if he teaches her how to travel in 4th dimensional space. He just wants a friend.
What was really incredible about The Boy Who Reversed Himself was the fact that it never once dawned on me that I was reading about higher mathematical and physics concepts. There was never a point during the first time I read it or during any subsequent revisits where my reading ground to a halt and I thought, “This is all math and I really don’t care much for math at all.” Instead, I found myself desperately trying to remember the difference between moving ana and kata and what would happen in each direction.
While the math itself was complex, the way that Sleator explained it made perfect sense. I wasn’t confused about what was happening or how. He has a gift for explaining those kinds of things in a story that feels wonderfully human. The science and the math never overshadowed the characters in the story, even while it never lost its important. The Boy Who Reversed Himself was one of the most enthrallingly geeky things that I read when I was a kid.
During one of my summer breaks from college, I hunted it down again and reread it, just to see if it was as good as I remembered it. To my surprise, even though I do enjoy some more sophisticated fare these days, I’ve never lost the attraction to the pulpy joys of the cheap, nearly forgotten paperbacks sitting in long forgotten corners. If reading is to remain a pleasure, it’s good to go back and remind myself of those things that gave me such pleasure in reading in the first place. The Boy Who Reversed Himself held up beautifully. It wasn’t just fun and intriguing to read, and the entertainment value from it went far beyond just a typical nostalgia read for me. It was still a really good story. Even reading it with a mind that had gotten college-level instruction on some of those concepts addressed in the book, the descriptions and explanations still held up well.
The Boy Who Reversed Himself was the book that introduced me to the idea that sci-fi could have some intricate physics and math at work in it, but that didn’t mean that it had to be dull or dry. Given just the right amount of expository writing and an excellent sense of characters and plot, those ideas can be revealed without drowning a reader in either jargon or technobabble. The ideas also didn’t have to be so oversimplified that they seemed patronizing, either. There is enough information to help the reader understand and give them the basic knowledge that they would need to do a little research on their own.
I have since obtained my very own copy of the book from a library book sale miles away from where I first read it. It gets reread in a regular rotation, usually in a single sitting on a single day, just to remind me of what a well-crafted, excellent sci-fi story can be when it’s been written for a targeted audience.
Seeing the new cover makes me cringe a little bit. I worry that potential readers might decide that it’s not worth reading because it looks like a lot of the trendy kids’ stuff that might entertain them for an afternoon but will never stick with them beyond that first and, most likely, last reading.
I, for one, think that’s very sad. The Boy Who Reversed Himself deserves so much better. It’s not “sci-fi lite” or tweeny/teenybopper sci-fi. This is a much better than average sci-fi story told skillfully. It doesn’t matter how old you are. The book may say that it’s for 7th graders and up, but it’s the kind of story that really shouldn’t have an age label slapped on it. It’s a sci-fi story that just happens to have a pair of teenagers as the protagonists, and they find out what happens when you end up going to the 4th dimension. I highly recommend it to anyone who just wants a good sci-fi story.
Also, you may not look at ketchup the same way ever again.