Banned Books: Geography Club by Brent Hartinger

Title: Geography Club
Author: Brent Hartinger
Challenged at: West Bend, Wisconsin Community Library
For: “being obscene or child pornography” in a section designated for young adults

West Bend was also the community going after Baby Be-Bop, so it is possible that their definition of “pornography” is “mentioning gay people”. The West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries campaigned for about four months to have sexually explicit materials from the young adult section moved to the adult section and labelled “as containing sexual material”. On the one hand, labeling all the books that mention sex WOULD make their circulation suddenly go through the roof, but on the other hand, anyone picking up Geography Club because of its supposed sexiness is going to be extremely disappointed. The first person narrator only gets a few kisses over the course of the book, and anyone else who goes farther only mentions it rather obliquely. It sounds more to me like West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries is actually trying to “protect” teens from positive images of gay people in the misguided belief that not reading Geography Club will keep them safely heterosexual, or at least safely in the closet and depressed. Great job, West Bend, that’s pretty much the opposite of what we need.

Russel thinks he’s the only gay person at his school, and spends his days feeling horribly alone and terrified that at any time his secret might be somehow revealed, bringing with it social ostracism and possible violence. Then he meets another gay teen in a chat room from his home town, and they agree to meet. Russel is shocked when it turns out to be Kevin, super jock star of the baseball team! Soon after he discovers other gay or lesbian teens keeping their own secrets–including one of his best friends–and they decide to form an after-school club to discuss their commonalities and just hang out with people who know their secret. Because they don’t want any unwanted public attention, they decide to name the club “Geography Club” because it’s the most boring thing they can think of to keep other people away.

I found this book difficult to get into, maybe because the language used seemed kind of unrealistic for teens and the situations were a little too “now you are being treated the way you treated others; learn a lesson!” Also, I’m kind of surprised that West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries only objects to the fact that gay people exist in this book, because there are all kinds of unsafe behaviors going on that I find way more troubling. Like meeting someone from the Internet in a dark, scary park in the middle of the night. Or meeting your secret girlfriend in an abandon warehouse downtown.

Clearly this is just another book being attacked for portraying gay people in a positive way (or a normal way), which is incredibly depressing. I can get a little angry about it, but mostly I just feel sorry for people who think this way. It must be so hard to live in a world with so many troubling absolutes. In one of my classes we learned that the brain finds anything that doesn’t fit into an already-held world-view extremely difficult to process, and even emotionally upsetting, which is why sometimes it’s so hard to teach kids things. Once they assimilate the new information and adjust their preconceived notions accordingly, they’re okay and ready for the next assault of information. I think that’s what it must feel like, an assault, to these people who view the world as so black and white. Reality is constantly challenging their preconceived notions, and it must be emotional turmoil to constantly have to shut that out and not assimilate and adapt.

To prove my point, here are my play-by-play notes on the book. Obv spoiler alert, so don’t read if you are ever planning on reading Geography Club yourself and want to still be surprised by all the… two surprising events:

Chapter one
Russel ¬†and Kevin tease each other in a Totally Jock Heterosexual Way in the boys’ locker room. Russel uses the phrase “Jockey shorts” to describe his underwear, which I find kind of strange, but I guess I was never a 15-year-old boy. Russel meets his friends Min and Gunnar for lunch, and watch as the Super Jocks throw food at Brian Bund, the school’s kind of smelly, nerdy outcast. That night Russel “logs onto the net”, explains chat rooms to us, and suddenly finds a chatroom for gay people from his home town! The only other occupant is someone with the “handle” GayTeen; they decide to meet IRL! Russel worries that it will be awkward meeting another gay person, but somehow does not worry that he is about to be kidnapped, raped, and brutally murdered. Instead he decides to meet this Internet stranger in the most remote, dark place he can think of. Since this isn’t reality, it turns out to be, not a scary Internet pedophile, but Kevin!

Chapter two
They tiresomely pretend that each of them “just happened to be passing by” this dark corner of the park in the middle of the night, until finally revealing/realizing they are there to meet each other. No one teases Kevin about his stupid screenname–sorry “handle”. This conversation happens:
Kevin: Besides, I don’t know what I am.
Russel: You look at pictures of naked guys on the Internet?
Kevin: Sometimes.
Russel: You’re gay.
Also, here is what most mentions of sex (always in Not-Russel) look like:
“They can’t know! If they knew I screwed around with guys–!”
“You’ve had sex with guys?” I hadn’t expected this. Gay, yes–sexually active, no.
“Maybe,” Kevin said.

So obscenely child pornography graphic right now!
Anyway, the next day at school Russel is all excited to 1) know a secret and 2) be sort of friends with Super Jock Kevin. Gunnar complains about not having a girlfriend and makes Russel promise to do anything in his power to help get him one. Then, because for some reason he is suddenly BURSTING with the secret, he tells Min about Kevin being gay, saying he ran into him in a gay chatroom, which pretty much outs himself as well. It’s okay, because Min reveals she’s bisexual and is dating a girl named Terese.

Chapter three
Russel gets the idea that he, Kevin, Min, and Terese should meet in a pizza parlor after school. Terese brings someone named Ike, who Russel immediately dislikes because he seems to be eyeing Kevin. The meeting is super awk at first, but then they realize they have a lot of being-angsty-and-repressed in common. They agree to meet again at lunch the next day.

Chapter four
Min accuses Russel of having a crush on Kevin. Russel gets flustered, Min says Kevin likes him back. Then she discusses her sketchy, sketchy relationship with Terese: “She had her friends, and I had mine. They didn’t really mix. So we never told anyone. Not just that we’re together. Not even that we’re friends. We meet in this old warehouse down on Fracton. All these years, my parents think I’ve been doing volunteer work down at the YMCA.” Take note, West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, because this is ACTUAL unsafe behavior. When the group tries to sit with each other at lunch, everyone stares at them and they give up, clearly having forgotten that a highschool lunchroom is a public place where people gossip about other people, a fact that I don’t think would ever escape a real highschool student.

Chapter five
The next day they all meet in the stacks of the library, assuming it to be super secret. They decide to form a club, call it Geography Club, and get the most inept teacher possible as a sponsor. Gunnar begs Russel to go on a double date with a girl named Trish so he can go out with her friend, Kimberly. Russel agrees.

Chapter six
The geography club meets for the first time. Russel thinks Kevin is “the hottest thing this side of an Old Navy commercial”. That weekend, Gunnar, Kimberly, Russel, and Trish go on a date, sneaking into a “stupid erotic thriller rated R”. Kimberly is a bitch, who drinks from a flask, and Trish is okay. Russel is glad it’s over “OR SO I THOUGHT”. The next Monday Russel is confused that everyone is reading the school paper, even though the school paper is crappy, like all school papers. The article of note is an interview with the health teacher, talking about her hatred of abstinence-only education and how she had spoken with a gay student about forming a gay-straight alliance. Everyone freaks out that someone in the geography club told their secret!

Chapter seven
Then they discover no one in the geography club told. Everyone thinks it’s Brian Bund. Kevin says the word “docious!” which apparently “was short for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, from that movie Mary Poppins, and it’s an example of my generation’s famous ironic wit. It’s sort of an all-purpose word at our school that can mean something is really good (“hot damn!”) or really bad (“holy shit!”).” See what I meant about the language? Russel tells Gunnar that he’s sorry Kimberly is such a bitch, and Gunnar is like “No, she totally digs me!” and Russel finally figures out that Kimberly is only going out with Gunnar because Trish totally wants Russel. Because he feels bad, he agrees to go out again. Then some random girl wants to join the geography club!

Chapter eight
Her name is Belinda and she saw their club application because she works in the office. They try to dissuade her because geography is boring, but she is having none of that. Russel joins the baseball team to be closer to Kevin. On their next double date, Trish gets Russel to borrow Gunnar’s car so they can “go for a drive”. Trish tries to kiss him: “Trish’s mouth slid open like a garage door on rollers, and I felt her tongue poking up between my lips. It felt like a raw oyster with a mind of its own.” Russel pulls away, and tries to explain that they don’t have any condoms.
Trish: Well, I didn’t say I wanted to have sex with you, now, did I? I thought we were just kissing!
Russel: Oh
Trish: But if you did want to, I’ve got some in my purse.
Then Russel admits that he’s a virgin and wants his first time to be special. Trish agrees, and they go back to the club. After the date, Russel meets Kevin, again in the scary dark part of the park, and they kiss for real. I assume it is not like a sentient oyster.

Chapter nine
The first half of this chapter is basically “Kevin is AMAZING!!” Then Kevin offers him chewing tobacco (where is this story set?) and Russel takes it because “he’s a baseball player now” (REALLY?) and because he wants Kevin to like him. To drive the point home, Russel informs us in the narration “so what if I’m making one tiny little compromise for Kevin’s sake?” The geography club argues about letting Belinda in, and Belinda overhears them! Oh noes! Her response is that her mom’s an alcoholic, so she knows what it’s like to hide a lifestyle from everyone, so they agree to let her stay. Russel hits a home run and wins his first baseball game!

Chapter ten
Everyone loves Russel because he won the game. Gunnar pressures Russel into going on a third date by implying that he’s never liked ANY GIRL. Everyone still loves Russel. So much so that they let him in on the Being-Really-Mean-to-Brian-Bund, and naturally he does it so that they will like him. Min sees and is SUPER PISSED.

Chapter eleven
Min suggests they invite Brian Bund into the geography club since he knows what it’s like to be an outcast and she feels bad for him. Everyone argues, and they decide to vote. Min and Belinda vote yes; Ike, Kevin, and Terese vote no. Min is shocked and appalled at Terese. Russel knows voting Yes is The Right Thing to Do, but he votes no because Kevin did. That weekend Russel discovers that the third date is to Trish’s parents’ beach house. Kimberly drinks a lot. This happens:
Kimberly: Let’s play Truth or Dare!
Trish: Good idea!
Kimberly: I’m gonna go first! (to Gunnar) Truth or Dare?
Gunnar: Dare!
Kimberly: Kiss me!
They make out. Russel gets freaked out and shouts that he wants to go home. Gunnar tells him he’s lame. He runs off into the night. Gunnar vows revenge.

Chapter twelve
Russel calls Kevin from a pay phone after walking for two hours. At school he sits with the Super Jocks and some of them have grabbed Brian Bund, put a bra and makeup on him, and pushed him into the cafeteria. Everyone laughs. Min wants to talk about him again at geography club, saying that they would all feel really bad if Brian killed himself and they did nothing. Ike changes his vote, but Russel still votes No. Min is pissed and leaves. Russel now sucks at baseball. Kevin tells him to change his vote. The next day everyone has heard the rumor that Russel is The Gay Kid who wanted to start the gay-straight alliance. Clearly Gunnar’s revenge!

Chapter thirteen
Everyone is awful to Russel. He sits with Brian Bund at lunch. This conversation happens:
Russel: How do you do it?
Brian: You get used to it.
Russel: All day long, I’ve felt like I’m going to burst into tears. Everyone staring at me, whispering things.
Brian: No. You c-c-can’t think like that (Brian has a stutter)
Russel: What do you mean?
Brian: You can’t c-c-care what people think. You’ll go c-c-crazy. You’ve g-got to save your energy for when people really d-d-do stuff.
Russel: You ever want to change the ways things are?
Brian: Things don’t change. Not for me, they d-d-don’t. Besides, it’s too late to change things now that I’m eating lunch with the g-g-gay kid.
I realize Brian is the best character in this book. Russel waits for Kevin on his way to baseball practice and asks to meet him tonight. Kevin basically tells him he can’t now that everyone thinks Russel’s gay, then some more Super Jocks come by and they join Kevin in making fun of Russel.

Chapter fourteen
Min finds Russel and they make up. She and Terese are through with their sketchy warehouse relationship. Later Gunnar comes to apologize for encouraging Kimberly to start the rumor. Russel admits that at least part of it is true. Gunar admits that he’s known for years because Russel likes Disney animated musicals, which makes his actions through the book that much more mean and sketchy. Russel epiphanies that Gunnar was treating him like he had treated Brian.

Chapter fifteen
Some Super Jocks apologize to Russel for making fun of him. Belinda tells him that “last night Brian came into the office to submit an application for a club. The Goodkind High School Gay-Straight Alliance! He’s the only member. I tried to talk him out of it–he didn’t even have a faculty advisor! What was the point of submitting an application for a club that was just going to be rejected anyway?” So now everyone thinks Brian’s The Gay Kid. Russel finds Brian and Brian says, “There’s already one Brian Bund. There d-d-doesn’t need to be one more.” Russel says thanks and leaves. Later, he sits with Brian at lunch again, as if that somehow repays him for a selfless act of sacrifice. I decide Russel is pretty much a jerk and wish this book were about Brian.

Russel breaks up with Kevin because he doesn’t want to sneak around secretly in the scary park while getting made fun of at school. Min, Russel, Belinda, Ike, and Brian start a real Gay-Straight Alliance.

The End

7 responses to “Banned Books: Geography Club by Brent Hartinger”

  1. Amazing summary! This book sounds kind of hilaribad. I almost cannot believe that “docious” bit was actually in the book. That is quite easily the lamest attempt at youth-speak since For Better or for Worse coined the term “foob”.

    Would instantaneous and unrelenting social scrutiny really be the obvious result of Min, Russle, and Kevin sitting together at lunch, though? Really?

    Did I go to bizarro high school where nobody gave a shit about who anyone not sitting at their table sat with?

    • pladd says:

      You clearly do not remember highschool. If someone you normally sat with randomly sat with someone else who was not even in their social circle it was MAJOR GOSSIP.

      • I feel like my high school lunch room was maybe too crowded for this to be an issue. If they all sat at the same table on purpose I cannot really imagine how anybody would have even noticed let alone taken INTENSE INTEREST.

        • pladd says:

          Whatever, if your best friend who sat with you every day suddenly sat with someone else you didn’t even really know without telling you they were going to or why, you would also be weirded out. OR MAYBE YOU HAD NO FRIENDS TO SIT WITH OHHHHHHHH!

  2. […] For: “being pornographic and worse than an R-rated movie” Along with: Baby Be-Bop, Geography Club, The Perks of Being a […]

  3. AsiaK says:

    I’d have to disagree, I thought the language in the book made it even better.

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