Review: Boys of the Beast

Boys of the Beast

by Monica Zepeda

Tu Books (imprint of Lee & Low), 2022

Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Heidi Rabinowitz

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The familiar theme of growth and bonding during an American road trip gets a fresh treatment in Boys of the Beast. Three estranged teen cousins from a mostly Latinx family meet up at Grandma Lupe's funeral and then drive her inherited car, nicknamed "the Beast," from Portland, OR back to Albuquerque, NM, with side adventures in Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and Phoenix, AZ. While three first-person voices can be a lot for readers to keep track of, nerdy gay Jewish Ethan, sincere evangelical Christian Matt, and traumatized stoner Oscar are well-rounded and sympathetic characters, all worth rooting for.

Each boy is on a quest, though they may not realize it at first. Ethan's quest takes them to San Francisco where he can finally meet the boy he's fallen in love with through texting; Matt wants to see USC where he dreams of going to film school against his parents' wishes; Oscar just wants to avoid dealing with the trauma of his father's shooting death. The story sensitively covers relationships, religious belief, depression, and forgiveness while remaining warm and even funny.

Surprisingly for a book containing plenty of strong language and pot smoking, the main theme that stands out in this story is respect. These boys are very different, but they give each other the benefit of the doubt. Whether playfully teasing or talking seriously, they entertain each other's ways of thinking and are willing to learn more. Even Matt's homophobia is something they can discuss honestly. And when Oscar has a mental health crisis, his cousins get him the help he needs without judgement. It is heartwarming to see the emotional growth of these three likeable young men.

Few books portray the common reality of families with a mix of religions. Zepeda does a remarkable job of avoiding stereotypes and allowing each boy to inhabit his own worldview while questioning and learning about the others'. As a Jewish reader, I enjoyed the unusual experience of getting a peek inside the mind of a devout Christian character related to a Jew, and I think readers of all backgrounds will find the boys' discussions of religion and the meaning of life fascinating.

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Reviewer Heidi Rabinowitz is one of the co-admins of The Sydney Taylor Shmooze, along with Susan Kusel and Chava Pinchuck. She hosts The Book of Life Podcast: A Show About Jewish Kidlit (Mostly) at Heidi is Past President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and Library Director at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida.