Buddha Boy Summary

Kathe Koja

Buddha Boy

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Buddha Boy Summary

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Buddha Boy is a 2003 young adult novel by American writer Kathe Koja. Koja first made her mark as a writer of speculative fiction for adults but, as well as branching out into young adult fiction, has found success with historical novels such as her Under the Poppy trilogy and a fictional biography of Christopher Marlowe. She is also a prolific writer of short stories. Koja’s characters are frequently people who are isolated from mainstream society. Her young adult works often present adolescence as a time of change and of learning to deal with the unexpected. Her literary influences include Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, and Sylvia Plath. Widely honored, Koja won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Horror Novel and the Locus Award for Best First Novel, both for her book The Cipher. Buddha Boy received the Children’s Book Award of the International Reading Association and the Society of Midland Authors Children’s Fiction Award.

The central character of Buddha Boy is Michael Martin, who is dubbed Jinsen, or fountain of God, by his Buddhist teacher. Another character, named Justin, is an average boy who acts as a bridge between Jinsen and their classmates, as well as between Jinsen and Koja’s readers. Justin is content to go through life, and particularly high school, unnoticed. He does his school work and has some friends. Justin comes from a supportive family: his parents are divorced but, unlike many of the adults in the book, they are a positive factor in their son’s life. Justin’s anonymity is taken away to some degree when Jinsen arrives as the new kid in school.

Jinsen elicits tension in the school simply by virtue of the fact that he is different. The students at the suburban high school where the story is set are from rich backgrounds. None of them like Jinsen, whom they consider weird, who looks like a Buddhist monk and who begs for food during lunch. Justin is not only disturbed by how Jinsen is treated, but he is also fascinated by Jinsen’s ability to remain unaffected by the cruelty of other students. Justin feels a connection to the strange newcomer when they are assigned to work together in a class, and takes to defending him against the school bullies. Furthermore, Justin is impressed with Jinsen’s artistic abilities. The narrow-minded and self-centered attitudes that pervade the school are juxtaposed with Jinsen’s devout nature, who seems never to look down upon or judge others. The events of the story do not simply reflect familiar tales of teen angst that young adult novels frequently explore, but function on a higher level as well. Koja grapples with psychology that underlies such unkind and illogical behavior that teenage characters often display.

As the story unfolds, we learn that at one time in his life, Jinsen was just as violent and mean as the bullies who torment him. This changed for him when his parents died and he became catatonic. A Buddhist art teacher then taught him how to use art and religion to discover beauty and truth. The story is told from Justin’s first person point of view and explores themes such as personal ethics, social status among young people, and how society implicitly or explicitly normalizes injustice. Justin comes to care more about what he learns from Jinsen than about what others might think of him.

Publishers Weekly cites the structure of the novel as one of its greatest assets. “The author cleverly structures the novel as a flashback, even as events unfold chronologically, so that readers can benefit from Justin’s newfound knowledge of Jinsen’s spiritual practice. For instance, the second chapter begins with a brief explanation of “karma” (“Karma means that what you do today, and why you do it, makes you who you are forever: as if you were clay, and every thought and action left a mark in that clay… but there are no excuses,… no I-didn’t-really-mean-it-so-can-I-have-some-more-clay”), allowing Justin to circle back to this idea throughout the narrative. Koja convincingly paints Justin as “somewhere in the middle” of the high school social strata, so that when he takes a risk for Jinsen, who is taunted (called “Buddha Boy”) and physically threatened by his classmates, readers see how far Justin has progressed in his own self-realization.”

While not necessarily positioning herself as a voice for young adults, on her Macmillan Publishers website biography, Kathe Koja speaks of her approach to writing in the genre. “People who say that writing for kids is easy (and some people do say it) are pretty deeply misinformed. What I’ve found is that young people are far more demanding readers than adults, and they’re very honest about what they like and don’t like in fiction. But I do believe in reading lots of books, even bad ones, because they can teach you why the good ones are so good. I can’t remember all the crappy books I read, or started reading, as a kid, but I remember all the ones I finished and loved.”