Buddha Boy by Kathe Koja
What makes a freak a freak? Is it the clothes he wears? His shaved head? His beliefs? Or the way he smiles even when people make fun and harass him?
Justin isn’t a freak, but he isn’t popular either. You know, popular as in the gods and goddess who run the school. He’s floating somewhere in the middle with his two best friends Megan and Jakob until he meets Buddha Boy, a.k.a. Jinsen. Jinsen is different from anyone Justin has ever met. He begs for money during lunch period, he smiles when someone purposely pours soda on him, and he walks home without a coat even when the ground is slicked with ice.
Judging from appearances, that’s all Justin knows about his new classmate, well that and he doesn’t want to befriend him because of the stigma that is already attached to him. But when an Economics assignment brings reluctant Justin and Jinsen together, both boys learn for the experience, and both gain a friend.
Justin learns Jinsen isn’t a freak but he’s an incredibly talented artist who has learned a lot from his Buddhist beliefs. From Justin, Jinsen learns what it’s like to have a friend, and to have that friend stand up for you at the toughest times. This unlikely duo of friends didn’t set out to change the school, or the thoughts of their fellow classmates, but in the end that’ exactly what they did!
Kathe Koja has written an exceptional story that promotes individualism and tolerance – two things that aren’t always present in the halls of high school. Well written and well realized, Koja’s characters embody the emotions of what it is like to accept a new person into your life, and what that acceptance feels like on the receiving end. She also captures the raw emotions of anger, despair, and rage.
A key component to Koja’s Buddha Boy is it intricately weaves Buddhist beliefs into the text – like hungry ghosts, the ideas of discipline, the four truths, so on and so forth. Not only will readers get a better understanding of who Jinsen was in the past and present, what led him to these beliefs and how those beliefs are inadvertently affecting new friend Justin. Because of this, readers get a taste of something they’ve yet to experience, and a chance to learn and grow along side Justin and Jinsen.