New Boy is a novel by Tracy Chevalier that follows the playground love story of two sixth-graders: a black Ghanaian boy, Osei, and a white American girl, Dee. Although set in a 1970s Washington suburb, the story is based on William Shakespeare’s play, Othello (as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which sees bestselling novelists retell Shakespeare’s works).
This review has been guest-authored by Jessie Taylor.
New Boy also features a “chorus” of giggly jump-rope-girls, whose childhood songs and rhymes serve to outline the story’s plot. Like the sixth-grade characters in Chevalier’s novel, these nursery rhymes present a naïve appearance to mask mature concerns (“now I am dead, and in my grave, and there beside me, a rubber dolly”).
Dee is often referred to as the school’s “Golden Girl,” envied and crushed-on by many of her classmates. She is also the classic “teacher’s pet” that you remember from your own grade-school classroom (or perhaps were yourself!), and her teacher’s favouritism leads to her initial connection with Osei. The two children are immediately drawn to each other, despite discouragement from their peers due to their differences in skin colour. Osei is cautious but hopeful he might be embraced by Dee and his new peers, knowing the feelings and attitudes many white children and teachers have towards a black student, having been a “new boy” before: “he [has] looked over new playgrounds three times before, and [knows] how to read them.”
As if trying to navigate a relationship while being twelve years old wasn’t hard enough, Dee and Osei’s budding romance is further threatened when the playground bully, Ian, decides to do whatever he can to break them up: “When she handed the jump ropes to the boy and they began to laugh, however, Ian frowned. ‘Don’t like that,’ he muttered. He would have to do something about it.” The drama that unfolds leads the two lovebirds (and their peers) to question the authority figures in their life and their own roles on life’s playground.
Chevalier creates characters who are at a vital (albeit fragile) time in life. Not only are they learning to navigate their growing bodies and new emotions, but they are becoming aware to the prejudices and inequalities that exist in the adult world: “He had a right to be angry at her […] he was black, and all day they had treated him that way, differently from how they would treat another new student.” Chevalier reminds her readers what growing up is like, from the excitement of young love to the heavy realization that you may not truly be as special as your parents led you to believe.
Young and old readers alike can enjoy this book (though they may experience different levels of nostalgia), since we all experience times of change and self-doubt. As Dee and Osei remind us, with self-doubt comes self-discovery, despite its difficulty.
About the Guest Author
Jessie Taylor is an avid over-thinker. She likes red lipstick and fresh cherries in July. She is studying at the University of Manitoba.