Freak Show by James St. James is a fabulous, hilarious, and touching story about Billy Bloom, a 17-year-old who has just moved to a conservative Florida town. Despite a sudden and unfortunate departure from his former home, Billy is optimistic. He expects great things from his new “ultra-white, ultra-rich, ultra-conservative” high school:
“I should look into maybe getting a trendspotting column in the school newspaper. Or maybe etiquette! Everybody loves etiquette! Oh! Oh! And maybe they’ll let me set up a What Not to Wear booth in the lunchroom! Oh my God! I’ve got it! What about Moulin Rouge Mondays and Studio 54 Fridays? Can you imagine? SQUEAL! I’ll be a hero.”
Unfortunately, Billy’s new classmates’ attitude toward his wit and theatrical personality (which make him one of the funniest characters I’ve read in a long time) is less than accepting. On his first day, he discovers that bursting into his first class with a “flourish and a bow”–in a carefully planned pirate outfit, no less—generates immediate suspicion (and even outright homophobia). Billy happens to be gay; he also likes to dress up. It doesn’t particularly matter whether it’s men’s or women’s clothing: as long as the ensemble expresses Billy’s particular mood, he will wear it proudly. He is, above all, an individual.
Bullying from Billy’s peers goes intentionally unnoticed by his teachers, who prefer to turn a blind eye in favour of the school’s best athletes and most popular students. Billy will not be deflated, however. Despite the daily struggle, he refuses to dull his lustrous personality. Slowly, other kids begin to emerge from the woodwork who don’t feel like they fit in: these are the students who make themselves invisible for fear of being ridiculed or beat up. We even see that some of these students are the most outwardly opposed to Billy’s sexual orientation and style of dress. As Billy is informed by a loyal (albeit gossipy) friend, all of the students at Dwight D. Eisenhower High have skeletons in their closets. Billy is one of the few who has nothing to hide, no dark secrets, and yet he is systematically called a “freak.”
Our hero is proud of who he is. Instead of accepting mistreatment, Billy becomes even more vocal, hatching a brave plan to show his classmates that he is not so different after all. In his campaign, he decides to re-appropriate the label “freak.” James St. James creates a lovable, strong character who is a crusader for the underdog, and who speaks for all of the kids who don’t conform. This could be a sad book, but the protagonist fights intolerance with humour and grace. In the world of Freak Show, Billy shows us that no one, no matter how hard they try, fits into a neat little category.
Freak Show is a witty and poignant book; I would recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a great character to root for, and to all teens (and adults!) who have ever felt a little bit different.