The Last Boy at St. Edith’s – by Lee Gjertsen Malone

the last boySt. Edith’s used to be an all-girls academy. And now it may be again. The experiment of making it co-ed wasn’t too successful. One by one, the male students trickled away and transferred to other schools until no one was left but Jeremy. Jeremy is the last boy at St. Edith’s — a lone male 7th grader surrounded by a sea of girls. And he wants out.

But the situation is complicated. He has told his mom that he wants to transfer. But Jeremy’s mom works at St. Edith’s, so tuition is free. They can’t afford for him to go to a different private school, and the local public school is terrible. Plus, Jeremy suspects his mother of running her own private feminist experiment on him — will he turn out to be a more sensitive man if he attends an all-girls’ school? So Jeremy is stuck. Until he decides to try to get himself kicked out.

Jeremy is a good kid. He’s never gotten in trouble before. And flunking out would take too much work — good grades come too naturally to him. He doesn’t want to get in serious trouble — just enough to get him kicked out of St. Edith’s and put into a more normal middle school setting where he wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb. So when his best friend suggests the idea of pulling a series of pranks together, he’s intrigued.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. When I saw that the plot was turning towards pulling pranks and trying to get kicked out of school, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. But Jeremy grows and matures as a person over the course of the book, and I thought the potentially problematic themes were handled beautifully. Jeremy is a very likable character. I definitely understood his desire to be in a more normal setting, and his frustration with his mom’s frazzled responses to him on the subject. But I appreciated the growth in his character that developed throughout the book. He realizes how his actions impact other people. He develops in his awareness of the feelings of others. It’s a bit of a coming-of-age book, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I was impressed with how this book handled issues of the interaction between the genders as well. Middle school is a notoriously tough age to navigate (particularly in interactions between guys and girls), and I felt that the author acknowledged this and wrote a very real and heartfelt story right through the middle of these difficult waters. As the only male student at St Edith’s, Jeremy deals with the whole range of teasing (particularly at sporting events with other co-ed schools) — from the intimation that is must be a nice set-up for him since he gets his pick of girlfriends to the comments that the girls at St. Edith’s must be getting uglier since one of them looks like a boy. But none of these mocking comments strikes the reality of his experience with all female classmates. The descriptions of his actual interactions with his female classmates was quite nuanced and realistic. His two best friends are girls. Claudia is outspoken and gregarious — the kind of person who stands out and tends to get her way. It’s a friendship that involves its fair share of fighting, but also more than its fair share of laughter and fun. Emily, Jeremy’s other best friend and neighbor is more reserved and can come across as prudish. She’s loyal and understanding, but can sometimes disappear into the woodwork.

The thing I particularly loved was that these were real friendships. Jeremy is young and male, and very obviously doesn’t fully comprehend all of the nuance in female conversation, but he is able to have very real friendships with girls on a human level. He does have a romantic interest in the book, but that is separate from his friendships. As a 7th-grader, Jeremy is still very much in the throes of figuring out relationships of all sorts, and I thought the author did a wonderful job of exploring this element of the teenage years — we see Jeremy learning about true friendship, about deepened relationships with both family and friends, and about the complexity that’s introduced when romance and attraction becomes part of the picture. I found it to be a rich exploration of the complexity and confusion of the teenage years and the navigation of newly deepened relationships.

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