Wednesday, May 18, 2022

B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy)

B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy)
by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple
Recommended Ages: 11+

Sammy Greenburg is an outsider, small, weak, mouthy and Jewish – in other words, a prime target for school bullies who don't like people who are different. Also, he has a tendency to take smaller and weaker kids' punishment for them, putting up little fight as his head is repeatedly dunked in the boys' room toilet. Even befriending a new kid, who is half African American and half Korean and knows some martial arts, doesn't offer him much more protection. It isn't until he starts taking bar mitzvah lessons from a nearby rabbi that Sammy hatches the idea of doing like Rabbi Loew of Prague, and building a protector out of clay.

A lot of things come together to make it possible for the kid to perform this holy (or perhaps unholy) magic in his bedroom closet. With a potter for a father, he has access to lots of clay. He has a certain talent as a sculptor. He has some days off from school, thanks to a severe beating his friend Skink takes and then his own physical illness. He has a book about the golem of Prague, stolen or borrowed from his rabbi, and the Hebrew name of God written down by ditto. And he has a feverish need for a strong friend who can stand up to the bullies for him. In a dreamlike delirium, he completes the clay boy and is surprised to wake up the next morning and find his closet empty. The golem has come to life, and now Sammy has new problems.

Sammy has to lie to everyone about who the big, gray boy is, telling his parents that Gully is a new student and telling everyone at school that he's a cousin from the Czech Republic. He has to keep Gully from punching everyone's lights out. He has to fend off Rabbi Chaim, who instantly recognizes Gully for what he is and warns Sammy that if he doesn't destroy the golem, it will destroy him and everything he loves. Nevertheless, for a while, things are cool. Gully's presence protects him from the bullies. Sammy starts a klezmer-rock-jazz fusion band in his basement, including Skink on guitar, a girl Sammy has a crush on playing fiddle, and Gully on the drums. The band even gets a gig. But a careless lapse leads to the moment Reb Chaim warned about, and the deadly danger of bringing a golem to life becomes horribly real.

There are a lot of themes woven into this story, including the cost of relying on someone else to protect you, the courage to stand up to bullies, the surprise of discovering new friends, the dangers of being different even in the modern world, the difficulty of maintaining a complex web of lies, the downtrodden's yearning for a feeling of power, and of course, the search for faith. At times, Sammy gets so deeply enmeshed in his issues that he becomes a little hard to sympathize with; you know, and he knows, that what he's doing is wrong, even as his conscience gradually goes to sleep. At other times, the sense of building danger becomes so unbearable that you (or at least, I) have to step back and take a breath before plunging back in. The joy of music, the pleasure of friendship and the tingle of magic are all right there, along with suspense and horror and all the bad parts of being a kid. And to complete the picture, the authors conclude the book with the lyrics of all BUG's songs and a helpful glossary of Jewish lingo used within.

The mother-son writing team of Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple have also collaborated on the "Rock'n'Roll Fairy Tales" Pay the Piper and Troll Bridge, the "Seelie Wars" and "Stone Man" trilogies, and The Last Tsar's Dragons. Solo and with other co-authors, Yolen is also the author of two "Robot and Rebecca" books, seven "Commander Toad" books, the "Pit Dragons" quartet, the "Great Ata" trilogy, the "Here There Be" quartet, the "Young Merlin" trilogy, the "Tartan Magic" trilogy, four "Young Heroes" books and two "Foiled" books; almost 30 other novels including The Witch Who Wasn't, The Boy Who Spoke Chimp, The Devil's Arithmetic, The Dragon's Boy, Wizard's Hall, Briar Rose, Armageddon Summer, Sword of the Rightful King, Snow in Summer, Centaur Rising, A Plague of Unicorns and Arch of Bone; a few chapter books including The Wizard of Washington Square; and many collections of short stories and poems, including The Girl Who Cried Flowers, Fairy Tale Feasts, The Emerald Circus and How to Fracture a Fairy Tale.

Stemple, meanwhile, is a rock-and-roll guitarist, a songwriter, and the author or co-author of two "Singer of Souls" novels, the "Mika Bare-Hand" trilogy and Foul Womb of Night, as well as the nonfiction book How to Write Fantasy Novels.

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