Boylan on What Monsters Can Teach Us


Jennifer Finney Boylan takes kids to another world to help them better negotiate their own

By Sarah Braunstein
Photography by Heather Perry '93

Jennifer Boylan (English) and sons Zach, left, and Sean,
who served as“consultants” for Boylan’s new novel, Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror

Colby English Professor Jennifer Boylan isn’t afraid of ghosts. Or monsters. Or, for that matter, metaphors. When it comes down to it, Boylan doesn’t seem afraid of much at all—and she has written a bold new book asking young readers (and adults, for that matter) to think again about the scary things in their own lives.

In Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror, Boylan takes us on a wild ride, daring readers to share an adventure story, explore the possibilities of identity, and figure out just what it means to “be yourself.”

At 13 we all feel like monsters. Our bodies and voices aren’t our own. Our parents have become strangers. We’re forced to decode a new and complex social order. Adolescence is brutal—for Falcon Quinn, it’s doubly challenging. One day this plucky, kind-hearted kid from Cold River, Maine, boards what appears to be a regular school bus and is shuttled at harrowing speed to a supernatural boarding school on a mysterious island. There he is greeted by Mrs. Redflint, a no-nonsense administrator who happens to breathe fire. Contrary to what he’s always believed, Falcon is not human, Mrs. Redflint announces.

Welcome, friends, to the Academy for Monsters.

Here Falcon meets a dazzling array of monstrous tweens/teens: zombies, vampires, Frankensteins, enchanted slugs, warebears, sasquatch, and one zippy creature called La Chupakabra, “the famous goatsucker of Peru.” It’s the dubious mission of the Academy of Monsters to teach its pupils to adapt to the human world, to reject the quirks and oddities (and perhaps gifts) that constitute their monster natures. All new students undergo a battery of tests at the “Wellness Center,” are briskly labeled with a monstrous diagnosis, and are sent off to classes to learn how to pass as “normal” in the human world.

All except poor Falcon, for no one knows quite what he is. (Is the kid human? Monster? What kind of monster?) It’s up to Falcon and his gang of howling, oozing, shape-shifting misfits to unravel the mysteries of this curious school. What Falcon discovers bonds him to his new friends—and threatens the group to its core.
Boylan can relate to Falcon’s trials, and she feels compassion for the book’s monsters, even the most grotesque and pitiful. As a professor, a novelist, memoirist, parent, and transgender woman, Boylan knows that identity is a slippery concept, that one’s search for oneself is a dangerous but necessary game. “We always tell kids: ‘Be yourself.’ It’s the moral of so many kids’ books,” Boylan said. “But almost never do we accept how truly difficult that can be. ...The book looks at the questions: What does it mean to be different? What is the price we pay?”

To explore these questions, Boylan turned to the supernatural. Monsters and ghosts have always appealed to her—for years she and Professor Emeritus Charles Bassett have spent Halloween night reading ghost stories to Colby students. “Ghosts provide a good way of thinking about alternative selves,” Boylan said. “Monsters, on the other hand, are a good way of thinking about what it’s like to be different in the world.”

Learning to accept those aspects of self that don’t fit neatly within the social order has been Boylan’s life work. She is perhaps most well known for her best-selling memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, an account of her experience transitioning from male to female. She writes with unflinching candor about the sorrows and joys of embracing a life of difference, accepting its pric

You don’t have to be a Colby English major to see the thread connecting She’s Not There and this most recent volume. Said Boylan, “Yes, Falcon Quinn is a goofy book about monsters. And kids can engage with it this way. But on a fundamental level it’s not a change of subject for me. I’m taking on the same issues [as the memoir] in a much more subtle and playful way.”

We all must change—and so must our families. But the changes the Boylan family has undergone have been more public, and perhaps more unusual, than most. Boylan reports that many readers of She’s Not There ask how the family is doing now: How have the boys handled the change? What’s their home life like? The 10th anniversary edition of the memoir, due out in 2013, will address some of these questions. Falcon Quinn is another answer.

Boylan says her family’s inspiration and support made the book possible. Boylan’s wife, Deirdre Finney, instilled a love of reading in the boys and exposed Boylan to the fantasy/middle-grades-reader genre. Zach, now 16, was the model for the character of Max, the lovable sasquatch. (“He’s a heart on legs,” Boylan said.) Sean, 14, who bears a striking resemblance to the bright-eyed Falcon on the book cover (a bit of serendipity, for the art designers never met Sean), became a merciless fact-checker and wizard of plot turns. “He’s the logician of the family,” Boylan said.

The family lived together with the book, and while Boylan made final editorial decisions, her sons have a sense of ownership and pride in the final product. As the family explored these characters and their adventures, they had conversations about their own lives, about the sociology of middle school, about difference, change, transition.

Perhaps most critically, they had fun. The book became a thing they made together—emblematic of one family’s open-hearted adventure. Yes, this is a novel about otherness, about feeling alone in the world, but it owes its existence to one family’s togetherness.

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  • On November 7, 2010, Lisa Tessler wrote:
    I'm definitely going to buy this book for my 13 year-old son!