Prepare to be blown away—or rather, carried away on huge muscular wings—by this blissfully outlandish, bracingly-smart, tour de force about a teen who has to come to terms with relinquishing control for the first time as she falls for the hot new…pterodactyl…at school. After all, everybody wants him!
Sheils is very pleased with her perfectly controlled life (controlling others while she’s at it). She’s smart, powerful, the Student Body Chair, and she even has a loving boyfriend. What more could a girl ask for?
But everything changes when the first-ever interspecies transfer student, a pterodactyl named Pyke, enrolls at her school. There’s something about him—something primal—that causes the students to lose control whenever he’s around. Even Sheils, the seemingly perfect self-confident girl that she is, can’t keep her mind off of him, despite her doting boyfriend and despite the fact that Pyke immediately starts dating Jocelyn, the school’s fastest runner who Sheils has always discounted as a nobody.
Pyke, hugely popular in a school whose motto is to embrace differences, is asked to join a band, and when his band plays at the Autumn Whirl dance, his preternatural shrieking music sends everyone into a literal frenzy. No one can remember what happened the next day, but Shiels learns that she danced far too long with Pyke, her nose has turned purple, and she may have done something with her boyfriend that she shouldn’t have. Who’s in control now?
Hilarious and relatable (despite the dinosaur), Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend is about a teen who must come to terms with not being in control of all things at all times, break free of her mundane life, discover who her true self is, and, oh, finding out that going primal isn’t always a bad thing.
My thanks to the lovely people at Simon & Schuster Canada and to Alan himself for allowing me to read Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend in advance, and to ask Alan some questions about the book and his thoughts on adolescence in general. The book is available for purchase from your favourite online, in-store and independent booksellers.
This book gives a pretty satirical look at high school and in particular the hero worship that occurs around particular people and activities. Was this always your intent, or did it evolve with the storyline?
Most stories begin for me with a half-baked idea of an interesting character in a compelling situation. I knew that a pterodactyl was going to come to high school, but when I happened upon the character of Shiels Krane, a driven, A-type personality who, as student body chair, feels immediate responsibility for looking after the strange new arrival, I felt that my story had found its focus in her impressions, her point of view. She is at once herself a type, and a deeply unique person, and in the same way I mean Vista View High to be a very particular school and a reflection of some of the commonalities many North American high schools exhibit.
The cult of personality that surrounds the pterodactyl, Pyke, sprang up quite naturally for me as the plot unfolded. It felt somehow both true and an awful lot of fun to work against expectations for a monster who becomes a classmate and then, instead of a disadvantaged minority, an insanely popular figure who, for a time, can do no wrong. I do see high school as a microcosm of society in general, and I especially felt that in a Gary Larson-like way, the addition of a pterodactyl made it possible to look at humans as just another weird and delightfully bent species which can always use a little more help in laughing at itself. We are herdlike anyway, not just in high school, and the bizarre worship of celebrities and certain sports is hardly just a high school thing.
I love the story of how you came up with the idea after listening to Libba Bray, but I’m curious as to how has Pyke changed from when you first imagined him? (Do I get points for refusing to use “evolved” in that question?)
Ha! No need to steer clear of bad puns when talking about Pyke! But the truth is, my thoughts about this story started years and years ago, long before I even heard Libba Bray use the phrase (she was telling a group of writers at the Vermont College of Fine Arts to not slavishly follow the trends, as in – “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel!”) Long before that, a train I was riding in rounded a bend and an ancient great blue heron came into view by a lake shore. His gaze pierced me, and I was struck with the idea of just such a bird who wanders into the big city and becomes human for a while, almost as a vacation. I worked on a number of different versions of that novel, without success, and my thoughts turned naturally to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which the main character famously is transformed into a bug in the opening line. I began experimenting with Kafka’s dreamlike way of writing, and with realistic stories that involve some very unusual twist. And then: “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel!” So the heron became a pterodactyl, and the big city turned into high school. I guess I always figured the story would not be directly about the ancient beast who becomes manlike, but about the society he finds, the humans whose nature is so strange.
Pyke is, as you call him, the beast within us. Why do you think that we find it so hard to let go of ourselves to find that inner (primal) freedom when we’re in high school?
Adolescents and young adults are changing enormously both physically and psychologically, and I think the fact of having to deal with so many disruptive changes also makes young people terribly self-conscious and conservative in the sense of resisting some forms of change (even while embracing so many others!) It’s a time for putting on masks, new clothes, trying out different personalities or personas, testing our standing and our place in the world. Hormones are driving us crazy, our experience of sex in those years might well be as powerful as we ever feel it in our lives, and yet so many of us find it hard to let go because it’s all so new, we don’t have the confidence and experience to know it’s going to work out. It’s a time for fears and for huge breakthroughs.
But I also think in general we humans have a very hard time accessing and dealing with our subconscious, recognizing when we are following age-old patterns we aren’t even aware of, dealing with prejudices, entrenched thinking, old habits, cultural blinkers. The list goes on and on! I am writing about teenagers here, but mostly in the sense that we are all teenagers in one way or another.
Who do you identify with most? Were you a Shiels in high school? A Jocelyne? A Pyke?
I was definitely not a Pyke, an instant star musician/athlete/celebrity with extraordinary appeal especially for the opposite sex. I was a good athlete (basketball, track), but nowhere near as talented and as accomplished as Jocelyne, and not as insulated either. And I didn’t come within a 10-foot pole of student government, so in many ways I was not like Shiels, either. But I did have the same sort of inner intensity that Shiels has, a ferocious drive about my studies and about my athletics that I just wonder at now from the distance of middle age.
My young adult novel Tilt is at heart about being an adolescent boy, and in some ways Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend is a corollary study, my chance to explore young female sexuality and psychology. It was both joyful and difficult to unearth old feelings when writing Tilt, and a real leap for me to imagine and journey through different ones with Shiels in this new book. I suppose especially it is her self- absorption that I remember from my own teenage years, that sense of drama surrounding all the imagined triumphs or defeats in everyday events.
Finally, there’s a lot of humour in this book, even as it pokes at some pretty adult and serious topics. Did you find that the humour came naturally, or was that a deliberate writing choice to satirize the subject matter?
Humour seems to be a feature of any novel I write, even something as dark as Man of Bone, which brings us through nine months of captivity and torture in the life of a kidnapped diplomat. It’s humour that keeps us sane, humour that allows us to see ourselves more clearly. That being said, I never consciously set out to try to be funny, or to necessarily satirize other people or situations. The humour leaks out of my immersion in whatever situation my characters find themselves in, in the way they think of themselves and what is going on. It seems to me any-time I set out to deliberately try to write a funny story it never works!
I really don’t know where to start with this book, except to say that the title and the cover should be your first clue that you should expect the unexpected with this book. Wry, funny, absurd and oddly compelling, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend takes the tropes you thought you knew well, and tosses them around like a hurricane. Part homage, part satire and fully absurdist, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend should not be read like a conventional YA novel, and for that it may have some difficulty finding its audience. It’s unlike anything I’ve read recently, but make no mistake: that’s a good thing.
We are introduced to Shiels (Shiela Marie), a Tracy-Flick style perfectionist who runs the student council, organizes everything to within an inch of its life, has a devoted if somewhat mild boyfriend and is on track to become the best doctor her parents could want her to be. With the arrival of Pyke, however, Shiels and the other students start to change, and Shiels in particular begins to question the role she has been playing. Like any student facing what to do after high school, Shiels must acknowledge her own wants and needs above everyone else’s expectations, and that’s often a difficult thing to do.
The narrative has a dream-like quality to it that is augmented by Shiels’ own dreams – about running, about Pyke and about breaking free. I loved her imaginary conversations with the great Lorraine Miens, the political anthropologist Shiels secretly wants to be her mentor. These conversations allow Shiels to admit to herself the things she won’t say to her parents or friends: that she doesn’t want to be a doctor and hat she is fascinated by how people behave and react around each other. I don’t think that Shiels knows exactly what she does want, except for the freedom to choose her own destination, and I loved how she eventually came to terms with that realization.
Pyle himself remains an enigma for most of the book, accepted and adored by the students but not really known to us. We can visualize the primal energy he emits and understand the feelings that he stirs in the students, and even in Shiels’ own mother, but Pyle is a catalyst more than a character. It is his appearance that triggers the changes in the students, including Shiels, Sheldon and Jocelyne. It is his own inane primal nature that kickstarts the frenzy during the Autumn Whirl, and he’s the perfect analogy for those confusing feelings of adolescence, coupled with the intensity of hero worship and rock star allure. He is the beast that lives within us all, and only by acknowledging his existence are we able to accept that part of ourselves and move forward.
There’s a sly humour amidst the absurd, whether it be Shiels’ observations about her chosen unknown poet:
“Weeks ago when she had happened upon his work, she’d been struck by the evocative streak of lameness shading so many of his poems (“morning now, and I am just a cup of coffee”)
or Sheldon’s complaints about Shiels’ thoroughness (“Do we have to have twelve points? he said. “Ten was good enough for God and Moses”). These subtle digs appear when you least expect them, and only add to the quirky engagement of the book. Additionally, full credit must be given to Cumyn for deftly weaving issues such as teen sexuality, xenophobia, high school hero worship, the unsettling power of the media and other key issues into the narrative without becoming didactic. Shiels must face her own feelings regarding her sexuality not only after the Autumn Whirl when she believes she might be pregnant, but also when questioned by a male police officer about her connection to Pyke. Both issues bring authentic concerns regarding personal sexuality and a culture of blame or “slut shaming” on women to light in a thoughtful manner.
Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend won’t be the YA ‘dinosaur love story’ that some are expecting – and thank heavens for that. What it is instead is a clever, absurdist and intriguing read that will make you think about the decisions we make, and if we are truly being honest with ourselves about what we want out of life.
Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend is available now and is published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books. My thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing a copy as part of this blog tour. ISBN: 9781481439800, 304 pages.
Don’t forget to go back to visit the other stops on the blog tour for more excerpts, reviews and information!