With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: 50 Cent’s Playground, published November 1, 2012
Plot: After attacking a former friend with a sock full of D batteries, the teenage Butterball begins seeing a therapist to work through his anger issues. Overweight and an outcast at his suburban school, Butterball finds that his violence earns new respect with the cool kids. His father, who still lives in New York, also supports Butterball’s outburst. At a birthday party for his longstanding crush object Nia, the other kids goad him into trying to attack another kid. The plan goes awry when Butterball’s intended victim fights back with his friends. Humiliated and hurt, Butterball begins to question his life choices with his therapist’s help, finally changing his ways and starting to work harder on his passion for making movies. The book ends with Butterball’s newfound maturity paving the way for a better high-school career after he’s graduated from junior high.
Series status? 50 Cent is best known for his career in hip-hop and film, including acting, producing, and screenwriting. He’s also co-credited on a memoir, From Pieces To Weight; a crime novel, Blow; and the motivational book The 50th Law. This standalone novel is his first foray into YA, and in writing without collaborators.
YA cliché? A couple of big plot points in the back half of the book are well-worn territory. First, in an effort to show how much Butterball has grown as a character, 50 Cent has him stand up to another bully in front of his love interest. 50 Cent doesn’t make a lot of interesting or novel choices in Playground, but this one takes the cake for triteness. “Using your powers for good” is an important moral for young readers, but they’ve seen this scene played out so many times before that they probably won’t get anything new from 50’s take on it.
Likewise, the ending, which wraps up everything with Butterball getting a chance to go to a prestigious art school, is simple wish-fulfillment and totally unearned by the character. The book rewards him materially for growing up, instead of showing how maturity is its own reward. A lot of the stress Butterball is under feels real and poignant for a 13-year-old black boy in a predominantly white suburb, but the ending is saccharine, and robs the book of its authenticity.
Bad sign: “There was just no way I’d ever tell Liz [Butterball’s therapist] or anyone else what really went down that day, or what my reasons for it were,” Butterball says on the book’s second page. It’s immediately obvious that he’s going to tell Liz, and the readers, what happened, and this kind of setup doesn’t build tension so much as highlight that there will be reveals later on in the book. Some of those reveals are unexpected, but others are painfully obvious, and highlighting them at the beginning of the book makes it starker. 50 Cent is a passable writer, but moments like these show that he’s unable to deftly hide the mechanism of his plot.
Good sign: Turns out one of the big reveals is that Butterball’s mom is gay, and her partner is moving in with them. It’s totally unexpected, especially coming from a hardcore rapper with woman issues, and it adds a nice gravity to Butterball’s alienation. 50 Cent is right to point out that being gay and black is still a problem in many communities. While Butterball never says it, it’s clear that his mom moved them away from New York to get to a more accepting place. This isn’t a book about gay rights, or gay identity in black culture, but the addition of a lesbian character gives the book an emotional dimension that ties in with the current American political landscape.
Young-adult appropriate? Yes and no. The writing veers from childlike to using terms like “post-apocalyptic urban shit.” Butterball’s articulateness ranges depending on the scene, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what age group 50 is writing for. He seemingly hits the extremes between a book for 10-year-olds and a book for teens in the hopes that the writing will average out to what middle-schoolers like. There’s a lot of scatological cursing: Butterball swears as much as, or possibly less than, most real kids his age, but at least his narration never seems like it’s a thirtysomething using slang to seem young.
Old-adult appropriate? Not really. Although the theme of bullying is universal, there’s nothing new or novel here for adults. There are a couple of mentions of auteur directors and foreign film, but the allusions never flow into the narrative in a novel way. Diehard 50 fans will probably get more out of his autobiography.
Could use less: Deadbeat male characters. Butterball’s father actively encourages his son’s violence, and at one point forces Butterball into stealing shoes instead of buying them. There’s no real reason for him to be such a terrible human being, and the lack of any positive male role models make it seem like all men are feral without good women to set them straight. Conceivably, Butterball’s dad could be angry and bitter because his wife left him for a woman, but the book never explains his actions.
The other boys in Butterball’s middle school are just as bad, pushing Butterball into violence simply for the fun of it. A gender baseline seems to define every character (women = good and nurturing, men = bad and corrupting), and Butterball only becomes a better person when he starts listening to the women in his life.
Could use more: Discussion of sexuality. Butterball’s confusion about his mom’s sexual orientation is a genuine source of strife for a young man whose own sexuality is just starting to form, but 50 Cent doesn’t seem comfortable jumping into the topic. He’s content to have a passive gay character instead of letting Butterball’s mom speak for herself. 50 has admitted that his mother was bisexual, and it seems like he could have easily looked to his own past to further characterize Butterball’s mom. But he has a bad track record on homophobia.
Likewise, Butterball has feelings for Nia, but they remain pretty childlike, which seems unlikely for a typical 13-year-old. Anger about, and because of, sexuality is a subtext throughout the book, but 50 Cent is unwilling to bring it to the fore. It’s an odd choice, since his songs are rife with male sexuality.
For fans of: 50 Cent’s media empire, K’wan’s books on gangsta life, parents who want to steer their kids away from rap’s more repugnant aspects.