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Back to School with BRUTAL YOUTH by Anthony Breznican

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With school back in session, the artist Cassandra Siemon has created new illustrations to accompany excerpts of Anthony Breznican’s dark coming-of-age novel Brutal Youth, which is new in paperback.

One of the chief antagonists in the book is Ms. Bromine, a guidance counselor at St. Michael the Archangel high school who has become unhinged with bitterness. She was once a popular student at the school, but each year takes her farther away from those glory days.

In this scene, she encounters two boys she has already decided are examples of the sad state of her beloved school: Noah Stein, who has a mysterious burn scar on his cheek, and Peter Davidek, who is well-meaning but deeply unlucky.

Bromine first tangled with them in the opening scene of the book, when an out-of-control student seizes control of the school’s roof and begins pushing statues over onto the students below. Stein and Davidek ran out to save a fallen classmate, but Bromine grabbed them and wouldn’t let them proceed – until Stein distracted her with a surprise Bugs Bunny-style kiss that allowed Davidek to run free.

Ms. Bromine was ignored when she complained at the time. Now she has vowed not to let that humiliation go unpunished.

Sometimes when you feel completely alone and ignored, it’s easy to lose your way.

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Excerpt

First class of the day: Religion.

Lorelei entered the classroom and found a seat in the center of the front row, placed a notebook and pen on the desktop, and crossed her ankles under her chair.

Her new classmates shuffled in behind her, and the boy who took the seat next to hers had a web of thin pink scars running from the corner of his eye, right down to his jawline. But he was still kind of cute. It made him look strong somehow, to be damaged.

“Can I ask you . . . ,” she said, tracing a finger near her own eye. The boy instinctively touched his scar. “Are you blind in that eye?” she asked.

The boy leaned in conspiratorially, smiling. “If I was, I’d have sat on the other side, so I could still see you.”

Lorelei groaned. “I get it. So you’re the guy who flirts with every girl in class?”

The boy with the scar shook his head. “No,” he said. “Just the prettiest ones.”

The chatter in the room was cut off by the slam of a door. Ms. Bromine stood with her hand clenched on the knob, in case she needed to slam it again. “Good morning,” she said sweetly. She walked to the podium beside the teacher’s desk. After more silence, she said: “Aren’t you going to wish me a good morning?” which was followed by a disjointed response of “Good morn-ing, Miss-us Bromummum . . .”

“Bro-myne,” the teacher corrected them, dashing her name on the chalkboard. “I am the school guidance counselor, and I also teach this class on Catholic catechism. This is not church, but it’s about church, so I expect you to behave ac—” That’s when she noticed the scarred boy. Their eyes locked. The lips on which he had once planted a mocking kiss pursed. “Do you have a problem, young man?”

Stein looked behind him. Bromine said, “I’m talking to you. What is it you have there on the side of your face? Some kind of . . . rash?” As every eye in the classroom penetrated him, the teacher adjusted her little Ben Franklin glasses and said, “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that was just . . . well, how God made you.” She put a hand to her mouth to cover a small smile and coughed to clear her throat.

“You should see the other guy,” Stein said. “And it wasn’t God.” The kids in the class chuckled, but Ms. Bromine no longer had a smile to hide. “Let’s not talk out of turn,” she said, unable to think of a better comeback.

“In any case, where was I?” Bromine said. “Oh, yes. This class is where you learn right from wrong. This is not a place for you to sit around and discuss what you believe is right, or what you don’t feel is wrong. ‘Believing’ and ‘feeling’ aren’t welcome in a mathematics course, and they’re not welcome here either.”

Bromine had them go to a table in the back and pick up a textbook,

Exploring Modern Faith— or, as some of them had been vandalized by past students, Exploding Modern Farts. As the kids returned to their desks, the classroom door opened. Bromine looked over at the new arrival. Good Lord Jesus. The other one, too?

Davidek, his hair and blazer still dripping with rain, wandered in nervously, raising a freshly printed class schedule like a talisman to ward away evil. “The secretary gave me a sophomore list by mistake . . . ,” he said.

“It’s always somebody else’s fault with you, isn’t it?” Bromine said. She folded her arms. “Take a seat,” she said. “And congratulations.”

“For what?” Davidek asked, hunching toward the empty desk on the other side of Lorelei.

“For collecting the first detention of the year,” Bromine said. “And in the first class of your first year, in the first minute you enter. You should be in the record books.”

Davidek sank into his seat. Stein leaned forward to tip him a friendly salute that Davidek didn’t feel energized enough to return.

“You’ll need to get a textbook,” Bromine said. When Davidek stood up, she snapped: “Play catch-up on your own time. You’ve already distracted me enough. Let’s go around the room, and each of you say your name. And don’t go changing seats after today. I can’t remember who’s who if you keep shifting around.”

Bromine barely heard any of the kids saying their names. She was focused on the two hooligans, evidence of how things had changed for the worse around here since the days when she had worn the St. Mike’s uniform. When the scarred kid introduced himself as “Noah Stein,” Bromine raised her pencil-sketch eyebrows. “Noah, eh?” she said. “So, where’s your ark?”

She basked as the class chuckled, but Stein shot back: “Where’s the second animal who matches you?” It was a reflex from a lifetime of dumb “Hey, Noah, where’s your ark?” jokes.

Bromine’s eyes went wide. “You,” she said, “have earned yourself the second detention of the school year.”

Stein shrugged. Bromine started scribbling the punishment slips at her desk. She didn’t bother listening to the rest of the students’ names.

About BRUTAL YOUTH by Anthony Breznican

Three freshmen must join forces to survive at a troubled, working-class Catholic high school with a student body full of bullies and zealots, and a faculty that’s even worse in Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth

With a plunging reputation and enrollment rate, Saint Michael’s has become a crumbling dumping ground for expelled delinquents and a haven for the stridently religious when incoming freshman Peter Davidek signs up. On his first day, tensions are clearly on the rise as a picked-upon upperclassmen finally snaps, unleashing a violent attack on both the students who tormented him for so long, and the corrupt, petty faculty that let it happen. But within this desperate place, Peter befriends fellow freshmen Noah Stein, a volatile classmate whose face bears the scars of a hard-fighting past, and the beautiful but lonely Lorelei Paskal — so eager to become popular, she makes only enemies.

To even stand a chance at surviving their freshmen year, the trio must join forces as they navigate a bullying culture dominated by administrators like the once popular Ms. Bromine, their embittered guidance counselor, and Father Mercedes, the parish priest who plans to scapegoat the students as he makes off with church finances. A coming-of-age tale reversed, Brutal Youth follows these students as they discover that instead of growing older and wiser, going bad may be the only way to survive. (Paperback ISBN: 9781250067890)

You can see another piece of original artwork and read its accompanying excerpt at HYPABLE.

Karen’s Take

BRUTAL YOUTH by Anthony Breznican was one of my favorite books of 2014. It’s dark, it’s compelling, and it’s sympathetic. Check out what I had to say previously at 5 Thought I Had While Reading BRUTAL YOUTH. Seeing the artwork makes me really want a graphic novel. And honestly, I would love to see this made into a movie.

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