The Plot: Bud Hess is starting a new school: Magnificat Academy. The official story is to give him a better education than he was getting in public school.
The real story is a bit more complicated. It has to do with Bud’s real name, Badi Hessamizadeh. It has to do with how Badi was bullied. It has to do with what Badi did about being bullied. And what happened after.
This is Badi’s second chance; but a name change doesn’t change who he is. It doesn’t change his clinical depression and his anxiety. It doesn’t change that he’s an outsider.
When mysterious letters start showing up in the school newspaper, Bud finds himself the prime suspect. It looks like the bullying will begin all over again. How will he fight back this time?
The Good: Oh, there is so much I liked about this book and I want to make sure I get it all in.
I love a mystery, and Permanent Record delivers as a mystery: who is writing the angry letters? Why is Bud targeted as the writer? And what, exactly, did Bud do at his old school? And what is he going to do now? Even better, though, is that Permanent Record is a complex examination of not just bullying but also of character: Badi/Bud.
Let’s start with the diversity: Bud/Badi is first generation Iranian American. His and his family’s status matters; one of the insults hurled at Badi is “towel head.” It matters in how his father responds, by saying to ignore it — just as he’s had to ignore slights and worse, especially since 9/11. It’s in the names of Bud and his siblings and what they eat; it’s in the tension between Americanized children and their parents.
Badi is Iranian American; but that’s not the end of the definition of who he is. Badi is also a teen who has been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. His actions and reactions to things and people are seen through that additional filter. He is in treatment but it’s not an instant fix it. I love that Permanent Record takes a realistic, sympathetic, and sometimes humorous look at mental health. It’s not just that Badi is bullied, then — how he responds, and why, is infused by this.
And the bullying — and this is one reason why I just love t his book — Stella hasn’t created a book with a heap o’problems for poor Badi. No, no, no, no — what she’s done is constructed a sympathetic character who is whole, who is real, and who has many facets that recognizes the interplay between such things as mental health, outsider status, and bullying. Not every teen will react to being bullied the way Badi does — but not everyone is going to have the additional outsider status based on his parents’ birthplace, and not everyone is going to have the struggle with depression and anxiety that Badi does, so it makes his reactions that much more understandable.
This may sound like a heavy book — and while yes, it is, it’s not depressing. Bud meets friends at Magnificat, Reggie and Nikki and Mila. The development of those relationships, Bud realizing he has friends, is cute and smart and also a bit heart-breaking in that he didn’t have this support before. When the odd letters start showing up in the newspaper, it’s Bud’s new friends that want to help him clear his name.
And did I mention that Badi is funny? Here he is, talking about his anger in certain situations: “I’m tired of everybody misinterpreting my act of self-defense as a murderous urge. I’ve had murderous urges. I know the difference.” Not only did I laugh at that, it also cautioned me about Badi himself. Or, about his neighbors: “You know your family’s got problems when the hippies with the stoned dog are worried about you.”
The bullying — it was heart-breaking. Bullying is. Badi’s reaction to it at his old school, well, let’s just say it ended up with him in therapy and this new school. I’ll let you find out, let Badi tell you — but knowing that, and seeing some of the cycle begin to repeat itself, instead of being horrified as I should have been at what Bud was going to do, all I could feel was sorry for Bud that he was in such a place and hope that somehow, something, someone, would stop it before it went too far.
Badi/Bud narrates; and he’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he sees the world in a very specific way. It was about halfway through when I wondered if his old public school was, indeed, as bad as he made it sound. He can be a bit dismissive of those who sees as “jocks” or those bullying him, but Bud is seeing things through a very specific lens: outsider, bullied, anxiety, depression. Dare I say, he’s not the most reliable in talking about how other people are acting towards him or in being clear about how he acts towards others.
So much I’m leaving out, but this is so long already! The crush Bud has on Nikki! His family’s croquet games! Bud’s wonderful older brother, Dariush! I’ll end this with two things: Permanent Record is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2013; and those who love The Perks of Being a Wallflower will also love this story of an outsider trying to find his way in the world.