The issue of bullying in teens and children has had an increase in awareness over the last few years, with countless news articles about teens or pre-teens who have been either victims or perpetrators. Statistics show that approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day due to issues of bullying. With those numbers in my head and a further awareness the bullied teens are nearly 10% more likely to consider suicide, I decided to review It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt.
It Looks Like This centers around Mike, a 15 year old boy whose parents have recently moved Mike and his little sister Toby to Virginia from Wisconsin. Mike’s father is authoritarian and religious. His mother is equally religious but quiet and almost subservient.
The book opens after its ending. A short chapter shows Mike recalling a memory of a time watching the sunrise with the other main protagonist, Sean. This moment sets the stage for the second chapter which jumps back to the beginning where Mike is revealed as the narrator.
Dismayed that his son is “soft”, Mike’s father pushes him towards sports and similar activities in an effort to “toughen him up.” Mike, recognizing that he is a misfit both at home and at school, tries to appease his father but has neither the talent nor the passion.
After Mike is paired on a project in French class with another boy in his class, Sean, things begin to change. The two quickly strike up a close friendship and the tentative beginnings of a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, neither Mike nor Sean can escape their fathers. Nor can they get away from Victor, another boy in their class who has targeted Mike with his bullying.
It Looks Like This touches on issues of homophobia, cyber-bullying, and conversion therapy. Religion is a very significant specter in Mike’s relationships with his family and friends. Several of Mike’s friends at school are also part of his church. His father’s mercurial temper is deeply intertwined with his religious convictions. His is the final word in the household, and Mike’s mother is either too afraid or too conditioned to speak out against her husband.
It Looks Like This contains a good but not a great story. Much of the blame for this lies in the characterization. Mittlefehldt paints many of his characters with the same brush. All the men in Mike’s church are stern and distant, while the women are meek and submissive. The church minister is a stereotypical hellfire and brimstone preacher. Certain characters are introduced as if they are meant to have some impact on the storyline and then dropped with no significant development.
Many of the scenarios presented in It Looks Like This fall prey to cliche and stereotype. Mike’s sexuality is suspect due to his disinterest in sports and his strong artistic talent. The only two characters who defy stereotype and convention are Mike’s sister, Toby, and Mrs. Pilsner, the mother of one of his friends.
Finally, the overall undercurrent of gay bashing feels suspect. The reader, who is privy to Mike’s inner thoughts and recounting of the events, is given occasional hints that he is gay, but to the outsider, there would be no reason to suspect, other than the fact that he is not athletic and enjoys art.
Readers who enjoyed It Looks Like This might also like Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian, or The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan. Each of these books address issues of bullying, adapting to a new environment, and first loves.
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda specifically deals with the issue of cyber-bullying and has a far lighter tone, although both it and It Looks Like This veer toward the predictable. Simon Vs. the Homospiens Agenda never fully addresses the consequences of the characters actions. It Looks Like This goes slightly further yet still does not show the events as having any long term consequences for the perpetrators. In fact, it is Mike and Sean who suffer the greatest consequence from the actions done to them.
In contrast to It Looks Like This, Cut Both Ways takes a more serious approach to the issue of bullying and creates more realistic scenarios, placing it somewhere between Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and It Looks Like This in tone.
As with Cut Both Ways, The Tragedy Paper treats the issue of bullying with a serious tone. Like Mike, Tim becomes the target of one particular individual who seeks him out with malicious intent. Also like Mike, Tim stands out as different and awkward, though Tim’s differences are primarily physical whereas Mike’s are that he is quiet, introspective, and uncertain of his sexuality.
Other similarities between The Tragedy Paper and It Looks Like This include a singular tragic event for which both boys blame themselves and which will shape both their futures. Mike, however, unlike Tim in The Tragedy Paper, has a minor but direct role in the tragic event. Also, while Tim is targeted by Patrick the jealous boyfriend of his crush, no particular reason is given for Mike being targeted by Victor other than a subtle implication of self-directed homophobia.
It Looks Like This is enjoyable, although the first half drags somewhat. I found that the pacing increased almost exactly half way through, as I had just reached the point where I was ready to give up when the momentum increased. As such, the second half of the book was stronger and more enjoyable than the first half.
In addition, I found the books formatting to be distracting. Mettlefehldt does not use quotation marks to indicate who is speaking, but rather depends on line breaks and “he said” or “she said”. While the “he said” and “she said” is standard usage, the lack of visual indicators for speakers made it difficult in places to differentiate narrative and dialogue. This choice is based on the fact that Mike is retelling events that have already happened, but I felt that it detracted from the story and interfered with my enjoyment of the book.