Thanks A Lot, Universe, by Chad Lucas, is a book I would like to put in the hands of every boy as they enter middle school. The novel has a lot to say about friendship, mental health, standing up for others and being yourself, and I think boys (as well as girls) could benefit greatly from these messages.
The story focuses on two main characters. Brian is a quiet kid, who is placed in foster care with his brother after his father is arrested. Ezra is a more outgoing and popular boy, who secretly has a crush on Brian. Ezra can see that Brian is dealing with something heavy and reaches out to help him, even as Brian makes risky choices and goes on the run.
When I was reading this book, I enjoyed seeing how the author challenged the idea of toxic masculinity. Brian has internalized ideas from his father about the need to be tough and independent, but it becomes clear as Brian tries to shut out his emotions that these ideas aren't healthy for him. I appreciated how an older teenage boy in the book acts as a mentor for Brian, allowing him to talk about his anxiety and panic attacks and learn how to deal with these big feelings in a healthy way. I also loved how Brian's new friends later in the book accept that he has anxiety and work to create spaces that are inclusive and welcoming. Similarly, I appreciated how Ezra's friends responded with love and acceptance when he comes out to them. Seeing male characters in this book respond with love, compassion and acceptance makes this a welcoming book to read.