In 2013, I was drawn to Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight. Not because of the plot description, not because I knew of his work as a sports writer, not because of the appealing cover, but because I thought E.L. Konigsburg had a son. I thought she had a son and he had become an author. Why would that matter? It matters because Judy Blume, Richard Peck, E.L. Konigsburg and Beverly Cleary are my Beatles. So, when I thought the author of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler had an author son I jumped in feet first.
I loved Openly Straight and in my head I congratulated both mother and son. Mother because she was E.L. Freaking Konigsburg and son because his mother was E.L. Flipping Konigsburg. Then something in the back of my brain came awake, marched to the front of my brain, and told me I was an idiot because he was an "E" and she was a "U". No matter, Openly Straight is still an outstanding book that I always push into the hands of students.
When I heard about Honestly Ben I was excited, but then I was afraid, no I was petrified. What if Honestly Ben ruined Openly Straight for me? I needn't have worried. I loved Honestly Ben. In fact, I love it more than I love Openly Straight. There is something about Ben's quiet energy that draws me in more than Rafe's whirlwind. Ben processes where Rafe acts. Ben whispers where Rafe shouts. Even with Rafe looming in the background and foreground of this story, Ben is truly the only star. He fills up the pages with his intelligence, tenderness, and well rendered angst.
Honestly Ben gives us more of Ben's tense backstory and lets us delve deep into the inner workings of his mind. The story picks up in the aftermath of what Ben views as Rafe's betrayal. It's just after winter break and Ben is uncertain, but also determined to restore balance to his life as he returns to school for the remainder of his junior year. The story takes us through the "typical" high school experience without ever feeling typical, but that might all be down to Ben's voice, which Konigsberg writes so well. The reader is by Ben's side as he struggles between what he feels and what he wants to feel. The fight between the two sides of Ben is amazingly real and familiar. When perfectionist Ben ignores the polite, proper, and prudent voice in his head the progression seems natural. When Ben erupts with anger it feels pure. When Ben's heart overflows is feels earned.
Even though I love this book it is not perfectly Ben and the book ended on too comfortable a note. The final few pages felt more a service to eager readers than an honest reflection of Ben. I think the book should have ended a few pages sooner, maybe with a solitary and contemplative Ben giving the reader an assessment of where he is now. No matter, I'm greedy and I want more Ben. Honestly.
P.S. - After you read Openly Straight and before you read Honestly Ben you should read "Openly, Honestly" an ebook short story about Rafe and Ben's respective winter breaks.