Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

Image“I try to keep my mouth shut because the ants are telling me: Stay safe, Lucky Linderman.  Keep your mouth shut. But I talk anyway.  ‘My mother is a squid, so we have to come here because Dave and Jodi have a pool, and my mother has to swim several hours a day or else, as a squid, she will die.  My father has to stay in Pennsylvania because he is a turtle and can’t face anything other than boneless chicken breasts and organic vegetables.

My ninja is smiling at me. ‘You mom is a squid?’

‘Psychologically, yes.’

‘And your dad is a turtle.’

‘Right.’

‘What does that make you?’ she asks.

‘I don’t know yet.’

Lucky Linderman has masterminded a survival plan: Operation Don’t Smile Ever.  It started after his survey project, in which he asked his classmates how they would kill themselves if they could.  The thing is, everyone freaked out and now the school officials think he’s “troubled”.  Combined with a dad who is always working at his restaurant, a mom who would rather swim than engage with humans, and Nader’s incessant bullying, Lucky’s not so sure he has much to smile about anyway.  Oh, and the ants: he also sees an ever-present line of ants who like to comment on everything he does.  As if a squid mom and turtle dad aren’t weird enough.

And that’s without the nightmares.  See, his grandfather is a POW/MIA, a prisoner of war, missing in action.  He went to Vietnam and even his body didn’t come back.  Lucky’s grandma died while pleading for Lucky to find out what happened to him.  But Lucky kind of knows already.  See, he has dreams of Harry, his grandfather.  They’re nightmares, really.  They make traps together, talk about life, and even play Twister.  And from each dream, Lucky carries a memento into real life: a banana sticker, a black headband.  He feels like the dreams have a purpose; he will stop having them when they find his grandfather.

This is a very special book, one that doesn’t ignore the horrific realities of war and the agony of bullying, the feelings of worthlessness and despair that accompany adolescence, or the frustration inherent in being a member of a dysfunctional family unit.  There is no minimization of trauma here, but King shows us a way around the challenges.   Lucky’s story champions the subtle bravery of not throwing in the towel.  It is a novel about what it means to grow up.

We are in the hands of a master storyteller, friends.  We’ve all read books on bullying, on war, on dysfunctional families.  But, I ask you, how many of those books had a line of ants, or dreams that might be real, or a Vagina Monologues ninja in them?  And it’s not just these delightful creative elements that will grab you and suck you in, either.  It is Lucky’s natural voice.  While you’re reading this book, it’s like sitting inside his head.  You’ll look around and say, “Hey! I know this place!” And after you finish this book, I hope you see the ants, too. I hope they’re cheering for you.

A. S. King won the Printz Honor for Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and this book has already gotten starred reviews and the attention of the American Library Association-all for good reason.  I especially love that this book will appeal to reluctant readers (although I do so hate that phrase, because it assumes that people don’t want to read.  No, they just haven’t found the right books yet, I say).  So here, readers-who-might-be-having-a-bit-of-trouble-liking-reading:  this one’s gonna blow your mind.

Happy reading!

Author’s website: http://www.as-king.com

King, A. S. Everybody Sees the Ants. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. 279 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this book, I think you’ll love A. S. King’s earlier book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Also, you might want to check out Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like A Rock Star and Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going.  They aren’t so much about war or bullying, but they have the same feeling to them.

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The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

“There are three things in this world that I want more than anything. I’ll tell you the first two, but I’ll never tell you the third.”

Super-smart Donnie is very serious about the things he wants: the first is a copy of Giant-Size X-Men #1, the only comic book that his father doesn’t have in his collection.  The second is a computer, so he can work on his own graphic novel project, Schemata. As for the third, you’ll have to sort that out on your own!

Donnie is 15, living in the basement in the house he shares with his pregnant mother and so-called step-fascist, the man she left Donnie’s father for.  School is a battlefield: he’s bullied constantly, and has only one friend, Cal.  Cal’s on the lacrosse team and hangs out with the jocks, so sometimes he has to pretend that he’s not really Donnie’s friend.  All he really has to keep him going is his graphic novel and what he calls “The List”: a mental catalog of everyone who has ever hurt him, so that he can seek revenge someday. (Just to be clear, here, he may fantasize about hurting those who have hurt him, but he affirms that “the best revenge is living well”, and is determined to make it big someday, rather than act out in violence).

He’s being beaten (again) in gym when Kyra shows up.  She’s pale, dressed in black, with piercings and an attitude that proclaims, ” I hate you all”.  Soon the duo become unlikely friends, driving around in a series of (possibly) stolen cars, talking about suicide, school, comic books, and how they’ve been let down by the adults in their lives. She teaches him how to stand up to people, and when Kyra needs help, Donnie uses what he learned to save her life.

High school isn’t an easy place for many people, and this book explores how painful social isolation can be.  Donnie’s voice is believable, and readers will be instantly sympathetic to him.  Kyra’s set-up can be a little awkward in places, such as the unexplored thread about the stolen cars, and I felt the exchanges with the principal were not terribly realistic.  But, you know what?  This is fiction, after all.  It’s a story.  It’s ok to have some elements that may or may not happen in real life.  That’s part of storytelling!

Fans of comic books, graphic novels (though don’t get confused, this isn’t a graphic novel, it is just about them), and anyone who has ever felt like an outsider will appreciate this book, I think.  My very favorite parts were where the author, Barry Lyga, would slip into using this unique imagery.  It was almost poetic, and I was so surprised and pleased to see it included.  For example: “And now the laughter takes on a slightly dark tinge, a bad flavor, as if dipped in a solution containing the slightest percentage of vinegar.”  Nice, right?

It really reminded me of Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going, so if you liked that one, I think you will like this one, too!  There’s also a sequel, Goth Girl Rising, but do you know what I would really like to see?  I want to see the real-life version of the graphic novel that Donnie is working on in the book.  It sounds great!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://barrylyga.com/new

Book website: http://fanboyandgothgirl.com (Look, there’s even a discussion forum where you can talk about what Donnie’s mysterious “third thing” is!)

Lyga, Barry. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2006. 311 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Hey, can I say one more thing that I loved about this book?  I’m pretty happy to see several characters in it that don’t drink.  For example, Cal tells Donnie how to spill his beer a little into the plant at the party, because neither of them really want to drink.  Thanks for that!

Also, watch out for my next post on Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King.  Since I started library school, I’ve been really nervous and a little homesick, and reading and blogging help me feel better! Soooo, it should be up soon!

 

 

 

Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

“Pray

you could somehow stop

the uncertainty, somehow

stop the loathing,

somehow stop the pain.

Act

on your impulse

swallow the bottle,

cut a little deeper,

put the gun to your chest.”

Before you panic about that quote, I’ll explain:  it’s a description of past events, even though in the excerpt I realized it can come off as an order.  Don’t worry! It’s not as bad as you think.

Well, it’s pretty bad.  The novel takes place in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents.  Vanessa, Connor, and Tony have all attempted suicide, and meet in the ward.  Vanessa has bipolar disorder, like her mother, and cuts herself when she cannot cope with her emotions.  Connor, even though he looks like the perfect, all-American star student, feels isolated in his own family, as though he were an object instead of a son.  And Tony has spiraled into the depths of despair after his mentor dies of AIDS.   In the hospital, the three begin the lengthy process of sorting through years of pain and fear, searching for the combination of medication and therapy that will help them emerge into the sunlight again.

The three main characters take turns relating their own experiences in the novel: the speaker is identified at the beginning of each chapter, or whenever the speaker changes.  Since the characters are all so fragile and desperately unhappy, it is (like Hopkins’ other works) a raw, harrowing novel.  I had to take frequent breaks when reading it.  The voices are so gripping that you feel them reach out of the book and suck you in.  I actually found it to be so intense as to be overwhelming.

That said, this is Ellen Hopkins.  That’s her style: she wields her words like a surgeon’s knife, slicing away at any extraneous padding in a story.  There’s no sugar-coating here, that’s for sure.  It’s an undeniably grueling read, but even as I was sickened and horrified about the experiences, feelings, and memories of the characters, there was a part of me that was able to stand back from the story and recognize the skill of the writer.

The three-voice-narrative was especially genius, I think.  Because of the emotionally intense, introspective nature of a person going through a life-threatening emotional crisis, a single narrator could telescope the story in on itself, and make the entire novel too centered around tortured ruminations of the sad mind.  But with three different characters telling the story, Hopkins anchors the story, and keeps it from being an unbroken personal manifesto of misery.

Oh, what can I say here?  The topics are rough: sexual abuse, drugs, self-injury, abortion, and suicide, all described in graphic, but poetic language.  However, Hopkins takes this dark side of the self and humanizes it, makes it understandable.  She also refuses to tie up the story with a neat “happily ever after” bow, too, which is something I really appreciate.  One gets the feeling that, to Hopkins, her audience is street-smart enough not to swallow a syrupy ending.  There’s this underlying feeling of respect for her readers: she speaks to them as though they were adults.  I think this one is definitely worth a read.  (And the ALA thinks so, too: this book is an ALA Best Book winner!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com/

Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007. 666 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  And while your 16-year-old is reading it, stick around for the tough questions that may come up.

Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

All the spells for bringing someone back to you need hair from the person who has left.  How are you supposed to get hair if the person won’t talk to you is gone?  Witchcraft=total crap.

You are never really alone in the city at night.  There are always

taxi drivers

coffee shop people

the 7-Eleven guy

people in their homes

watching talk shows.

It just feels lonely.

It is my pleasure to introduce you to Skim.  Her full name is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, and she goes to a private girl’s school.  In this pensive gem of a graphic novel, Skim describes, diary-style, what happens in her school when the ex-boyfriend of her classmate commits suicide.  Grief counselors visit the school, the popular girls form the Girls Celebrate Life club and Skim observes it all.

You know, that’s the plot, but I feel like just describing it doesn’t do this book justice.  Honestly, the suicide actually is more of the backdrop: the real focus is Skim’s personal musings.  She reads her tarot cards, tries to cast Wiccan spells, negotiates relationships, and struggles with falling in love with an older woman.

All of this understated teenage angst is exquisitely complemented by Jillian Tamaki’s incredibly graceful black and white drawings.  The language is simple, almost verging on sparse, but in combination with the graphics, this is a phenomenal work.  It is perfectly evocative of the quiet trials of being a teenager, the feeling Skim describes as feeling “like I have wings but my bones are bricks”.

Please, please read this book.  When you’re done, pass it on to someone else.  I’m putting it on my Best Ever list right away.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: www.marikotamaki.com

Illustrator’s website: www.jilliantamaki.com

Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian. Skim. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2008. 142 pp.  Ages 14 and up.

If you like this book, try Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, or Indoor Voice, by Jillian Tamaki.

Ok, I can’t resist: one more picture!