Sunday, January 8, 2012

{Review} Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011
Hardcover, 282 pages
ISBN 0316129283
Genres: contemporary fiction, fantasy, magical realism, YA

Synopsis (via Goodreads): Lucky Linderman didn't ask for his life. He didn't ask his grandfather not to come home from the Vietnam War. He didn't ask for a father who never got over it. He didn't ask for a mother who keeps pretending their family is fine. And he certainly didn't ask to be the recipient of Nadar McMillan's relentless bullying, which has finally gone too far.

Lucky has a secret—one that helps him wade through the daily dysfunction of his life. Grandad Harry, trapped in the jungles of Laos, has been visiting Lucky in his dreams—and the dreams just might be real: an alternate reality where he can be whoever he wants to be and his life might still be worth living. But how long can Lucky remain in hiding there before reality forces its way inside?
Printz Honor recipient A. S. King's distinctive, smart, and accessible writing shines in this powerful novel about learning to cope with the shrapnel life throws at you, and then taking a stand against it.

My reviewThis book is unexpectedly poignant and tends to linger in the back of your mind. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't really looking forward to reading it. I had read some rather unsavory things about Everybody Sees the Ants on Goodreads and was tempted to simply return it to the library and pick up a different book instead. I suppose another reason I was hesitant to read it is because YA books that claim to discuss teen issues have the unfortunate tendency to come off as angst-y and superficial and discuss "teen issues" instead of actual teen issues. For example, books that suggest dating is the single biggest issue teens deal with annoy the heck out of me, not to mention always made me feel a little insulted. I mean, even at my angst-iest I did, in fact, have more on the brain than dating. Anyway, this book does not fall into that category, thankfully, and far surpassed my expectations.

I really like the main protagonist and narrator, Lucky. He is believable and relatable, a normal kid dealing with several years of bullying culminating in a traumatizing locker room experience. He has a flair for honesty that tends to get him into trouble, especially with the adults at his school who prefer to delude themselves into believing Lucky's problems are inside his head rather than the result of them ignoring the obvious signs of bullying for years. Most of the adults in this book are portrayed as being schmucks in one way or another: Lucky's father neglects his wife and son, incessantly working so as to avoid facing his personal problems; his mother cares deeply for Lucky but ignores the bullying to please her husband (who insists that confronting Nadar [the bully]/Nadar's parents/the school will count as coddling); his teachers and school principal are more concerned about politics (upsetting Nadar's father) than making sure their most vulnerable students are safe; and the only man Lucky has ever really looked up to is discovered to be a serial-cheater. Even though this cast of weak and ineffective adults may appear prejudiced and unreasonable, it seems to me to be a pretty fair appraisal of the reality of a lot of kids and teens: no real support at home and no protection at school. This book is, in a way, a social commentary and strives for change in the school system as well as perceptions of bullying (i.e. it is not inevitable, it can be prevented, etc.) through the student body itself, rather than through the adults (though it is hoped, of course, that at least some adults will take the time to read it and change their perceptions as well). It encourages empowerment and a refusal to allow yourself to be a victim, while at the same time being sensitive to those who have been or are being victimized. I feel Lucky sets a good example by refusing to become disillusioned and mean himself, instead believing he can be better than Nadar and his buddies and acting on those convictions.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of this book, though, concerns Lucky's paternal grandfather, Harry, who has been MIA ever since he was taken prisoner in the jungles of Laos during the Vietnam War. Lucky has vivid dreams about going to the jungle to save his grandfather, seemingly harmless until they become a form of escape for him and he begins to retreat into sleep to avoid real life. Harry is instrumental in helping Lucky face his reality and realize life is what you make of it, no matter how hard it may seem. Harry should know about this first hand since his fate was decided by the draft lotteries, a rather cruel system that dictated, according to the men's birth dates, in what order they would be drafted.

The most unique aspect of this book is the author's use of the ants. They are literally a little group of ants that Lucky starts seeing after Nadar beats him up badly. Sometimes they comment on a situation or a thought of Lucky's, act out a farcical scene, or simply provide insight. They are one more way it is demonstrated to the reader that we all have our demons. They are a clever tool and tend to provide comic relief.

No matter how much I enjoyed this book, though, I gave it 4 stars instead of 5. The reason is because there was some discussion of sex, some pretty graphic (and disturbing) images, and a lot of language, and while these things won't stop me from reading a book (Chuck Palahniuk, who is certainly not squeamish, is one of my favorite authors), this book's target audience is not adults, it is kids. The YA genre can attract readers as young as 8, 9, 10 years old, and the idea of children that young having access to this book and possibly being encouraged to read it bothers me. Maybe I'm being namby-pamby, I don't know, but I am really uncomfortable with the idea of anyone under the age of 15 or 16 reading this book.

I am extremely interested to know your honest opinion about this book, as well as what you feel is appropriate for young readers to have access to. I'm pretty torn, so please feel free to leave a comment below letting me know what you think. Thanks so much for stopping by & happy reading!

Mary Beth

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