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Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE
Written by Andrew Smith
(Speak; $10.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

GrasshopperJunglecvr.jpgIf you’re a YA reader and haven’t read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith yet (in trade paperback as of February 2015, Speak; $10.99) — in spite of all the buzz, like a 2015 Michael L. Printz honor and news of an Edgar Wright movie adaptation — get to it! Maybe you don’t like science fiction. No problem; the six-foot tall man-eating praying mantises come off as campy rather than horrific. Maybe you don’t like troubled narrators who use expletives every other word. Well, if Holden Caulfield didn’t help you get over that, maybe Austin Szerba will do it for you. Austin’s horny all the time, smokes most of the time, and often breaks rules just for the heck of it. But in spite of the trouble he gets into and the bad decisions he makes, he’s likable and sincere, and his adolescent mistakes provide a thought-provoking contrast to the nightmares the full-grown adults in his world engender — in their personal lives, in politics, and in ethics-impaired science.

Austin’s story takes place in small-town Ealing, Iowa in the early twenty-first century U.S. His brother is fighting in Afghanistan, and the economy is failing. The Ealing Mall, along with the neighboring field that Austin and his best friend Robby named Grasshopper Jungle when they played there as younger kids, has turned mostly into a junkyard. When Austin and Robby sneak into a locked office in one of the few remaining stores, they discover specimens from a 1960’s era Department of Defense research project. The specimens, accidentally unleashed by Austin (or, one could argue, by the bullies who steal the specimens after Austin finds them), develop into Unstoppable Soldiers, the aforementioned monstrous bugs that do indeed look more like praying mantises than grasshoppers, in spite of their provenance in Grasshopper Jungle.

Keeping notebooks with drawings and text about everything he experiences, Austin defines himself as a historian. His voice is fresh and humorous but also full of pain and sadness for his own hurts and those of generations past. Although he frequently uses an Anglo-Saxon term for “excrement” and drops a few f-bombs, Austin enjoys speaking eruditely and notices when anyone else uses even slightly elevated language, too. “She used words like moment,” he says about his girlfriend Shann. “The way she talked made me horny.”

That’s Austin in a nutshell. Almost everything makes him horny, but the way he reports this feels natural, not uncomfortable. Austin doesn’t consciously focus on sex. It’s just there, all the time, whether it’s convenient for him to be thinking about it or not. And he’s dealing with the fact that he’s overflowing with sexual feelings not just for Shann, but also for Robby, who is gay. Austin is confused, “…wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl…. There had to be something wrong with me. I envied Shann and Robby both so much for being confident in who they were and what they felt.”

Readers who identify with Austin’s confusion — whether over sexuality or one of the many other dilemmas he deals with — will enjoy this book. Readers who love the outrageous visuals of low-budget sci-fi horror will relish the scenes with huge bugs hatching out of human beings and feasting on what’s left of them, alongside destroyed cop cars and exploding bridges; there’s also a really cool underground bunker. Readers looking for a philosophical take-away will think about science, and responsibility, and history.

Author Andrew Smith is a social studies teacher, and for me the biggest growth in Austin and the biggest takeaway from Grasshopper Jungle is a developing understanding about the purpose of recording history. Austin tells us history has “to be an abbreviation. Even those first men…who painted on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira, only put the important details down. We killed this big hairy thing and that big hairy thing. And that was our day. You know what I mean.” The novel circles back to this idea again and again, asking the questions: which details are the important ones? And what should we do about them if we ever figure that out? These are important questions, and Smith’s book is a satisfying way to explore them.

– Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

Fridays Featuring Flintridge – For Fantasy Lovers

Want Your Kids to Read? Be a Reader–a message from Catherine Linka

If we want our children to eat their peas, we get there by eating our own peas with enthusiasm. We model the behavior we want so they will follow our example.

So if you value reading, you need to model it. And that means, making time to read in front of your child. Turn off the TV, the computer, your phone and sit down and read where they can see you–not just in bed after the kids are down for the night.

Andrew Smith, teacher and author, insists that it is especially important for fathers to model for their sons that reading is masculine.  He says that boys “ look at what their father does, and what their older brother does and what their best friends do.”

Be a reader to raise a reader.

Books for Fantasy Lovers Who’ve Read Everything

THE UNWANTEDS ($16.99,  Aladdin) by Lisa McCann – My pick for kid-pleasing. At 13, kids are tested and sorted into Wanted and Unwanted and the Unwanteds are taken off to be executed. But it turns out that what looks like a prison is really a sanctuary that takes creative, artistic, musical kids and turns their talents into strengths when the Wanteds invade. Gentler than HUNGER GAMES, but with lots of action. (ages 8+)

EMERALD ATLAS ($7.99, Yearling) by John Stephens – Our community read One Summer-One Book for kids. A little like NARNIA, a little like A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, a little like LORD OF THE RINGS. The first in a trilogy. The second is due this fall. For the strong reader 9+. It has three brave kids, an evil countess, a magical book, terrifying Screechers and donut-loving dwarves. Funny and scary. (now in paper, ages 9+)

NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT ($6.99, Puffin) by Gennifer Choldenko -Now in paperback. Unlike Choldenko’s other realistic fiction, this story follows three children who tumble into a fantastical world where their every desire if fulfilled–except their desire to leave. Appealing to both guys and girls. (ages 10+)

GHOST KNIGHT ($16.99, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) by Cornelia Funke -Set in a present day English boarding school, a boy calls upon the ghost of a famous knight to fend off the other ghosts who are threatening him. Funke’s setting is real and many of the ghost knights she introduces were real people whose brief bios she includes at the end. (ages 10+)

THE FALSE PRINCE ($17.99, Scholastic Press) by Jennifer Nielsen -A conniving noble trains four street urchins to impersonate a missing prince. Only one will survive the training as the noble attempts to take over the throne. Twists and turns and double-crosses. Lots of action. So well-written an adult would love to read it aloud. (ages 13+)

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