Books that are difficult to describe

Yesterday’s blog post about GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE has really got me thinking about the idea of labels. It’s interesting that so much of what I do as a literacy and children’s literature instructor involves defining concepts, genres, literary elements, strategies, and more. And yet, at the end of the day what I hope that the students in my classes do is take those concepts and think beyond them. This is one of the tricky things about walking the literacy/literature tightrope… while I teach students about text factors and reader factors because we know explicit instruction is important, I also don’t want students to be so tied down by understanding genre that they dismiss a book.

On facebook yesterday, my friend Katherine Sokolowski (@katsok) commented,

I’m finding the books I love the most are the hardest to summarize.

I agree, and would add that it isn’t always books that I love, but also books that make me think. That have a complexity that is both engaging and pushes me as a reader. I worry that as teachers, we don’t share these books enough with students – particularly young students. I’m not advocating sharing Grasshopper Jungle with elementary kids, but I am asking us to be more aware of how our own thinking can sometimes prevent us from sharing sometime with students. I don’t think every book is right for everyone or every time. But a discussion about genre is so much more interesting when it is with a book that blurs the lines – it makes us work to articulate our questions and our thinking. And that’s a good thing.

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Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

NOTE: Contains some spoilers.    I’ve been doing book-talks for the students in my children’s literature course this semester. Book-talks serve 2 purposes in my class: 1) as a modeling strategy and 2) students are welcome to borrow any books from me to read for their independent reading project or for pleasure. Two weeks ago I book talked Grasshopper Jungle – more accurately, I tried book talking GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE. Granted I hadn’t finished reading it yet, but one of the reasons that I think I stumbled was because of how this book defies easy definition or description – which is one of the things I love about it. At the MRA conference, Cheryl Mizerney (@CherylTeaches) referred to it as “Kurt Vonnegut meets Stephen King.” Now that I’ve finished the book and talked about it, I think I can articulate my thoughts more clearly.

Character is almost always my favorite part of anything I read – this book is no different. The main character Austin is a clear and unapologetic narrator. There are aspects of his life that he is clear about (his love for his dog and his friends, his loathing for the bullies from the public school) but he also is confused about other parts of life. This felt so authentically “teenage” to me – perhaps because there is a teenager living in my house. 

Austin spends most of his time (while not in school at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy) hanging out with his best friend Robby and his girlfriend Shann. It sounds like a “typical young-adult” book (whatever that is) when I say it like that. But add in bullies from the public school that beat up Austin & his friend, breaking into the local consignment store, and a plague strain; and you have a book that defies typical anything. Not to mention family history vignettes, a brother stationed in Afghanistan, the Tipsy Cricket Liquor Store, a house with doors leading nowhere, and an underground bunker frozen in time.  I could go on… 

Ultimately, for me one of the themes of this book is about wrestling* with labels. For example, Austin wrestles with his own emotions and feelings. He is in love with Shann, he wonders if he is in love with Robby. Although he rarely (if ever) uses these terms – he is wrestling with wondering if he is gay, straight, or bisexual. We don’t know the extent of Austin & Robby’s physical relationship – other than a kiss on the roof of From Attic to Seller Consignment Store. But do we need to know it? Does physical intimacy define if Austin is gay or straight? I think that the vagueness is part of the point – that sometimes labels are more limiting than helpful. 

I also think that the book itself defies labels. In terms of genre, it is part contemporary realistic fiction, part historical fiction, part science fiction. Taking away any of these genres changes the story, it is all three at the same time – and also something completely different. There are gay characters and straight characters. There are family dynamics and a town struggling financially. There are enormous bug that eat humans. But none of these make it a “gay book” or a “friend book” or a “contemporary issue book”. It is all of these things, with enormous, human-eating insects. It defies a genre label – much like Austin does. So maybe this isn’t as clear as I thought it would be, I’m still wrestling with my thinking about the book – which I love. Ultimately, Smith has written characters and a story that is intriguing, thought-provoking, hysterically funny, poignant, and engaging.

Andrew Smith’s website
Follow Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack

*I prefer the term wrestling to struggling. Struggling implies a negativity and need for resolution. Wrestling implies something that is more fluid and doesn’t require being “solved”.