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Big Picture
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Queen of Everything; by Deb Caletti.
Simon Pulse, 2002 372p
Paper ed. ISBN 0-7434-3684-9 $6.99
Gr. 9-12

There are a lot of people on the edge in young-adult novels, especially young people struggling with serious problems, risking life and future. Though adults too are beset by demons, acute crises are generally the province of the young, even when it’s in response to the troubles of their elders.

Caletti’s novel initially looks like it’s going to fit that solid and reliable pattern. High-school-junior Jordan has long been at odds with her bohemian mother; after one fight too many (during which her mother calls her “the queen of everything”), Jordan walks out on her mother—and her mother’s live-in boyfriend, their impending baby, and their motley crew of boarders—to live with her staid and orderly optometrist father. She’s somewhat concerned about her grandfather, who’s continually antagonizing his boss at the gas station he formerly owned, and she’s sliding into a halfway romance with Kale, a boy she largely despises but enjoys physically. Pushing its way out from beneath those worries, however, is something much darker and more threatening: her father’s increasing obsession with the elegant Gayle D’Angelo, a married neighbor. Jordan watches in dismay as her mild-mannered dad turns into another person, becoming cocky (“Apparently he’d had a little taste of being an asshole and found it to his liking”) and heedless as the affair begins, then disturbingly desperate as Gayle plays him against her husband, until finally he erupts, leaving Mr. D’Angelo dead, himself in jail, and Jordan trying to pick up the pieces of her life.

Caletti sets up Jordan’s narration as the ubiquitous school assignment, making the climax clear from the beginning, but the inevitability only adds to the plot’s momentum. The book unfolds the drama slowly and suspensefully, creating an everyday teen world that’s perceptive, funny, and nuanced in its own right, then shadowing that vision with the gathering darkness of the impending tragedy (“‘Nothing’s going to change,’ I said. Which are about the stupidest four words in the English language”). There’s a rawness to the portrait of Jordan’s father, unable and perhaps even unwilling to pull himself out of his Gayle-centered spiral, hardly seeing his daughter or the consequences of his actions. There’s a parallel vulnerability to the portrait of Jordan herself, a normal kid who sees that her father may take her forever out of the realm of the normal (she’s frightened by the “sudden realization that terrible things might not just be for other people”); there’s true pathos in her complete helplessness (“I wondered if I should call someone. I wondered who exactly I would call”) in the face of creeping disaster and authenticity in her puny efforts to forestall it (she even tells his parents in the desperate hope that they can check their son’s madness).

This is indeed tasty melodrama, and the book’s paperback-original format and eyecatching cover make it an attractive and appealing package. There’s more than mere voyeurism here, however. While there’s a fair amount of literature devoted to describing young people’s struggle for individual identity during adolescence, there’s less on the recognition that adults, even one’s own parents, are separate agents too; that their lives may also change in stunning ways that have nothing do with their kids but nonetheless changes their lives as a consequence; that, as Jordan says, “people you love can be the biggest strangers.” Jordan fortunately discovers both kinds of individual identity, managing to differentiate between her father’s irrevocable direction and her own reversible one and thereby to pull out of her own spiral, surviving “broken but still whole.” Ultimately, this is a story all the more compelling (and all the darker) for its firm grasp on reality and the utter credibility of its vision.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Big Picture Image

Cover illustration by Photodisc from The Queen of Everything ©2002. Reproduced by permission of Simon & Schuster.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 2003.