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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.

Westerfeld, Scott. So Yesterday.
Razorbill/Penguin, 2004 [256p]
ISBN 1-59514-000-X $16.99
Reviewed from galleys

Gr. 7-12

The gleaming, nocturnal urban world of our cover is the milieu of the aptly named Hunter, who is a teen cool spotter, a consultant paid to advise companies—including one well-known sneaker company with a world-famous "swoosh" logo—on the trendiness of ads and products while always looking for new and exciting directions ("We have to observe carefully and push and prompt you in ways you don't notice. . . . It's not like you can just start making your own decisions, after all"). After he meets up with Jen, a disturbingly original thinker, the two find themselves drawn into a mystery when Mandy, the consultant who's Hunter's contact with the shoe company, goes missing, leaving behind only a pile of the most beautiful, most seductively cool sneakers ever manufactured—which are sporting a challenging anti-logo, the swoosh with a red circle and slash. As Hunter and Jen search for the apparently abducted Mandy, they uncover further signs of a brilliant and disruptive plot to infiltrate the glitzy world of cutting-edge marketing and undermine it with guerrilla action, satire, and parody, to "disrupt the sacred bond between brand and buyer."

The tale is lively and quick paced, but it's secondary to the social commentary; Westerfeld tackles the merchantry of cool like no other YA author (except perhaps M. T. Anderson in Feed, BCCB 11/02, and Anderson's is, at least nominally, a futuristic vision), offering a witty and provocative investigation of the surrealistic world of marketing and status. There's food for thought aplenty in Hunter's crisp assessment of the various roles in the trend-marketing pyramid: Hunter is a Trendsetter, while Jen is that dangerous thing, an Innovator; there are also Early Adopters, Consumers, and Laggards ("They bravely tuck in their Kiss T-shirts and soldier on"). His tortuous analysis of the possibilities of the situation ("Or maybe," he says about the irresistible shoes, "these are supposed to look like bootlegs when they're not. And after these get too popular, which they will, the client will absorb the backlash and become cool again. Maybe they're ironic bootlegs") is absurd yet completely justified, a mad inspiration that may well become real life in our time. The book further teases its audience by salting the narration with commercial references but deliberately circumlocuting their instantly identifiable brand names, referring to the shoe manufacturer throughout as "the client" (and, therefore, to the subversive bootleggers—shoeleggers?—as the "anti-client"); there's also an array of sharply drawn characters plugged into cool from various directions—or hoping to be.

What's particularly interesting is the book's shimmering ambiguity: there's cynicism aplenty here, which will appeal to quite a few readers, but there's also an understanding of the sheer glamour of marketing and the exhilaration of trendspotting. Jen the free spirit is as obsessed with the anti-client's sneakers as any mall rat is with the right brand name (she digs frantically through the ashes of the sneakers' funeral pyre, "looking for lost cool, the hardest thing to find"). The revolt is coolness itself, even surer than most revolutions to spawn eager conformity with its principles, more obliged than any to keep ahead of those who embrace it. Alert readers will also enjoy turning the implied questions on the text itself (is, for instance, the notion of cool as contrived as the notion of marketing it?), and there's plenty of diversion and provocation even at the manifest level, making this an alluring offering for both pursuers and scorners of cool.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Big Picture Image

Cover illustration by Lauren Monchik and John Son from So Yesterday ©2004. Used by permission of Razorbill/Penguin Young Readers Group

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This page was last updated on October 1, 2004.