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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.

Zusak, Markus I Am the Messenger.
Knopf, 2005 [368p]
Library ed. ISBN 0-375-93099-X $18.99
Trade ed. ISBN 0-375-83099-5 $16.95
Reviewed from galleys
Gr. 9-12

It's not unusual for literature to examine the issue of making one's life meaningful or to explore the question of our impact on one another. It is, however, unusual for such topics to be addressed directly rather than obliquely, and interestingly rather than sententiously, and for this to happen in a book aimed at young readers. Nonetheless, Australian writer Markus Zusak has managed it, and, if you'll pardon what will soon become apparent is a pun, he does it in spades.

Ed Kennedy is living a largely purposeless life—at nineteen, he's an underage cabdriver with no particular ambitions—with his largely purposeless cabdriver friends when his life takes a strange and unexpected turn. For no reason that he can figure, he's chosen as a messenger, receiving in the mail a playing card—an ace from each suit in turn—and some cryptic information that he must pursue and interpret in order to find his mission and intervene in the lives of the selected individuals. Some of these missions are joyful—he brings an old woman reassurance from her long-dead husband and encourages a shy teenaged girl to believe in her own worth; some are simple—he buys an overwhelmed single mother the ice-cream cone she's never able to indulge herself in; some are harsh—he must stop a man's nightly assault on his wife and bring a young tough into the fold of his hard-edged family. The stakes soon escalate, though, when he comes to the most intimidating suit, hearts, and he's asked to undertake missions that involve his friends and that shatter the complacently breezy exteriors that they've all shown each other (“How well do we really let ourselves know each other?”), laying bare the truth behind the “No worries, mate” facades. Finally, the hardest message of all comes—the joker, which has as its subject Ed himself.

Zusak, author of Fighting Ruben Wolfe (BCCB 3/01), has always been excellent at writing about young men who can't see the possibilities for the limitations, and he outdoes himself here: Ed's aimless floating is completely understandable, in terms of his family and character (“‘Who knows you real well, Ed?' And that's just it. ‘No one,' I say”), but it's also poignant for the same reasons. His yearning for his colleague Audrey, the closest he comes to having an ambition, seems as hopeless as the stalled lives of his friends, and there's rueful humor in the fact that his closest confidante is an aging and repulsively smelly dog. The vignettes of Ed's visitations, on the other hand, are exquisitely wrought, whether they're tender or brutal, and they're woven together into a human-scale demonstration of chaos theory, making a passionate case for the importance of even small personal connections. Ed's voice is compelling, by turns exultant, as he feels he's mastered his missions and expanded himself thereby, and fearful, as he's led further into taking the risks of personal exposure and commitment he and his friends have self-protectively avoided, cheapening their lives as a consequence.

The revelation of the architect of Ed's mission isn't as compelling as the mission itself, but that's almost inevitable with such an elaborately constructed mystery. The book still succeeds in being a touching and intriguing exploration of the need to live one's life significantly, to value the richness knowing one another brings along with its terrible vulnerability. And in that respect, Ed Kennedy truly is the messenger, conveying an important message that will speak volumes to many young adult readers.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Big Picture Image

Illustration©2004 by David Goldin from the jacket of I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 2004.