Center for Children's Books
|The Big Picture, a
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look at selected new titles and trends. See the
archive for selections from previous months.
Ask the Passengers
by A. S. King
Love is a complicated thing for seventeen-year-old Astrid. On the one
hand, she’s silently sending it to people who merely cross her path,
and she’s particularly focused on floating up warm feelings to the
passengers in the planes flying over her backyard. On the other hand,
reciprocal, real-life relationships are much more difficult. Her small,
ironically named town of Unity Valley engages in harassment and
ostracism of those outside what’s considered the norm, and secrets lurk
behind its homogenized exterior. Astrid’s best friend, Kristina, is
officially the longterm girlfriend of yearbook editor Justin, but
they’re both gay and using double dates as a front for their real
relationships. Astrid herself has fallen for her coworker, Dee, but she
hasn’t mentioned this to Kristina, who believes Astrid is straight.
Then there’s Astrid’s tense life at home, where her overcontrolling
mother notices only Astrid’s younger sister, Ellis, while Astrid’s
father retreats from life behind a constant haze of pot smoke. All
these façades of unity shatter, however, when Astrid and her friends
get publicly busted for underage drinking—at a gay bar.
This isn’t simply a coming-out-among-the-homophobes tale, however. Its
main topic is really finding and owning your own truth, which King
authentically depicts as a painful process. Astrid’s nearly buried
under a multitude of expectant and judgmental voices, whether they’re
coming from the townsfolk, her own “brain people,” or even friends who
are supposed to be on her side, like Kristina and Dee. Astrid
counterbalances this input by taking her questions to less invested
sources: those same passengers to whom she sends her love, and an
amiable, imagined Socrates (modernized into Frank Socrates), who waits
patiently for Astrid to flounder her way toward truth.
That process has more than a few bumps, of course. As Astrid tries to
find what’s true for her—is she gay, does she want to have sex with
Dee—she sometimes overlooks the equally legitimate travails of those
around her. Dee struggles with waiting for an uncertain girlfriend’s
commitment, being tacitly disowned at every turn; Kristina, who trusted
Astrid with her own secret, feels betrayed that Astrid kept the truth
from her in turn; Ellis, already negotiating the gender stereotypes of
being on the field hockey team, suffers harassment as a consequence of
her sister’s new reputation. In fact, King gifts every character with
validity: they all have their own hopes, fears, and ways of coping, and
readers can see how they got to where they are and where they might go
next. And even amid the brutality of small-town judgment, little
decencies abound: the boy who Astrid dated to cover her tracks amiably
shrugs off her deception; Ellis’ biggest tormentor is matter-of-factly
challenged on her own terms by her peers.
It was Astrid’s Humanities class that brought her the bolstering
companionship of Frank Socrates, and it’s also there that she finds her
central metaphor, that of Plato’s famous cave. When all you know is the
dark place with shadows, it’s hard to emerge to a reality of light and
dimensionality, so hard that you might go back into the cave. Astrid
knows this well, as she repeatedly contemplates coming out of her
“Unity Valley suit” to let her real self out, only to turn back at the
last moment. That’s understandable, since she’s not wrong about the
judgment she’ll encounter, but she also sees glimpses of the
light-filled life beyond it, where this small-town teen pettiness looks
as trivial as it really is. And when eventually she takes that step to
stand or fall as who she really is (and does it so loudly—“I’M GAY!
Okay? I’m fucking GAY!”—that she earns a suspension from school), it’s
a glorious, freeing mess that really does make things better.
For kids still struggling with their own truths, it can be hard to
believe how much light there is once you come out of the cave. This is
a book that knows and understands that, and it’s one that readers will
--Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover image from Ask the
©2012 and used by
permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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This page was last updated on October 1, 2012.