Ask the Passengers cover
Cover illustration
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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.

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 believe.

--Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Ask the Passengers cover

Cover image from Ask the Passengers ©2012 and used by permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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This page was last updated on October 1, 2012.