Andrew Smith is definitely one of the fiercest voices in YA at the moment. From several interviews, I get that he’s not all that happy with his books being labeled one way or the other, because he doesn’t write his books with a particular audience in mind, but I’ll be damned, this is some of the best YA literature there is, my friend, and you should be proud of that.
Stick is a perfect example of this: it’s both heartbreaking and sad on the one hand, and comforting and hopeful on the other. Stark McClellan is 13. Born with just one ear and unbelievably tall for his age, he’s mostly called Stick. Luckily he can rely on his older brother Bosten, who literally fights some of his battles, and his best friend Emily who just takes him the way he is, just because that’s how Emily is. Perfect. The bond he has with Bosten and Emily is the only beautiful thing in his life. Kids are cruel and Stick gets bullied, a lot, for his otherness. But that’s nothing compared with the ugliness and cruelty that the brothers have to endure at home. However, more than a book about abuse, this book is about relationships, how they were, how they change, how they are now, but most especially about the bond between brothers. About the support they give each other and the way love really can be an unconditional thing.
What Smith excels at is characterization. Stick is awkward and innocent and unsure, the way all 13, almost 14-year-olds can be. And Andrew Smith absolutely nails this teenage voice. This is a real kid, you know? He’s not brighter than most teens you know, he’s not quirkier than most teens you know, he’s not more of a smart-ass than most teens you know. He’s just taller. And the way you get to see the world is entirely through Stick’s eyes. He thinks every family has rules the way his family has rules. He thinks the abuse is absolutely normal, and is how problems are dealt with in families. But when you read his voice, and you get inside his head, you know that everything this kid is going through is wrong, and you’re aching for him, and you’re yelling at some of the other characters: “OPEN YOUR EYES! BAD THINGS ARE HAPPENING TO THIS KID!” And it’s weird that they don’t see it, but you know that that is how it goes. Abuse often goes unnoticed by people’s immediate surroundings, and it’s hard to see the positive side of things, because you KNOW that what Bosten, Stick’s older brother, says is true: “things don’t make people the way they are…they just are.”
And that’s the second thing that makes Andrew Smith different from a lot of other contemporary YA writers: his willingness to take his readers to places they are not comfortable with. [i] And I’m not talking about “teens having sex” or “teens drinking” and other normal teen behavior that stupid grown-ups who don’t actually read the books often object to. I’m talking about a discussion of inherent (a)moral human behavior, a hot pickle if ever there was one. I can think of 2 other YA writers who are as uncompromising in their attitude towards moral ambiguity as Andrew Smith, Adam Rapp and Rick Yancey, coincidentally also two writers who people (mostly people who hardly read any YA) often almost accuse of not writing real YA. Sigh. Smith doesn’t really elaborate on why the parents are abusive, or how it came about, but Bosten obviously sums it up: “things don’t make people the way they are…they just are.” And in The Marbury Lens Smith does offer us a deeper insight into how people get screwed up, of course, and it’s actually interesting to ask the question: what will Stick grow up to be like? And Bosten? Will things just … be for them?
The cat owes A.S. King lots and lots! If it hadn’t been for her, I’d never even have heard of Andrew Smith. So thanks, Amy! Andrew Smith now belongs on the cat’s list[ii]: I’ll read anything these people publish!
[i] It’s also why the ending came a bit too soon (or too late, depending on how you look at it), because I didn’t quite buy into how fast Bosten did what he did at the end, and also the way the actual ending was a bit too sweet… Silver linings are good. Stick and Bosten deserve and needed a silver lining, but I would have liked it not to be that ‘quick’… this was a rushed ending.
[ii] Adam Rapp, A.S. King, Barry Lyga, John Green, Sarah Dessen. I might also throw in M.T. Anderson and Gregory Galloway.