Grasshopper Jungle (by Andrew Smith)

26 02 2014

gj1I could say that Grasshopper Jungle made me think of Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram. I could say, that yes, there are echoes of Kurt Vonnegut. I could also say that if Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and Terry Gilliam ever thought about collaborating, they should give Andrew Smith a call. I could even say that if this doesn’t win the Printz next year, I’m going to use Pulse-O-Matic® showerheads on the Printz committee in ways they never thought possible.  But I’m not going to. Because I am bigger than that. And that is the truth.

Grasshopper Jungle is all Andrew Smith. In the acknowledgements of the book, Smith writes that he has been writing all his life, even when he never considered the idea of publication. He also writes that about two years ago he decided to stop writing – meaning: being in the business of writing, the actual writing of course, was not something he was about to stop. He goes on to say:

“I never felt so free as when I wrote things that I believed nobody would ever see. Grasshopper Jungle was one of those things.”

Grasshopper Jungle and Andrew Smith are why I don’t believe in book packagers or in all those so-called creative writing classes and programs.  I don’t think you can learn how to be(come) a writer. Sure, they can teach you some of the more technical things like writing arcs, and they can maybe even show you a few neat tricks with point of view and what have you, but they cannot teach you “how to be a writer”. You are a writer. And writers will write.

Also, if this were a film class, Andrew Smith would be an auteur – ‘author’ – whose creative voice infuses his entire body of work. What is Andrew Smith’s creative voice, I hear you ask? Balls, I tell you. History shows that balls are always involved in the creation of art in general and in the creation of great books more specifically. Balls and garden gnomes (obviously). And more than a healthy dose of ‘fuck you too, boxes’. You know what I mean.

Grasshopper Jungle is a real dynamo of a book. Good books are always about everything (p.76-332). And Grasshopper Jungle is a good book. It is not a book that lets itself be summarized in – “abbreviated to” – a few sentences.  I don’t even want to try and do that, but there’s the town of Ealing, Iowa. There is Austin Szerba and his two best friends, Robby Brees and Shann Collins, who he is both in love with and feels very confused about. And horny.  It’s also about “babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.” (p.8) Don’t go complaining to censors and stupid school boards afterwards that you weren’t warned about this. It also has awesome words like askance (p.279) and characters named Ollie Jungfrau (who gets erections when he kills aliens in video games, p.294 😉 ).

Grasshopper Jungle is so many different books: family chronicle, history book, historiography, coming-of-age,  science fiction,… It’s looking at history and writing history. Everything is connected and roads and genres keep on crossing at the point of Andrew Smith’s pen (p.368). The impact sixteen-year-old confused boys can have on the (end of the) world is enormous. And sometimes sixteen-year-old boys can be Gods. That is what history shows and that’s what Andrew Smith knows.

crazy amount of notes

crazy amount of notes

History also shows that books like Grasshopper Jungle can start wars: “Too many balls! Too many shits! Makes good Lutheran boys horny! Too many erections! Masturbation! Save our children! Who is this book for? This is not YA!” And shit like that.

History shows cats have great taste. I fucking love this book. There’s nothing I don’t love about it. It’s huge, it’s all-embracing. It fills in so many blanks. It’s so bold. The language and the rhetoric are absolutely perfect for what this book wants to be (and do to its reader). Rhetorically, for me there is a perfect balance between historiographic seriousness, formality and detachment, and a 16–year-old’s very personal and real and totally informal narrative voice.  Smith, man, seriously, … you should write more books just for yourself. And Michael Bourret can indeed not be thanked enough.

But most importantly: thank you, Andrew Smith, for your balls and for this book and for being unstoppable.


  • Grasshopper Jungle came out in the US on 11 February 2014, published by Dutton Juvenile / Penguin.
  • Grasshopper comes out in the UK tomorrow (27 February 2014), published by Egmont: @EgmontUK. Yes, I will buy that copy too, because it has some extra paragraphs apparently.
  • Follow Andrew Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack


PS. Some people say that Andrew Smith might have been high when he wrote this book. I know better. This one is for you, Andrew:


you know what it means

Dead End in Norvelt (by Jack Gantos)

5 08 2012

Jack Gantos is the odd one out when it comes to (children’s books) writers. In his 2003 award-winning autobiographical (YA) novel, Hole in My Life, he lays out how he helped smuggle a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, but was later caught by federal agents, and consequently landed himself in jail. The money he’d supposedly gain from this illegal activity – $10 000 – would about just cover his college tuition money (Gantos wanted to go to a school with a good writing program), so an ideal way to get out of a precarious situation.

Dead End in Norvelt follows the same (semi-)autobiographical vein. Blurbed as a book “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional”, it features an 11-year-old boy called Jack Gantos, who grows up in the small Pennsylvania town of Norvelt in the 1960s, a town built during the Depression as a model community for poor coalmining families and named after Eleanor Roosevelt. In the summer when he turns twelve, Jack is grounded for life because he accidentally fired a bullet from his dad’s Japanese WWII rifle, but most of all, because he went against his mom’s wishes when he cut down her corn crop (his dad needed it for a landing strip!). While mom thinks that the family’s future lies in Norvelt, his dad – a WWII veteran and self-proclaimed commie hater (btw, Jack’s dad is also building a bomb shelter!) – feels that the family should move to Florida to find better opportunities and because “someday [he wanted] to live a life where [he] won’t be bullied by [his] wallet. The only way to get at least a little bit out of his summer is when Jack helps out (or has to help out!) his neighbor, Miss Volker, the town’s official nurse, medical examiner, and obituary writer, all skills which come in handy during this particular summer as Norvelt seems to be plagued by a string of deaths…

Dead End in Norvelt is not just about a boy in the summer between childhood and young adulthood, it’s also about the (hi)story of a town, and the way in which different people look at how history influences our world views. Jack’s mom, for instance, is nostalgic about the town’s past community spirit, when neighbors used to help out each other when they needed it most and through her bartering, she desperately clings to the customs of the past. Jack’s dad on the other hand feels it’s time to move on from the past – something which is even quite literally mentioned in the novel with so many houses literally being picked up and moved to other more thriving towns. Because lots of families are leaving Norvelt, and many of the original Norvelt residents are dying, Miss Volker feels that part of her job is to keep the history of Norvelt alive. In addition to being a nurse and an ME, she’s also the unofficial town historian, linking the death of a Norveltian (?) to events that happened in history, at the same time also teaching  Jack how to respect the past.

This insistence on the importance of history is also what contributed to Dead End in Norvelt not just winning the Newbery Medal, but also the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Dead End in Norvelt deftly combines the history of a boy with the history of a whole community, appealing to a person’s feelings of nostalgia.  What Gantos also manages to do is whipping up an array of unusual characters, which adds a layer of (often black) humor to the mystery of the deaths in Norvelt. Of course, Miss Volker is the one who stands out here (the scene in which Jack witnesses what happens to her hands is legendary!!), but there are other characters who add to the colorful mix: Bunny, Jack’s friend who’s the daughter of the town’s undertaker and  Mr  Spizz, who rides around on his giant tricycle, reporting people to the council, and then there’s also that Hell’s Angel… Add to these characters, Jack’s penchant for getting nosebleeds whenever he gets stressed (looking at him the wrong way might even set it off), Jack Gantos’ offhand way of writing without missing a beat, and this is a novel that will make you chuckle, wonder and reminisce about your own town’s past, and which is a deserved award winner.

Even though Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Medal (target audience: children), this is a wildly funny, in that tragic-comical way, book that will appeal not just to (middle grade) kids, but to many young adults and the somewhat older adults out there.

What I Was (by Meg Rosoff)

9 10 2010

I remember the glowing reviews that Meg Rosoff’s debut novel How I Live Now inspired. I only read it a few years after it was released and I soon figured out that I had made the mistake of raising my expectations just a tad too high. I remember liking How I Live Now (Rosoff’s magical touch to reality is quite endearing), but I also remember I expected more of a book with such glowing reviews, not to mention a string of awards like the Guardian Award and the Michael L. Printz Award. With What I Was,  the only point of reference was my previous reading of How I Live Now. Read the rest of this entry »

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