Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King
Little, Brown & Company, 2011 (currently available)
Note: We already knew we were fans of A.S. King’s writing, based on her previous and totally Slatebreaking books Dust of 100 Dogs and Please Ignore Vera Dietz. But having heard that her latest book featured a male protagonist, we didn’t think it would be something we reviewed for the blog. BUT, when we saw A.S. King read at our local independent bookseller (Changing Hands!), we realized we couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only is this book set in Tempe, AZ (where we live!), but it features a healthy dose of feminism. By the time she finished speaking, we were at odds over who would get to review it. So, we’re trying something new. For the first time, we present to you a joint-review. If it gets a little chaotic, bear with us. It’s only because we really loved this book.
Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Face Value: Publishers, take note. This is one of the best YA covers we have seen gracing our bookshelves in some time. The stark contrast of black, white and red is sharp, clean and appealing. It doesn’t scream YA and it doesn’t really present as gender-targeted in one way or the other. After reading the book, you can tell the cover designer read it too, since there are a lot of relevant elements contained in it. But you don’t need to have finished the book to appreciate the aesthetic appeal.
Does it Break the Slate?
Brianna: This is the first book we’ve reviewed that has a male protagonist. Is it possible that a book about a (gasp!) boy can live up to the standard set by Ms. Anne Shirley?
Sarah: Well I think what we realized is that YES IT CAN. This book is slatebreaking on a couple of levels. First, and most, typically I guess, is that it features a strikingly Slatebreaking female character. Ginny is outspoken and feminist-minded, trying to subvert the system and her own identity as best she can.
Brianna: Right, and I think it’s important to point out that Ginny contributes to the Slatebreaking factor of this book because her feminism has such an impact on Lucky. Even though she makes a fleeting appearance in Lucky’s life, she totally changes his outlook.
Sarah: And then there’s Lucky himself. Because just like guys can and should be feminists, Slatebreaking is not a female-only term. Even before he meets Ginny, Lucky is a kid who ideologically believes in everyone getting a fair chance. He doesn’t always know how to take action, but he makes real attempts to stand up for others, even when he knows it won’t end well for him. And as he grows up through the book, we see him grow into a real advocate for himself and others.
Who would we give it to?
Brianna: I think it should be required reading for all high school freshman.
Sarah: And college freshman.
Brianna: And any adult that works with adolescents.
Brianna: So, we really should start by talking about bullying, because that’s not only the crux of Lucky’s problem but it’s really the takeaway of the book. It’s not ok to put up with this. The simplest answer is to act. That’s it. It might not be that easy, but it is that simple.
Sarah: Yes. And certainly, this is a relevant topic right now, based on news reports and recent stories. But for a book that deals with a Relevant Contemporary Issue, this story cuts so much deeper than an issue-of-the-week kind of book.
Brianna: When I first heard about this book I knew it was going to address bullying – but it also covers so much other ground. A.S. King tackles the POW/MIA movement, V-Day and The Vagina Monologues, families, depression, suicide, sexual harassment and dancing ants.
Sarah: Knowing all this stuff is going to be addressed in less than 300 pages, it seemed almost impossible that everything could be given satisfying emotional weight. But somehow, not only is each part of the story given tremendous value and thoughtful consideration, the arc of the story comes to a really beautiful resolution.
Brianna: Part of that journey is really skillfully represented through the ever-changing geography of Lucky’s scab, a physical result of the long term bullying Lucky endures. As the scab changes and heals, so does Lucky. And as Lucky heals he’s better equipped to help his family do so as well. As he explains:
“I bring my hand to my face and pull away tiny pieces of the jagged scab. My face reflects in the rounded airplane window, and I see it is now a tiny Massachusetts, wtih Cape Cod curling toward my ear. In only a few more days it will be gone. I feel the fresh smooth parts and marvel at how soft they are. New skin amazes me. New skin is a miracle. It is proof that we can heal.”
Sarah: This is the kind of miracle that a bullied kid can actually believe in. Not a magical transformation where everything falls perfectly into place, but a miraculous transformation based in reality, in time, and in one’s self.
Brianna: Lucky has to rely on himself because the adults in his life are letting him down. They have their own healing to do, and they don’t have the emotional resources to help Lucky. It emphasized how the institutions that Lucky is a part of (his school, his community pool, even his family) were dysfunctional enough that they couldn’t keep Lucky safe.
Sarah: Yes, and accordingly, and unsurprisingly, Lucky loses a lot of faith. He realizes that the odds are stacked against him, and we see him disengage at the beginning of the book. I think this is alarmingly common, for kids who struggle with systems that ostensibly want to help him, but ultimately aren’t working. So watching him find his own strength by the end of the story is that much more significant.
Brianna: It was in this aspect of the book where I saw parallels to Daisy Whitney’s The Mockingbirds, another book in which ineffective institutions lead young people to take alternative routes to make change.
Sarah: ALSO! We cannot write a feminist review of this amazingly feminist book without talking about the integration of Eve Ensler’s play and movement The Vagina Monologues. While this play had a significant impact on my personal development as a feminist when I was an actual YA, I have never seen it mentioned in a YA book before. We’re always all about the transformative power of theatre, and the intersection of art, youth & feminism, and the way Lucky and Ginny experience this play strongly impacts both of their journeys of self-discovery. It happens in different ways, but the same piece of art has an impact on both of them as they come into their own. Plus, it leads to this amazing passage:
“I am now sweating. It’s so bad I feel sweat dripping down the back of my arm. I think hte one and only time I ever said the word vagina was in health class in eighth grade. As in: What is the name of the birth canal?
She’s right in my face, blowing smoke while she talks. ‘Vagina! Vagina! My God, what is so wrong with that word? It’s just a body part! Can you say tonsils? Can you say elbow?’’
I love this passage for it’s humor and honesty and for the fact that it’s a conversation more people should be able to have.
Brianna: For me, it’s the way Lucky experiences the play, and the way he describes the experience of watching it that is the most significant.
“The house is packed. The lights go down and the girls make their way onto the stage. There are no costumes or props or anything. Just chairs. The spotlight and the dark stage make everything look professionally done, and the girls don’t miss a line. They chant the funny vagina chants, and they talk the harsh vagina realities, and I am sitting on the top step, knees to my face, occasionally wiping my tears on the stretched sleeve of my POW/MIA T-shirt. It’s a little like the Grand Canyon – I don’t think I could come up with the words to describe it if I had to”
What I love about this passage is that it’s a teenage boy who is watching this and understanding the impact of this play and the women who built it and the women who continue to share it. It’s a great reminder that feminism is not just for those with vaginas.
In fact, A. S. King actually said it on her blog better than we can say it:
“Feminism is for all of us. All it means is that we value our girls and we teach our girls to value themselves. And it means we help other girls who can’t do this for themselves. Anyone who tells you different needs to Google, okay?”
This isn’t a book “About Feminism” any more than it’s a book “About Bullying.” And yet, it does a pretty amazing job about talking about these things, alongside a host of other relevant ideas, in a way that is realistic and resonant. It has none of the didactic after school special feeling that is often the hallmark of Issues Books. And so, it does a better job of talking about these issues than pretty much anything we’ve read lately.
Reviewed from both of our copies, both purchased at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, both signed by A.S. King herself.
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