Yesterday I read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith and was pretty blown away. There are a couple reasons, but primarily, it’s a fabulous book because it’s clear that Smith wrote this book for nobody. Or maybe, just for himself. This is a nice surprise in YA, where the target market of a book is often clear from the jacket copy. (Side note: is this book YA? I actually am not sure that it is. But let’s table that for now. It’s been published as YA, so I’ll judge it against other YA books.) Because the book feels like it’s for nobody, when it ended up feeling like it was just for me, only for me, it was a lovely surprise.
There are two other things I love about this book. The first is that it’s the first book I’ve read in a long time featuring a really confused and probably bi teen. As a former really confused and probably bi teen, I was overjoyed to see myself in a book for once. I wish there had been books like this when I was a teen. A selfish reason to love a book, I guess, but aren’t all reasons to love a book ultimately selfish? Smith does an incredible job of portraying how thin the line can be between loving a friend and having a crush, and how unsettling and mutable that can be for both (or, in this case, all three) people involved.
The second is that it’s successful on multiple levels. A lot of YA right now has a great hook but puts all its weight on that hook (alternately, a lot of YA has a great character but puts all its weight on that character, a burden that no teen, no matter how fictional, can hold), and when that fails, the book fails with it. This book is a good LGBTQ novel, a good dystopia, a good contemporary realistic up until the point it becomes a dystopia, a good small-town novel, a good love story. It’s a much more complete reading experience. Each piece holds the other pieces together accordingly. It’s a great book for fans of Frank Portman, John Barnes, and E. Lockhart—and it’s also a great book for thinking about what YA is, and what it could be.