This is not a great YA novel. Sure it won the William C. Morris Debut Award for YA novels, up against two of my very favorite, most cherished YA novels in recent years, Lish McBride's Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead. Sure I'll urge every teen I see at the library or pass in the street to read it.
But The Freak Observer is not a great YA novel. The Freak Observer is a great novel, period.
I guess the question is, what makes a novel with a teenage protagonist a YA novel, and what makes it an adult novel with a teenage protagonist? Humor? Intensity? Profanity? "Maturity" of subject matter? I don't know. And if there ever were some kind of line of demarcation, it has become fuzzier and more erratically drawn in recent years. Nowadays it would look like the border between Spain and Portugal. This neighborhood's Spain and eats one kind of cheese, but on that next hill, they're Portuguese and they know how to cook fish.
And, like the border between Spain and Portugal, that line has become increasingly irrelevant. (Christ I am jet-lagged. Took me three times not to type that word as "irreverent".) Teenagers by the school-load have been exhorted to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Adult women read Anna Godbersen. Adult men read Hunger Games. And they all pay for their tickets to the bullfight with euros.
Me, I'd get The Freak Observer out of the YA ghetto and onto a shelf with The Ninth Life of Louis Drax and Cold Sassy Tree. With Edwin Mullhouse and Lullabies for Little Criminals, Jeffrey Eugenides and Russell Banks. With other books narrated by observant young people who are going through some shit. But then, I tell teens to read The Virgin Suicides and Rule of the Bone, and I tell adults to read His Dark Materials and Francesca Lia Block, so I guess we're back where we started.
With the book. The book - it's amazing. Blythe Woolston writes using this direct, dry, economical style that is nonetheless full of emotion and poetry. She has gifted her protagonist, Loa, with her own quick mind - after a prolonged season of tragic events, Loa is trying to make sense of her place in the universe, analyzing and interpreting the various inputs she comes into contact with, the scientific phenomena that fascinate her and the art that her friends show her. Loa complains at one point in the book that nobody at her school has taught her "how to think." You could make a pretty strong argument that Blythe Woolston is teaching that right here.
A few things I want to point out that I loved, not in order and just fragmentary - I really am brutally worn out from the trip home from ALA Midwinter in San Diego. There was snow - did you hear there was snow? Ok anyway the fact that there was snow delayed my - OUR! I had my kids with me! - departure about 24 hours, and I - WE! - were in airports or flying for about 14 hours yesterday.
My goddamn kids, I could weep they were so strong and calm. Seven and nine years old, and they played Mad Libs and listened to books on the iPod (Boom! by Mark Haddon - highly recommended on audio because the British slang is no longer a barrier, plus Julian Rhind-Tutt works up some spectacular working-class character voices) and read the forthcoming The Resisters over and over and ate gummy worms and beef jerky for lunch AND dinner. Actually that part was probably ok with them.
Blythe Woolston, by the way, was very nice to my kids, although I didn't know when I met her that she was the author of this book. I'd frankly only barely heard of this book Monday night before the Miller award reception. I was early, lounging and reading with the boys, when I got into a conversation with a nice lady who wondered what Mao was reading, because she has a nine-year-old boy of her own. She and I talked about the books nominated: Karen Healey's skill at immersing the reader into her imagined landscapes; the way Lish McBride builds up tension and then deflects it with a wry cross-cut, and I was struck by how knowledgeably she talked about writing. Blythe Woolston would make one hell of a book reviewer.
Her acceptance speech was inspiring and beautiful. It's not online, but I would read that speech. Funny? Oh I'll give you funny: making a point about how indiscriminate a reader she is, she said, "I once read a book about contour plowing with mules. Those illustrations haunt me to this day." She praised librarians, she employed profanity. I vowed to read her book first chance I got.
I did. I adore it. Get over the raw heart on the front cover and read it yourself.
Read it because (oh and here are the promised things I liked), in and around the inner ache of this girl, you learn about the economic and physical landscape of the Montana woods, and it's appropriate knowledge.
Read it because she holds her little brother on her lap and listens to him babble about Pokemon for hours, and we've all been there, although in my case it's LEGO.
Read it because Blythe Woolston loves dirt, and describes it.
Read it because kids in the book have sex, and it's no big deal and it's a big deal all at the same time.
And because "loa" is a Haitian vodou word - a loa is the entity by which the living can communicate with a vodou deity. Our Loa is a science-minded girl with one foot in the eternal, and there is no conflict in this book between science and spirit. There never has to be. People just make that up.
I kept hearing a song by a band called Lungfish while I read this book. That song is strong and completely baffled at the same time. It's precise and chaotic, all alone and hopeful. It's a song about not understanding something. I know the guy who wrote it, but I'm never going to ask him about it.
I like having two sharp new #2 pencils. I like their pointy-pointy, ugly, yellow-school-bus nature. I do not like their erasers, which don't work properly. This doesn't matter, because I do not intend to make any mistakes. -- Blythe Woolston
She keeps on walking, but she never wanders. -- Lungfish