Summer Reading season is just about drawing to a close at the ol' public library. For the past month we've been dredging up copies of Beloved and Animal Farm. We've scurried around looking for Trash, The Book Thief, and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind for po-faced youngsters who absolutely can't stand the idea of summer homework. I often try to sweeten the visit (thanks teachers for making a visit to the library a chore!) by offering the kid an additional, just-for-fun book.
Summer is the time for kids to remember that reading is an entertaining activity. With my psychic powers, I will beam that into the brain of every English department head in the country. Right now. Ow. Ok, I'll rest up and do it next spring.
So... this young Joe comes in the library last night looking for A Tale of Two Cities. I look at the calendar. "When does school start?" I ask with a wince. "Monday," he grunts. I am sympathetic, but his mom gives me this "Mmm-hmm" look that I treasure. I love being old enough to be complicit with moms. Of course, he is to have it read by the time school starts, and of course, he has been reading The Maze Runner trilogy all summer instead.
This is the perfect moment to mention Proxy.
Not that I need a perfect moment to push Proxy - I can mention Proxy to any kid who likes adventure. The Hunger Games readers, Ender's Game readers, Game of Thrones readers. Just kidding on that last one. Boy I'd love to find a good GoT readalike for kids who are too young for...
...you know, why do I think Game of Thrones is inappropriate for teenagers? I mean, I know the answer to that question: "OH MY LAWS ALL THE BONIN'!!" But is that in fact a valid objection? It's my experience that young people who want to read about ALL THE BONIN' will find it, and young people who are not comfortable with it will skip it, or close the book.
I myself quit reading those books when I got sick of the author identifying with the Imp, who is presented as marginally more moral than the rest of his family because he obtains sex via currency and not coercion. But most of the sex in Game of Thrones is actually consensual - even if it is incestuous, or paid, dutiful, political or manipulative.
In fact, you could argue that the variety of sexual experience in those books is in a way instructive. The motivations for sex in YA books are usually opportunity (guys) or making some kind of weird point (girls). Sometimes there's true love, sometimes there's rape. And it's generally limited to intercourse, with a rare side of fellatio. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, goes down.
Hoo buddy, I am going to get the commentspam now.
Also, the relationships in Game of Thrones are hardly subtle. It's not like you need a lifetime of emotional experience to get that Joffrey is mean to Sansa because he's a spoiled sociopath, or that Cersei and Jamie are in love because they're narcissists.
And violence? Please. Some disembowelings, a few decapitations. Amputations that are not strictly necessary from a medical standpoint. It would be worth checking first: "Are you at all squeamish? Because there are some gross parts." But generally, most kids don't mind a little gore.
So ok. Done deal. There's a teenager wants to read Game of Thrones, I will check with a parent first if one's around, and I'll say that the sex and violence are pretty graphic, but mostly I think I will warn that the plot is incredibly complex and the characters are not super-deep, and give 'em the damn book.
OMG I am so sorry. That was a big sidetrack. YOU want to know about Proxy. Well good, because I want to write about it.
The REASON I wanted to give Proxy to this kid who has to read Tale of Two Cities for school is because the main character in Proxy is named Sydney Carton. He lives in one city and serves as the stand-in for a kid who lives in another city. Now, the characters and their relationship is not precisely the same as Darnay and Carton in the Dickens novel, and I am by no means saying that you have to have read Dickens to appreciate Proxy (I never have) but it's such a cool feeling to get the references, and I would dearly like for my library kid to get that feeling. That's the kind of moment that can make a kid feel like he is good at reading.
Good at reading. That's a thing, and don't pretend it isn't.
Sydney - Syd - lives in The Valve and is a proxy for Knox Brindle, a rich kid who lives in the Upper City. In Knox and Syd's futuristic world, rich parents can subsidize the education and health care of an impoverished child. In return, the poor child assumes any punishments earned by the child of the rich parents. It is both not as complicated as it sounds - Knox breaks something, Syd gets shocked with a cattle prod - and immensely more so: a) Knox has to watch Syd get punished. b) The Upper City and the Valve are adjacent but separated by a wall. c) Syd, who is an orphan, never got the chance to agree to the proxy arrangement. d) Neither, by the way, did Knox.
There were many moments, reading this book, when I looked up from the page and thought for a couple of minutes. The concept of indebtedness, specific and general, from tit-for-tat payback all the way up to what we as human beings owe to each other - winds around and through this book like a shining wire.
Proxy also features a main character who gradually realizes a number of terrible things. At the beginning of the book, Knox is a wastrel of 19th-century proportions, a thoughtless, destructive libertine who takes his privileges for granted. It is remarkable to watch this character pulled, more or less kicking and screaming, up to a human level of awareness. He's like Gollum and Smeagol.
But Proxy isn't some depressing meditative think piece. Oh my no. There are recreational drugs, drones, bandits, horses, a food pill like the one that turned Violet Beauregard blue, chases, and SEVERAL explosions. Did you like Ship Breaker? Did it make you think, but also turn pages at breakneck speed? That's the experience of reading Proxy.
And you may think that this review wandered far and wide before I buckled in to talk about the book, but here's where I tie it up in a bow:
1) A lot of the books that make it onto summer reading lists have cultural disparity or economic inequity as a theme, and that's a big part of what Proxy is all about. The author, Sandy London, is a well-traveled gent. In his former career as a journalist, he reported from war zones and refugee camps, and that experience allows him to write about poverty with a sure hand.
2) Proxy is a very entertaining read.
3) I was once privy to a conversation during which certain authors complained about the lack of variety - and therefore verisimilitude - in YA novel sex, and Sandy was there for that conversation too. Don't you wish you were?
4) There are many glaring inequities between Valve and Upper City residents in Proxy - access to health care, safety, privacy, and of course, self-determination - but there is this little light that twinkles here and there in the book, and it's Syd's response to his (woeful, warehoused, wholesale) education. This moment that I want my library kid to have - this spark that jumps in the brain when a connection is made - is something that Syd has experienced. I think Sandy London has seen kids in crap situations all over the world, and I think he knows what he's talking about when he refers to Syd getting something extraordinary out of even the most cursory educational experience. I read hope and aspiration in Proxy, and passion for making things better, which makes it an excellent summer read.